WHSCAB gets glass mosaic depicting history of medicine

What began as a dream 25 years ago--and spent a goodly part of a year under delicate construction on the floor of a school gymnasium in Italy--was unveiled at Emory on Oct. 30 as the only Byzantine mosaic in the world illustrating the history of medicine.

"Medicine Through the Ages: A Mosaic" was designed and painstakingly pieced together by Italian-born artist Sirio Tonelli. Scenes depicting great moments in medical history are illustrated with more than 2 million glass-based mosaic chips in some 3,000 hues. The finely detailed mosaic rises three stories and is 68 feet long; its 33 panels are fixed permanently in the plaza of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building (WHSCAB).

John E. Skandalakis, director of the Centers for Surgical Anatomy and Technique in the School of Medicine, first conceived of the idea for the masterwork a quarter of a century ago. At the time, Skandalakis was president of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, and Tonelli had just completed the Cathedral's elaborate mosaics. The medical science history mural was, in fact, commissioned by the Centers for Surgical Anatomy and Technique.

"I have a special love for the history of medicine, so when Sirio Tonelli finished the murals in the Greek Orthodox Church 25 years ago, I thought how nice it would be to have a mural in our school that illustrates medical history," said Skandalakis, who also holds the Chris Carlos Distinguished Professorship in Surgical Anatomy and Technique at the medical school. "I placed in the plaza of WHSCAB statues of Hippocrates, father of medicine, and Asclepius, and busts of Hygenia, Galen and Aristotle. A medical student said to me, `I can talk to Hippocrates and I can have some answers.'

"In preparation for the mural I studied medical history, and John Stone (associate dean and director of admissions, School of Medicine) helped in the selection of the great scientists to include. Now we have the unequaled beauty of this mosaic and these giants of the past nearby to help us," Skandalakis said.

Tonelli has spent more than 40 years refining his skill in this ancient art form. He began studying the art of fresco painting and Byzantine mosaics as a young boy growing up in the Tuscany region of Italy. He must first draw his images on paper in reverse. Once the sections are mounted paper-side forward, he uses acid to remove the paper. The process is labor-intensive, but dramatic.

--Lorri Preston

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