The most famous smile in art history, that of the Mona Lisa, shows no teeth. The next time you visit Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million, take a few minutes to visit the art section. Flip through a few books detailing great art of the Western world. Tucked into the pages of these books will be portraits of nobles and peasants, nuns and queens, scoundrels and heroes. The era from the Middle Ages to the experimental art of the 19th Century is founded upon portraiture. Look closely at all these portraits that reveal people of means as well as people with no money to speak of and you will find a common bond that unites every facet of society during this long period of history.
Nobody ever smiled when they had their portrait painted.
The reason for this commonality of closed-lips smiles and frowns is that most of those who were being immortalized in oil paint had rotten or missing teeth. Whether you were a peasant or Queen Elizabeth or the Sun King of France, Louis XIV, your teeth were in bad shape. Johnny Rotten would have been as much at home during the 1500s as Queen Elizabeth would be out of time were she to appear miraculously today. Democracy existed in between the Greeks and Thomas Paine. Democracy existed in the blackened teeth of those who lived during the bulk of human civilization.
Anyone who has ever watched Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, is well acquainted with the idea of traveling troupes of entertainment making their way through villages. Europeans saw another kind of entertainment during this period as well. Teeth pullers were the David Blaine of their day. They arrived in town and put on a quite a show in which local yokels gathered to witness the spectacle of two-foot long metal pincers being used to quite literally yank teeth out of suffering victims. The only anesthetic available was whiskey, but that was usually too expensive for these toothache victims to afford so they went in dry-mouthed.
The Catholic Church found a way to make good money off the pain of those suffering dental ailments. This should come as little surprise since even Halliburton pales in comparison to the Catholic Church when it comes to figuring out how to grow rich off other people’s misery. Devotional offerings to St. Apollonia were made by those suffering horrific tooth pain although it remains unclear how these devotional offerings made the suffering any less intense. You may not have known that the Catholic Church has a patron saint of dental pain, but you should not be shocked to gain this knowledge. About the only patron saint that the Catholic Church hasn’t devised is the patron saint of priestly buggering.
Apollonia lived during the third century A.D. and the story goes that her decision to convert to Christianity led to her being tortured unless she reverted back to her belief in the Roman gods. The essence of Apollonia’s torture was her teeth being pulled out one by one. The fact that she still refused to give up her belief in Jesus led to her being canonized as a saint and later being chosen as the patron saint of dentistry.