On “The dream of Saint John Damascene: the Virgin attaches his severed right hand” (artist unknown)

While sifting through the Wellcome Library Collection of early modern visual media, one might come across a rather curious 17th century sketch depicting the Virgin Mary leaning tenderly over Saint John Damascene while he gazes upward in gratitude. The archived image has been tagged with the usual array of keywords, including “dream,” “Virgin Mary,” “vision,” and “John Damascene.” However, the inclusion of a sixth word— “amputation”— hints at the drawing’s remarkability in terms of its subject matter. Upon closer inspection, the Virgin Mary is shown grasping the severed hand of the saint; the unknown artist chose to capture the precise moment before the notably unbloody appendage was reattached to the limb’s stump.

L0041636 The dream of Saint John Damascene

The Dream of Saint John Damascene: The Virgin Attaches His severed Right Hand. Drawing, 16–, 1600. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0041636.html

The illustration captures multiple aspects of the early modern medical imaginary, layering conceptions of embodiment, physicality, and the “sanctioned touch” of the healer. “The Dream” essentially depicts an allegory of reunion; the saint is reunited with the maternal beacon of divinity (i.e. the Virgin Mary) while his hand is reunited with his arm’s stump. The sterile bloodlessness of the limb’s reattachment is somewhat characteristic of depictions from the late 16th to the early 18th century— as Nancy Siraisi remarks in Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, medical illustrations were often comical in their refusal to engage with the painful violence of surgery, especially regarding amputation. And yet, the absence of overt pain signifiers— the wincing of patients, bystanders to restrain patients— does not preclude these texts’ ability to engage with the wounds themselves. “The Dream,” for example, treats the viewer to a frontal view of the stump, figuring the site of reattachment at the visual center of the drawing. In short, this text demands that one look closer instead of shying away.

Indeed, 17th century European depictions of surgery complicate conventional definitions of “the study” as the product of any one discipline. Such texts often provided representational “case studies” for early modern medical practitioners, but they often served an allegorical and/or aesthetic purpose— i.e. studies in form. The somewhat ambiguous nature such texts accurately reflects the similarly murky distinction between medicine as a rather abstract and theory-driven field and medicine as an empirically based practice during this period; indeed, the word “medicine” as applied to early modern healing represents, to an extent, a misnomer in that it supposes a unified body committed to standardized practices. In reality, the disciplinary landscape was complex in its social, practical, and political stratification.

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