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Votive Offerings of the Kidney

Gary Eknoyan, M.D., Professor of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX.

Offerings to the deities, in return for favors asked or received, have been at the root of religious practice from the earliest of times. As medicine, with its origins in religion and folk magic, began to acquire its own deities, the sick began to address their oblations directly to the healing gods. There seems to have been rudiments of monotheism at the start of this process as Egypitians called into existence Imhotep and the Greeks, Aesculapius. With the progress of medicine, elements of specialized practice began to appear in Roman medicine, and with it the worship of deities for specific illness: Febris for fever, Angeronia for plague, Uterina for female organ dysfunction, Osterina for bone disease, Carna for abdominal organs, etc. Following the emergence and spread of Christianity, monotheism established itself and oblations for the sick were now made to God in churches.

Of special interest in this regard are reproductions of the disease parts of the body for which a cure was sought or had been obtained through prayer. Most recovered and extant anatomic replicas are of the external organs, except for the uterus in Roman temples and the heart in Christian churches. The prevalence of cardiac replicas in churches does not reflect our current preoccupation with heart disease, but rather represents the symbolic position which the heart came to occupy in the Christian church as the site of the soul, and acquired its iconography as the organ of faith.

Votive bronze replica of a kidney dating from the 13th century B.C. from Karageorghis V, Excavations at Kition. Reproduced with permission from Marketos SG. Hippocratic Medicine and Nephrology. in: History of Nephrology. Vol 1. Eknoyan G, De Santo NG, Capasso G, Massry SG. Karger, Basel. 1994.

Votive replica of kidneys and blood vessels. Found in the Basilica of San Antonio, Padua, Italy.
Reproductions of other internal organs are scarce, and those of the kidneys are extremely rare. Probably the oldest of these is a 13th century B.C.E. bronze replica of the kidney (Figure, left) discovered in the course of excavations in the temple of Kition in Cyprus.

A more recent one is found in the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua, Italy (Figure, right) . The difference in detail between these two reproductions is minor and in no way reflects how far we have come in our understanding of the kidney in health and disease during the interval in which each was carved at the request of a faithful believer.