Illuminating What We Do Not See


Alumni engage the moral imagination amid 15th century art.

A fresco cycle depicting the history and mission of one of Europe’s oldest hospitals inspires conversation and reflection for undergraduates interested in healing professions. Domenico di Bartolo “Man assisting a wounded man.” Photo by G. Dagli Orti.

Santa Maria della Scala in Siena is one of the oldest hospitals in all of Europe. Built in 1193 as a place to offer respite to religious pilgrims traveling to Rome, the Italian site was later converted to a hospital that embraced a broad philanthropic mission to care for the sick, minister to the poor and provide refuge to generations of abandoned children.

Inside the former hospital’s grand central entrance hall is an impressive fresco cycle painted shortly after the Black Death wiped out much of the European population in the 14th century. The frescoes depict the founding of the hospital, its role in caring for orphaned children, and images of healthcare providers intimately caring for the sick and dying.

It was here that John David Ike ’13, a fourth-year medical student at Emory University, traveled as teaching assistant to Ruth Murphey Parker ’77, professor of medicine, pediatrics and public health at Emory, as part of a program to bring undergraduate students to study what these frescoes communicate to patients and providers about health, the society’s values, and their relation to the tenets of medical professionalism.

Beauty to Bedside

Beauty, balance and harmony. Communication and compassion. Death, dying and suffering. Every summer for the past 15 years, Parker and colleague Judy Raggi-Moore, director of Italian studies at Emory University, has led a group of undergraduates interested in health on a five-week pilgrimage through 45 Italian cities to explore these three central themes.

Parker’s course, “Medicine, Compassion, and the Arts,” which complements Raggi-Moore’s Italian Studies course, utilizes the Italian landscape, art, literature and architecture to encourage a deeper understanding of healing and compassion. The course derived from Parker’s observation that many students entering the medical field, while extremely capable in the sciences and “able to knock the top off of a standardized test,” lacked the necessary communication and listening skills that a career in healthcare requires.

Last summer when Parker invited Ike to serve as the program’s teaching assistant, they quickly realized that despite graduating nearly three decades apart, the Davidson bond they shared remained strong. They recalled what it had been like to live in the Belk Dormitory and were delighted to discover they both took art history classes with beloved faculty member, Larry Ligo.

Prior to departure, Parker and Ike met regularly—often over a glass of wine—to reinvigorate the summer’s curriculum with a more rigorous art history component aimed at teaching pre-health students better visual literacy skills. They also sought to better integrate the utilization of the moral imagination into course discussion, writing prompts and site visits.

At heart was their shared belief that the Siena experience encouraged students to morally imagine the questions generations of patients, citizens, or providers were prompted to ask when first entering that space. If you were a patient, what would these frescoes communicate to you about how you would be cared for in this space? What do these frescoes reflect about this community’s civic values? If you were a healthcare provider, would these frescoes remind you of your professional duty?

Moreover, students were encouraged to connect their experience in this 15th century space to their own observations of U.S. healthcare institutions. Does their design and decoration speak to their function? Does art decorate the walls?

In addition to traditional coursework, the “Medicine, Compassion, and the Arts,” course concludes with an interdisciplinary symposium where faculty and professionals from across the country gather in Italy for one week of on-site cultural explorations and discussions. This year’s symposium featured a keynote address by Winston Wong, M.D., a San Francisco-based physician who challenged students to examine the power of privilege, and to see the difference between equity and equality—and how the arts may offer clarity to this issue.

“Equity is about justice and seeking to know what you do not always see,” Wong observed. “Art is about illuminating what we carelessly do not see, hear or comprehend.”

Parker and Ike’s professional relationship continues to thrive after their experience in Italy. They recently completed a book chapter for the National Library of Medicine, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health, on the intersection of health literacy and the arts, with special attention given to the role visual literacy plays in the transmission of health-related content. They also collaborated to launch a new interdisciplinary event series at Emory that engages medical students, nursing students, bioethics students, and other departments in cross-disciplinary dialogue related to health and art.

Personally, both acknowledge the presence of a shared connection that transcends fond recollections of laundry numbers and Larry Ligo’s art history classes. The solid foundations of the Davidson liberal arts education provided each of them with the understanding and creative curiosity required to connect diverse concepts across disciplines, and allow for the creative expression of ideas. The richness of that tradition led Parker and Ike to engage in a friendship—and a professional collaboration—that both expect will continue.

More information about Parker and Ike’s work, the course, and the Italian Symposium can be found on their website,


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