Making ‘ward rounds’ at the National Gallery, doctors have uncovered murder, syphilis and all manner of ills…

At the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery, in Room 58, a painting by the 15th-century Italian artist Piero di Cosimo of a woman lying on her side has been hung opposite Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The fame of the latter makes it a significant attraction for visitors. Yet those who shuffle past Cosimo’s canvas miss an intriguing work, not just for its enigmatic content but for the unexpected way it shows how art can be opened up through scientific scrutiny.

The painting shows a young woman, half-clothed, lying on the ground as a satyr crouches over her corpse. According to the gallery’s guidebook, the work – A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph – depicts the death of Procris, daughter of the king of Athens, who was accidentally killed by her husband Cephalus during a deer hunt. Put “death of Procris” into Google and the search throws up countless versions of Cosimo’s painting.

But Professor Michael Baum, one of Britain’s leading cancer experts, and a keen art critic, will have none of this. “This is not a depiction of the accidental death that Ovid wrote about,” he says. “It is a painting about a murder, and a very nasty one at that.” (Observer) >>>

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