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Commentary on La Tomba del Tuffatore (The Tomb of the Diver)

Labrecque, Cory Andrew PhD

doi: 10.1097/01.ACM.0000451521.36698.69
Medicine and the Arts

Dr. Labrecque is Raymond F. Schinazi Junior Scholar in Bioethics and Religious Thought, Emory University Center for Ethics, Atlanta, Georgia; e-mail:, See facing page for artwork.

See facing page for artwork.

The peculiarity of the 5th century BCE tomb that Mario Napoli unearthed in 1968 near Paestum (formerly Poseidonia)1 (p365) has more to do with its adornment than its occupant. Along its internal circumference are scenes of crowned symposiasts reclining, drinking, and conversing. Although not commonly funereal,1 (p376) the symposium motif is familiar. Of greater interest is the unusual fresco of a young naked man diving past a tower into a stream.1 (pp365, 367) Painted on the inside of the cover slab, the diver (after whom the tomb is named) was—for millennia—only “for the eyes” of the deceased.

Despite the many different aesthetic interpretations of this fresco, what seems plain here, as R. Ross Holloway1 (p382) explains, is that “the diver dives alone, isolated against the sky. There is present all the intensity of the moment of death,” which is captured between two different states of being: one gliding in the open air and the other submerged in the watery unknown. Perhaps, the diver’s descent is actually an ascent, a transition from life to death to life again.

Holloway1 (p376) refers to the experience of change underscored in the scene: “Formal undress in sculpture is evidently a means of elevating the subject from the here and now to a higher state, moving toward the full state of nudity, which was reserved for divinities and the heroized dead.” For us in the contemporary world, nakedness connotes vulnerability, weakness, and susceptibility; it is the dreaded condition of being bereft of all things. For the diver, however, it is beauty, freedom, and ascension.

The diver in the fresco is unhindered in his hovering; he is neither bound to, nor yet entirely free from, earthly existence, nor has he plunged into the depths of death that will ultimately deliver him onto the shores of the life to come. This is a liminal space: a threshold, a crossing, an in-between state that is neither here nor there.

It is in this space that we sometimes find our patients, even though—submersed in constant noise and movement—it is rarely the picture of serenity that the diver invites us to contemplate.

Technology, Joseph Fletcher2 (p221) argues, “is changing more than just man’s environment and his tools: It is changing man himself.” However, no matter how advanced our medicine and our technology, their promise to transcend the limitations of our human condition always falls short.3 (p227) Like the diver, we, too, will come to the end of all things (or the beginning, depending on one’s religious tradition) naked, waiting, and, quite possibly, alone. Can health care providers be trained “to be present” to the patient in this liminal space?

How interesting that we find ourselves uncomfortable not only with discussions about death, dying, and suffering but also with being still and—perhaps more so—being still while in the presence of others. This observation is rather timely given the recent attention to the use of electronic devices by health care professionals in the clinical environment and to what some are calling “distracted doctoring.”4 In our fast-paced medical culture, stillness is unnerving.

The arts remind us that listening is an active skill that is often best cultivated in stillness and silence. The arts do not teach us how to be present to whatever form of art we come to engage; they simply teach us to be present and to attend to what that art communicates,5 (p142) be it a fresco adorning a wall, an opus of intricate sound, a magnificent statue released from marble, or a human patient whose frailty in suffering and death might stop our ears to a biography that is no less a work of art.

The structure (on the right-hand side of the fresco) has been variably described as a diving platform, the Gates of Hades, and the Pillars of Herakles. Holloway1 (pp382–384) discards these proposals and draws inspiration from the frequent use of Πύργος (“tower”) in the Greek imagination as a symbol of fortitude, defense, refuge, and peace: “Thus the diver, for all the peril of his dive, is surrounded by signs of hope. His passage through the waters that await him will be brief because the tree to the left of the scene marks the safety and restfulness of the nearby shore.”(p384) Fear of the unknown is assuaged by the presence of familiar and protective images, providing the dead (and those who mourned him) with a settling message.

Holloway1 (p384) notes that the “vision of death” projected here “has a deep resonance that transcends time and culture”; it is a vision that brings comfort to the person who comes (sometimes reluctantly) to the seal of his or her days. At a time when we are constantly demanding that our health care providers know more and do more, the call to be present to the patient (even in stillness and silence) should not be an onerous one. In the midst of the ever-so elegant technology that attends us in our suffering and dying, being present is testimony to the extraordinariness of the ordinary and to the solidarity that should spring from the sentience and mortality that bind us all.

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1. Holloway RR. The tomb of the diver. Am J Archaeol. 2006;110:365–388
2. Fletcher JLammers SE, Verhey A. Technological devices in medical care. On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics. 1987 Grand Rapids, Mich William B. Eerdmans
3. Callahan DLammers SE, Verhey A. Science: Limits and prohibitions. On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics. 1987 Grand Rapids, Mich William B. Eerdmans
4. Richtel M. As doctors use more devices, potential for distraction grows. N Y Times. December 14, 2011 Accessed March 24, 2014
5. Parker RM, Labrecque CA, Candler SG, et al. Communicating through the arts: Lessons for medicine and public health. J Health Commun. 2013;18:139–145
© 2014 by the Association of American Medical Colleges