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January 1989

Babinski's Sign in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Art

Author Affiliations

From the Division of Neurology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC.

Arch Neurol. 1989;46(1):85-88. doi:10.1001/archneur.1989.00520370087025

• In 1896, Joseph François Babinski first described his well-known sign of dorsiflexion of the big toe on stimulating the sole of the foot. However, unknown to Babinski, several painters had previously demonstrated this phenomenon in their paintings. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), a Florentine Renaissance painter, demonstrated this reflex in his Madonna and Child With Angels 400 years before the publication of Babinski's discovery. Botticelli used live infants as models for his paintings. Gentile da Fabriano (d 1427) in his Adoration of the Kings, demonstrates a similar response of toe extension in the infant Jesus when one of the Magi kisses the baby's foot. Similarly, Jacob Schick von Kempter, a 16th century German painter, in his Coronation of the Virgin demonstrates the extensor plantar response in the infant. Correggio (1492-1534), in northern Italy captured the extension and flare of the baby's toes in his Madonna and Child With Mary Magdalen. Raphael (1483-1520) presented the extensor plantar responses in the child when sole pressure is applied in Small Cowper Madonna. Leonardo da Vinci, with his nude model drawings (1503-1507) seemed to have been aware of this response. There is no indication that any of these artists fully understood the physiology behind the response; therefore, the value of this sign in neurologic disease must still rely on Babinski's demonstration several hundred years after its initial demonstration in artistic literature.

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