Dentistry and Art: St Apollonia and the Hours of Catherine of Cleves

While many people are familiar with Baroque era paintings and illustrations of dentistry (see here and here), Gothic representations of dentistry are less well known. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is considered one of the more famous Gothic era illustrations to survive this period. The work was complied in approximately 1440 in Utrecht, The Netherlands, by an anonymous artist and had been commissioned in honor of Catherine, Duchess of Guelders.

This illustration portrays Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry.

St Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry seen in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves

Saint Apollonia as depicted in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Clicking on the image will show a large, high resolution version.

Apollonia was a 2nd century virgin martyr who was apparently tortured to death. During her torture, all of her teeth were pulled out and/or destroyed. This elevated her to sainthood. Because of this, she was (and still is to a degree) invoked against toothaches in hopes she will help with the pain.

She is portrayed in the Hours holding a pincer (basically, a fancy and antiquated term for tooth forceps) with a tooth in it. She has a rich attire and is gazing at the tooth. The tile pattern on which she is standing shows a dog which has no relation to her.

While this is not the only portrayal of Apollonia, it is one of the earliest, and certainly one of the more famous ones.

In the year 2016, should you have tooth pain, you may certainly invoke Apollonia, but a call to your dentist will likely be more predictable.

Dentistry and Art: The Shoe is on the Other Foot by Johan Christian Schoeller

Johan Christian Schoeller was an Austrian painter and engraver who lived from 1782 to 1851. He resided in a number of cities throughout Europe but spent most of his adult life in Vienna. However, dentistry – along with tooth pain – does not discriminate based on country of origin- so he was experienced in observing scenes like this:

The shoe is on the Other Foot engraving by Johan Christian Schoeller

The Shoe is on the Other Foot – an engraving by Johan Christian Schoeller

In the above scene, you can see a patient holding a towel next to his face. The “dentist” has apparently extracted the wrong tooth – much to the dismay of the seated patient. Behind the “dentist” is another individual suffering a toothache – as evidenced by the red bandanna/scarf around his head. In the background, you can see several skulls, books, and other tools used by the “dentist.”

What’s missing from this scene which was created in 1839? X-rays, gloves, local anesthetic, sterile instruments, and about a hundred other technologies that were introduced since then. This work can be found in the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

Dentistry and Art: A Tooth Puller by Jan Steen

Jan Steen (b. 1626 d. 1679) was a Dutch painter known for painting daily life in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Just like today, people developed teeth problems (albeit more frequently back then), and thus dentistry was a part of everyday existence. Back then, there were no HIPAA laws nor sterilization protocols, so dentistry was frequently performed in public for all to see:

A Tooth Puller painting by Jan Steen showing a dentist

A Tooth Puller by Jan Steen, painted in 1651. Clicking on the photo will show a larger version.

The above work can be found in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

You see the usual onlookers featured in nearly all paintings of this era. By the looks of it, this “dentist” appears to be a travelling one, going from village to village pulling teeth.

Nearly all dental paintings of that era show one thing: tooth extractions. Back then, there was no such thing as porcelain veneers, smile makeovers, or teeth whitening. Cocaine, the first local anesthetic (and what inspired novocaine), was still 200 years away from being used in dental procedures. If you had a problem back then, that meant only one thing: that tooth was going to come out and it was going to hurt!

Aren’t we all glad that dentistry has changed in the past 350 years or so?


Dentistry and Art: As Your Tooth by Hal Mayforth

Instead of featuring another Renaissance classic portraying¬†17th century dentistry, we’re fast forwarding to 2015 for a modern and more humorous piece:

Tooth Carton by Hal Mayforth showing a tooth lecturing

Used with permission from Hal Mayforth

While we would not necessarily mention the artist Hal Mayforth in the same sentence as Caravaggio (except on this blog of course), Hal combines artistic skill with dental humor in this print.

The print shows a somewhat distressed tooth with one finger raised, lecturing his/her/it’s audience on the consumption of sugary, carbonated beverages. This tooth – correctly so – has realized that both sugar and carbonation are detrimental to the health of your teeth. We’re assuming that he/she/it knows that diet soda – sugar free but carbonated – is bad for your teeth also.

We hope you enjoyed this departure from the usual posts on this blog. Hal’s website is located here.