The healing power of art from ancient times to now

As scientific research suggests, it can actually lower the stress hormone cortisol, which in the system too often can lead to a myriad of degenerative illnesses.

Image Credit: Steve Travarca

When life resembles a dystopian Netflix special amidst a global health crisis, broken environmental, economic, and judicial systems and with humans physically, emotionally, and spiritually ailing, we are called to consider the meaning of life, and of our lives in particular. Inevitably, the existential inquiry arises:

“Do I have anything significant to contribute as an artist? Can art really make a difference?”

This following collection of anecdotes, from ancient times until now, examines art’s efficacy for healing mind, body, and soul, offering a resounding, fervent, and beseeching Yes. Yes. YES!

The golden ratio, divine ratio, or Fibonacci sequence, after the Italian mathematician from the late 11th century, is an equation that manifests as a pattern abounding in nature and traditional art. 

The mathematical knowledge about the divine ratio goes back to ancient Greece; it returned in art and architecture during the Renaissance. It has been used ever since in classical painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and modern graphic design. Even the European norm of DIN A paper sizes are based on the golden ratio.

Illustration of the proportional relationship of the golden ratio

The reason that this proportion found its use in art and design is that it is very pleasing to the eye and gives a sense of harmony. It might have to do with the fact that the proportional relationship is found in the human body as well as in nature, and automatically when applied makes us feel comfortable.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Vitruvian Man

Artists, aspiring to the sacred act of depicting life, especially those learned in the multi-disciplinary approach of the Renaissance, were, therefore, keen to employ this principle for balance and generative wholeness, as did architects and musicians who followed. The understanding was that exposing oneself with external harmony can help reset, restore, and encourage our system to reorient and recalibrate to its homeostasis.

Is it merely a coincidence that the name ‘Medici’, the family of the high nobility in Florence who inspired the Renaissance by financing the invention of the piano and opera, luminaries like Leonardo Da Vinci, and the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, is derived from the Latin word which means ‘medicine’? 

In ancient Greece, this knowledge was applied to the architectural design of hospitals. Asklepios was the Greek God of medicine. He was the patron God and reputed ancestor of the Asklepiades, an ancient guild of doctors. It was after their traditions that the beatific halls of the Athenian hospitals of the fifth century were named and designed. It was believed the calming aesthetic was crucial to a sense of calmness and hence the cure.

Remnants of Asklepios, an ancient greek hospital in Kos

That tradition saw a rebirth in the fourteenth century at the Spadale di Santa Maria in Siena, where frescos by Simone Martini and paintings by Domenico di Bartolo and Lorenzo Vecchietta were commissioned by the city councils to be displayed in the halls! 

Healing the sick, fresco by Domenico di Bartolo. Sala del Pellegrinaio (hall of the pilgrim), Hospital Santa Maria della Scala, Siena

On a musical note, we could take the story of David and the Harp from the Bible:

“So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him”. (Samuel I 16:23) 

Along with curing fits of anger, nightmares, and the general malaise of King Saul, David’s much sought after harp playing could do away with evil spirits. 

The healing effects of the harp get many mentions in ancient textbooks, as well as throughout history. Our ancestors seemed to connect with the knowledge of why or how music wove its magical restorative and balancing spell. 

A Harvard study has shown that irregular heartbeats, a condition known as arterial fibrillation, responds to the soothing nature of gentle and relaxing rhythms of music. According to physician Mark Tramo, a part of the brain known as the mesolimbic system is profoundly affected by the auditory nervous system. Dr. Robert Eckel of the American Heart Institute has gone as far as stating “There is no doubt music can decrease the production of stress hormones.”

The Chinese character for “medicine” (藥 yào) even stems from the character for “music” (樂, yuè). These two parts and three meanings altogether give insight into how the ancient Chinese understood medicine. The character 藥 originated from its lower part, 樂, which speaks to the historical use of music to heal illness since Chinese antiquity, even before the discovery of herbal medicine, with a system of certain notes corresponding to specific organs of the body. So music in ancient China was not meant for entertainment alone, but for aligning the body’s energy system with the harmony of sounds and therefore instruments were made for wellbeing.

Public Domain

Returning to visual art, we can reference the increasingly popular and valuable practice of art therapy to understand how seriously art is taken. The concept of ‘art therapy’, the idea that the activity of creating art sparks a new energy that can lead patients to better deal with their conditions, have reduced stress levels and symptoms, and a heightened sense of will power, has gained much popularity.

Additionally, the advertising industry spent millions of dollars, not something they do lightly, in cognitive psychological research, in order to better understand how color affects our moods and perceptions.  

The notion that we respond to different vibrations of music, and also the vibrations of light and color frequencies, is not new and the emergent use of ‘Chroma therapy’ which examines the effects of different color pigments using terms like ‘healing colors,’ is being taken very seriously by the medical industry, which now consults with experts on the design and decoration of medical facilities. The object being, to make their facilities less threatening and more welcoming. 

These ‘healing colors’ are said to influence our nervous systems, causing changes in mood and promoting a sense of peace and calm. 

Danish designer Jacob Olsen quotes what could be considered a shorthand ‘Periodic Table’ for colors, as follows: 

Red, as one might guess, is a very stimulating color that can stimulate vitality and energy, it is advised against for patients suffering from hypertension, for example, as it elevates blood pressure and increases adrenalin – not a color that is used liberally in hospitals. 

Orange, on the other hand, is said to radiate warmth and a sense of joy and happiness and is used frequently in children’s wards. 

Yellow is among the most popular colors for hospitals, being bright and cheerful. It is said to detoxify the mind and inspire creativity. Apparently it must not be overused as it can lead to stomach problems and insomnia.  

Green, again, as you might guess, is considered restful and symbolizes growth and renewal. But is also said to encourage equilibrium and is especially good for the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. 

Blue is said to be one of the more important healing colors as it is linked with serenity and peacefulness. Thought to lower blood pressure and heart rate, its relaxing effects are believed to be excellent for your eyes, ears, and nose and is also involved with hearing. 

Being in the presence of great beauty is both fulfilling and elevating to the spirit. As scientific research suggests, it can actually lower the stress hormone cortisol, which in the system too often can lead to a myriad of degenerative illnesses. 

We could, therefore, extrapolate that if traditional arts are healing, one can deduce that discordant or dissident work would be out of alignment with emotional, physical, and spiritual well being. Why else is heavy metal music played loudly to break a prisoner? 

From a spiritual perspective, what we align with, or ‘agree’ with, is enhanced or magnified. Not unlike the algorithms on Facebook, that propagate your own belief system by showing you more of what you believe in your news feed. 

To gaze upon beautiful art, that is, to ‘take in’ an image through the conscience senses, as well as the sensory organs, work that is intentionally organized, harmonious, and is complete and whole unto itself, balanced and proportioned, polished and refined, then we too, experience wholeness, balance, and refinement of heart and soul, mind and body.

“We were sent into the world alive with beauty. As soon as we choose beauty, unseen forces conspire to guide and encourage us towards unexpected forms of compassion, healing, and creativity,” acknowledged the late Irish writer, philosopher, and poet John O’ Donahue. 


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