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« Dead Letter Department #1: LIFE Magazine Subscription from 1940 | Main | Lethal Teeth & Causes of Death in London; Milk Leg, Breakbone Fever and Eel Thing. The Death List for 1665 »



I think you would have to draw a distinction between pre-1497 and post-1497.

The changes in diet -- particularly with the introduction of sugar -- among the wealthy elites did lead to rotten teeth. Even Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have had black teeth.

Many of the earlier paintings to which you refer involve people from the bible. Would an artist visualise smiling faces of such serious and important characters?


Think of how different the world might be if they had put smiling faces in the old religious paintings. Maybe George Carlin in "Dogma" was on to something. Or not.


Opening the mouth and showing one's teeth would have signfied a lack of control over the mind and body. Two examples:

Mary fainting in Van der Weyden's Deposition:

And the shepherd rearing back in Van der Goes' Adoration:

As Japer notes, a closed mouth would have conveyed a sense of calm and dignity for otherworldly biblical figures. As for portraiture, If someone is paying you a lot of money for a likeness, the ideals of virtue and restraint might be better conveyed without a toothy smile:

The argument derived from early photography is interesting, but doesn't quite hold up. There plenty of example of mourning, particularly in representations of the lamentation of Jesus, and these kinds of facial expressions are probably just as difficult to maintain for long periods of time. But more to the point, this argument assumes that painters are working directly from life with oil, which wasn't the case back in the Renaissance. There were many pictorial conventions in place for these kinds of expressions that didn't rely on sustained observation of an individual sitter:

John F. Ptak

Thanks for having such an extended think on this. Thanks too for the links.

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