Why shepherds in nativity scenes have goiters

Shepherds in Christmas Nativity scenes that were painted, carved or sculpted hundreds of years ago sometimes have goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency. The condition was common in those days in northern Italy, where the soil and water are depleted of iodine.

"Goiter is more often seen in poor people," says retired surgeon Renzo Dionigi of the University of Insubria in Varese, Italy, who notes that the working classes in this region would historically not have a varied diet that might supply this vital nutrient. “That's why, probably, the poor shepherds were depicted with goiters,” he explains.
[Adoration of Shepherds by Alessandro  Bonviccino]

In the northern Italian Sacri Monti ('Sacred Mountains') churches from the 16th and 17th centuries often have depictions of goiters. In one Nativity tableau from 1694 (see image above), for example, a young horn player with a large goiter plays for the Holy Family. And in one fresco over the main door of the Aosta Cathedral, a shepherd with goiter plays his bagpipe for the newborn Jesus.

Dionigi and his son also recently reported on two wooden shepherds, both with enormous goiters, that were once part of a 16th-century Nativity scene (see image below).

Another report noted a large, obvious goiter on one of the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in the 16th-century Adoration of Shepherds by Renaissance painter Alessandro Bonvicino.

Dionigi's favourite artistic goiter appears on a woman portrayed in The Crucifixion of St. Andrew, by Caravaggio, now at the Cleveland Museum of Art (see image below).
Massive goiters sometimes show up on artists' portrayals of tormentors and executioners, apparently as a symbol of evil. But often, goiters just indicates that persons are poor or needy.

In one 17th-century terra-cotta sculpture from northern Italy, a person with an enormous goiter begs St. Francis for healing. "That's the hugest goiter I have ever seen in any sculpture," says Dionigi. "The size of that goiter in that sculpture is something like half a meter."

Exerpted from: Nell Greenfieldboyce - 2010. See here.

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