Conference Agenda

7C: Medical Objects: Faith and Healing
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
1:30pm - 2:45pm

Session Chair: Dr. Joris Vandendriessche, KU Leuven


Faith and Feeling in the Science Museum

Bond, Sarah

Science Museum Group, United Kingdom

Faith, Hope and Fear is one of five new permanent galleries dedicated to the history and practice of medicine at the Science Museum in London. Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries opened in November 2019 and are billed as the world’s largest of their type, occupying much of the first floor of the Museum. Drawing on key objects and stories in the collections, they explore measures conceived to prevent and treat disease at the scale of individuals and populations, and reveal how studying the body and its functions transformed medicine from 1500 onwards.

Located at the far end of the suite, Faith, Hope and Fear acts as a kind of coda, providing space for reflection on the emotional impact of illness and the pluralistic approach many people employ to manage the unpredictability of treatment and recovery. It showcases objects invested with powerful feelings and beliefs triggered by confrontations with ill health and mortality, ranging from mass displays of religious material culture to standalone exhibits donated by individuals who have placed their trust in medical practitioners, treatments and relationships, instead of (or as well as) spiritual forces.

This paper considers how faith and religion have been presented in previous displays of the Science Museum’s medical collections, and contrasts these with the approach taken in the new galleries. It examines the particular challenges of tackling the ‘F-word’ in a museum of science and technology, and reflects on some of the strategies adopted, including the use of person-centred narratives and commissioned artworks.

The “pharmacy in your head”: The role of faith and belief in the process of healing with “devotional pictures for swallowing”

Nebe, Julia Elisabeth1; Wilhelmy, Saskia2; Kaiser, Stephanie2

1University Duesseldorf, Germany; 2RWTH Aachen, Germany

Small pieces of paper with a sacred image, intended to be swallowed, and therefore attributed to have a beneficial effect – like the obstetric note of Saint Luke (Lukaszettel) – belong to the category of Schluckbildchen (“swallowable pictures”). They were used as religious practice in folk medicine throughout the 18th to the 20th century for preventive and curative measures. The efficacy consisted mainly of believing in its effect. The “healing power of faith” is also important in nowadays conventional medicine, especially regarding the placebo effect. The physician William Cullen (1710-1790) made it a medical terminus technicus; so later, for example, the psychosocial context in which the treatment of a patient takes place was identified as an important factor in this regard by neurobiologist Fabrizio Benedetti (*1956). The belief in the physician’s word – the hope for improvement or healing – initiates the same effects in the brain as a “real chemical” therapy. These remarks show that faith and belief are rooted in the context of medicine – both in the past and in the present.

This lecture aims to analyze the role of faith and belief in the healing process, using the example of Schluckbildchen. For this purpose, the obstetric Lukaszettel, the Schluckbildchen of John the Baptist (epilepsy) and the Schluckbildchen of the Virgin Mary (various diseases) – archived in ethnographic museums – will be examined. The multisensory experience associated with the incorporation of Schluckbildchen offers a reflection on the mechanism of action of nowadays placebo. Contributions from the field of neurobiology are used for this purpose.

Mystical wax sculptures: faith in the bowels of mercy of Jesus Christ between the Middle Ages and the modern age

De Giorgio, Teodoro

Italian Institute of Human Sciences, Italy

In the second half of the seventeenth century, a particular type of wax crucifix emerged, which was characterized by an opening on the sternum showing part of the Saviour’s thoracic and abdominal cavity, with the anatomical representation of the inner organs. Through the examination of surviving examples and recourse to scriptural, patristic, and other literary sources, this paper analyzes the origin and the meaning – theological, symbolic, and iconological – of this invention, demonstrating its connection to the anatomical studies and to the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Christ, propagated especially by the Jesuits, and its intent to represent the divine mercy of Christ. As a matter of fact, the rather summary representation of the internal organs shows that the aim of these objects was not scientific precision, but a symbolic representation, with strong healing power for the body and spirit of the faithful. Both the style of the existing examples and their geographical distribution suggests that Southern Italy, especially Sicily, was the main area of production. The speech starts from the researches conducted by the author and recently published in the «Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz», Max-Planck-Institut ("L’invenzione dell’iconografia In visceribus Christi. Dai prodromi medievali della devozione cordicolare alla rappresentazione moderna delle viscere di Cristo", LXI, 2019, 1, pp. 74-103).