Modern Medieval Artist

Psychiatric TimesVol 38, Issue 6

"While I watch the artist paint, I imagine him in the time of plague..."




-Venice, Italy, 2011

While I watch the artist paint

I imagine him in the time of plague

crafting a portrait of a Medico della Peste,

a Plague Doctor wearing an ibis-like

mask, eyes shielded by crystal discs,

curved beak filled with sweet-smelling

amber, cloves, rose petals and myrrh

to drown the stench, his waxed black cloak

shielding legs from buboes weeping

pus, a wooden cane to poke patients

for signs of life. Fruit sellers and

tradesmen wore the mask for a few

ducats a day, but never read the Canon

of Avicenna, medieval medicine’s

modern textbook, a Persian man’s

million word treatise from the Golden

Age of Islam when Jews and Christians

and Muslims shared meals of lentils

and lamb, dying young whichever god

they worshipped. And I wonder if today’s

artist had proclaimed God’s splendor

in the holiness of Avicenna’s turban

and robe, would the Inquisition have seen

only blasphemy, burned him at the stake,

burned the portrait, burned the treasure

he held out to the world like an offering?

Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 23 years in Psychiatric TimesTM in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts.

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