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Cancer and the arts: La Madonna dei Tumori, Ravenna, Italy
  1. Wolfgang Wagner
  1. Vienna, Austria
  1. Correspondence to Dr Wolfgang Wagner; Wolfgang.Wagner{at}

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Visiting Ravenna, this ancient town near the Adriatic Sea in Italy, cannot be called anything but a feast in culture. From ad 402 to ad 476, it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The city and its harbour later became the Italian stronghold of the Eastern Roman Empire (Constantinople/Istanbul).

No wonder that busloads of tourists arrive there every day in summer. It is the mosaics of churches and basilicas of the 5th and 6th centuries which attract travellers: San Vitale, the Mausoleo of Empress Galla Placidia, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Sant'Apollinare in Classe, and the Baptistry of Arian Christians.

These hop-on hop-off tours usually stop first at the San Vitale complex. The church of San Vitale was built as a typical example of late Roman–early Byzantine architecture between ad 537 and ad 547. Its interior has become world famous for its mosaic presentations of scenes from the Holy Bible and from the history of Saints and Christian martyrs. On top of all: mosaic portraits of Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.

The tourists go on—they visit the Mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia (daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great; Galla Placida died in ad 450) which was built between ad 425 and ad 430. Again, it is the fantastic mosaics which leave the travellers amazed.

Off they go again: either north to Venice or southwest to the wonderful cities of Tuscany, with Florence, Siena and Pienza.

I might have done the same last June. However, while strolling out of the San Vitale area, I suddenly saw the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, 50 m from San Vitale. My wife and I had a good and lucky day as we cannot refrain from entering every church, temple and so on we come across on our culture-laden trips: the door was open, and we entered.

Santa Maria Maggiore simply looks different. The great and famous Church of San Vitale is a typical ‘orthodox’ church of strictly central orientation, ancient Greek (‘cross’-like) style. The church of St Mary (built between ad 521 and ad 534) is a typical Roman basilica stretching from east to west. The cylindrical campanile (tower) was built in the 9th or 10th century.

World famous mosaics? No! World famous architectural characteristics, tombs, relics? No!

Look and see (figure 1): there is an almost ‘modern’ fresco at one of the altars. Modern? It is obviously from the 17th century: Saint Mary comforting her child. And this madonna for centuries wears the name ‘Sancta Maria a tumoribus’ or ‘Madonna dei Tumori’.

Figure 1

La Madonna dei Tumori (photograph: Wolfgang Wagner).

Let us get closer. A swollen red cheek is prominent. This is nothing natural. This is nothing healthy. ‘Malignant lymphoma, I would say’, a Viennese specialist told me later when I sent him the photos.

We will not diagnose 300 years after the unknown artist painted the fresco. However, there is a story behind this story. For centuries, patients with cancer have come to Santa Maria Maggiore in Ravenna to pray. There is even a special prayer for these pilgrims (prayer to Madonna dei Tumori).

Some people pray, some people do not. This is not our business here. However, is it not a surprise to find something like this ‘Madonna dei Tumori’ and the place of patient prayers next door to some of the most precious icons of early Christian monuments?

Modern science and oncology is deciphering the mysteries of cancer at an unprecedented pace. The stars shine brightly. Have a look at this picture from Galla Placidia's mausoleum (figure 2).

Figure 2

Mosaics of the Mausoleo of Empress Galla Placidia (photograph: Wolfgang Wagner).

Editor's introduction

  • ESMO Open tries to do things in a slightly different way. This page wants to add another perspective—the arts as well as literature and other expressions of mankind's reaction to malignant disease.

  • ESMO Open—Cancer Horizons is an open access journal to convey studies and reviews in oncology; ‘Cancer and the Arts’ aims to be a platform for events, artwork, literature, drama and thought with respect to malignant diseases. If you encounter information on these aspects and want to comment, please submit them to the Journal for consideration.

  • This is the first contribution of the intended series.

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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