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Friday, November 8, 2013

Embracing imperfection

Seneb with his wife Senites and their children, c. 2520 BC
A photograph yesterday of Pope Francis blessing a disfigured man has gone viral on social media. The photo shows the man with his head on the Pope's chest, his many facial tumors from neurofibromatosis clearly visible.

We live in a world where disfiguring genetic disorders or disease are not common, but that has not always been the case. One of the many miracles of modern medicine is that it masks imperfection, so most of us go through our days never being forcibly reminded of the pain others suffer.

The Leper, Rembrandt, 1631
If the record left to us through art is any indication, our ancestors were better able than we to look on imperfection without flinching.

Seneb was a high-ranking court official in Ancient Egypt. Despite his dwarfism, he was a person of great wealth, who married a high-ranking priestess with whom he had children.

Dwarves played a significant social role in the Spanish Royal Court, escorting the queen on her convent visits, riding with the king, and playing with the kiddies. Some received educations, many married, but there were also dwarves in the court who were mentally retarded, whose lives were limited to playing the buffoon. Diego Velázquez painted a number of invalids and dwarves in the Spanish royal court; they are highly sympathetic portraits, even when the subject is clearly handicapped.

Las Meninas, 1656, by Diego Velázquez
Missionary Lori Delle Nij from Guatemala yesterday related a story about a little boy who was severely burned: “I am so ugly that no one has hugged me since my accident, not even my mommy.”


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