Early Visualizations Of Disease Are As Fascinating As They Are Disturbing

Oct 07, 2013

Chicken pox induced pustules, rotting bones, a bulging eye tumor. These are not the images one would typically describe as beautiful. And yet there is something oddly enchanting about the early visualizations of disease, drawn and published as far back as the 1500s.

The detailed depictions of lesions, conditions and ailments make up a new exhibition titled "Visualizing Disease," which treads the delicate line between morbid fascination and complete revulsion. The vast array of pathological illustrations trace the evolution of both medical and artistic development, ranging from 16th century chronicles of monstrous afflictions to 18th century colored illustrations of live subjects.

"It's very interesting to watch people interact with the illustrations," said exhibition curator Domenico Bertoloni Meli in a press statement. "They'll often say, 'Oh, that's so beautiful,' when you wouldn't think of an image of a diseased intestine as typically beautiful. But that's what's so striking about these works: They reach out and speak in many different ways to many different people."

While we're very grateful that scientific observations and illustrations have increased in accuracy over the years, the early images of disease possess a surreal quality, appearing more like folktale illustrations than medical diagnoses. Scroll down for a preview of the exhibition, on view at Indiana University's Lilly Library from September 9 to December 20, 2013. Whether you say "eww" or "ooh!," we doubt you'll be able to avert your gaze.