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Spotting pathology in the Mona Lisa

Spotting pathology in the Mona Lisa

Our new mini-series looks at potential medical issues in famous works of art. Dr Keith Hopcroft starts with the most famous artwork of all

No prizes for guessing the picture or the artist. You’ve probably stared at this innumerable times. But have you noticed a clinical angle before? If you look very carefully, you might spot a potential explanation for why it’s thought that the model for the picture died at the age 37 (the average life expectancy for women at that time being around 50).

Hint Try looking at the left medial canthus area. Having done that, think where else you might look.


Answer It has been suggested in Medical Archaeology that the eyelid lesion is a xanthelasma – and that the lump you might also have spotted at the base of her right index finger could be a lipoma (though, even more neatly, it could be viewed as a xanthoma). Which might suggest that Mona Lisa had hypercholesterolaemia, which in turn would suggest her early demise. Though it should be pointed out that there is debate about her actual age of death, with other authorities suggesting she lived to the age of 63, high cholesterol or not.

Dr Keith Hopcroft is  Pulse’s medical adviser and a GP in Basildon, Essex 


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Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

David Church 22 June, 2023 6:36 pm

Whilst I would agree she has severe dermatitis or eczema of the fingers, the lump om the hand resembles most strongly the normal bulge of the muscles between the thumb and index Metacarpal, possibly exagerrated by tension, posture, or repetetive use – which may be associated with the severe digital eczema.
As for the lesion on the periorbital skin, I would usually check the chest for other chickenpox scars.
Was she really 37 in the picture? Gosh, she keeps well doesn’t she!

John Graham Munro 25 June, 2023 6:08 pm

In order to get her to smile, Leonardo da vinci had to take off all his clothes whilst painting her

Keith M Laycock 14 July, 2023 8:26 pm

Xanthelasmatous nonsense — more likely a papilloma etc – and the ‘hand bulge’ is the contacted adductor pollicis – prominent due her gripping to avoid outright laughter at the naked Leonardo, despite L da V painting a relaxed hand – he wouldn’t want anyone to know Mona’s smile was antthing other than enigmatic.