Not many paintings are assessed for the genetic defects of the characters portrayed – Jan van Scorel’s version of Adam and Eve of 1540 is an exception. Geneticist Hans Gruneberg, whose digitised archive forms part of the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource, noticed that Scorel’s version of Adam had a 6th finger.
He requested a copy of the painting in a letter to Lord Salisbury of Hatfield House who owns it, in October 1974. His interest derived from a study on the malformation of hands and feet in mammals, a lecture that he delivered in Germany that year which was based on his work on the mutant genes of mice.
The peculiarity of more than 5 digits is commonly known as ‘polydactylism’, and though less commonly encountered today due to the possibilities of cosmetic surgery, it has been an issue in the past. Closely inbred communities have been known to inherit the genetic abnormality. In ancient times in the Levant, polydactylism was considered to be a mark of the Rephaim, a race of giants, who apparently needed more digits than normal folk. For more details on polydactylism in the ancient world, see Richard Barnett’s article published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (volume 6, 1986–1987).
In the Old Testament, the book of Samuel describes such giants (II Samuel 21:20):
Yet again there was war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature, who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he also was born to the giant
Based on this ancient association of giants with multi-digits and superhuman strength, by giving Adam 6 fingers, Jan van Scorel gives him equally preternatural powers.
It is no coincidence also that God is said to have created the world in just 6 days, a fact that may account for the re-appearance of the 6-finger motif in art of the intensely religious late medieval period. “Maria mit den 6 Fingern“, ca. 1440 (The Mary with Six Fingers) remains a prime tourist attraction in the pilgrimage church of Maria-Laach in Austria today.
Conversely, the extra digit was not always seen in a favorable light: Anne Boleyn was said to have had a sixth finger which was viewed, by those hostile to her, as a sign of the witch within her. This disputable fact originates from an unflattering description of her by the Catholic propogandist, Nicholas Sanders some 50 years after her death:
Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. It is said she had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers …
Scientifically speaking, surplus digits are caused by dominant genes – while we all have 2 copies of each gene, sometimes one gene overrides the other – multiple digits, or similar malformations, are occasionally the result.
Such mutations are not without significance. Gruneberg’s belief in ‘the importance of mutants in lab animals’ was crucial, as he pointed out:
…before long the mutant genes and inbred strains of the laboratory rodents will make an increasing contribution to medical research.
His research focused on skeletal mutations in mice in particular as a model for the study of genetic disorders in humans, a fascination which led him to collect cuttings and stories of equally unusual malformations: for example, a pair of rabbits who perpetually stood on their front legs, conjoined rabbits, and in one case, a bull with an extra leg…
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