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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 23:27 GMT 00:27 UK
Rembrandt victim of 'botched ear piercing'
The Dutch master
The artist Rembrandt may have been one of the earliest victims of a bungled attempt at ear piercing, according to a British surgeon.

The intriguing theory has been put forward as a medical explanation for the Dutch master's deformed left ear lobe.

The enlarged lobe is clearly visible in many of the 40 or so self-portraits that Rembrandt painted between 1628 and 1669 - the year he died.

The curious feature of all this is that, in almost 300 years, mine is the first attempt at explaining such an obvious deformity
Ben Cohen
But in the 330 years since, nobody has been able to explain what may have caused the damage.

Ben Cohen, a retired ear nose and throat surgeon from west London, has come up with an explanation after studying several of the artist's self portraits.

He believes the swelling and tissue damage is the result of a failed attempt at piercing the ear - either by Rembrandt himself or an aide.

Tell-tale signs

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Mr Cohen describes how he was struck by the artist's appearance when he visited an exhibition entitled 'Rembrandt by Himself' in the National Gallery in London in the autumn of 1999.

"In the portrait painted circa 1628, at the age of 22, the left lobule was occupied by a round swelling with a small bunch of what were apparently granulations at the upper edge.

"This swelling was also present in some later portraits but by about 1642 it had become a thickening," wrote Mr Cohen.

When Mr Cohen checked another portrait from 1629, he noticed an earring attached to the lobe, just below the swelling. The same earring appeared in many later portraits.

His theory was that, despite a first bungled attempt to pierce the lobe, Rembrandt persisted in the interests of fashion.

"Probably the lobule was so indurated that it could not be pierced again except below the infected area.

"He must have been a very determined man to risk further damage to the ear."

Even today, infections caused by ear-piercing are common.

Although it is rare for them to cause severe or permanent damage to the lobe, piercing in the top of the ear can cause irreversible damage to the cartilage.

Mr Cohen believes the damage to Rembrandt's ear was caused by a "dermoid cyst" that had become enlarged by infection and then discharged itself.

"The curious feature of all this is that, in almost 300 years, mine is the first attempt at explaining such an obvious deformity."

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