In the second of my recent articles on Sir Edward Poynter, I included a painting of his titled A Visit to Aesculapius (1880), noting that it showed an unusual motif. Just how unusual?
If you look at classical sculpture, there are probably dozens of statues of Aesculapius – or Asclepius as he is also known. Considering (art) drawings and paintings, there are probably less than a dozen, including Gustav Klimt’s Medicine (1900-07), a ceiling painting in the University of Vienna which was destroyed by fire at the end of the Second World War, in 1945. (Although Klimt definitely included Aesculapius’ daughter Hygieia in that painting, it is not clear whether Aesculapius himself appeared in it.)
The earliest post-classical painting which I have found is Sebastiano Ricci’s The Dream of Aesculapius (c 1718). The unmistakable figure of Aesculapius, clutching his staff with snake in his right hand, appears in a pall of smoke, to an unknown couple in their bed. Because the other narrative references are obscure, it is hard to guess the rest of the story, although I think it’s probable that one or both of those in bed are in need of healing.
Later in that same century, and before his death in 1785, Giovanni Battista Cipriani drew Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake, following the classical traditions.
Later still, Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey painted the group of Aesculapius, Apollo and Hippocrates (1791). Aesculapius, holding his distinctive staff, is shown in the centre of the trio, with Hippocrates, the rather less legendary ‘father of medicine’, to the right, clutching the basal half of a human skull, and Apollo behind.
They have entered a contemporary pharmacy, where an assistant uses a large mortar and pestle, and another works the bellows of a furnace. There are decorative – and mischievous – putti at play in the foreground.
A drawing attributed to Jacques-Charles Bordier du Bignon, Aesculapius Routing Death (1822) is a more classical fantasy. Aesculapius has two staffs, with which he is despatching the ‘grim reaper’ of Death. The woman to the right of Aesculapius has been thought to be Ceres, as she is pouring out her breast milk to feed the starving.
This is an unusual association: Aesculapius is more commonly seen with one of his daughters, Hygieia, the goddess of health and sanitation, although the woman is here not acting in that role. Again, lacking the context of the drawing makes it very hard to read.
At about the same time, Giovanni Tognolli painted The Finding of Aesculapius (1822-39), offering one version of this curious legend. Aesculapius is normally stated to be a son of Apollo (hence Prey’s association, above) and a mortal woman. His mother died either shortly before or during labour, and Aesculapius was born by Caesarean section. He was then carried by Apollo to be raised by the centaur Chiron, who raised the child and taught him the arts of medicine.
An addition to this brings the association with a snake: when he was young, Aesculapius aided a snake, who returned the favour by licking his ears clean and teaching him secret knowledge. The snake was said to be a non-venomous species, now known as the Aesculapian snake.
Tognolli prefers a different version of events, in which a man discovers the infant Aesculapius being reared by a goat. The snake is present in the immediate foreground.
I suspect that Tognolli’s painting made its way to Britain, and was seen by the unfortunate Richard Dadd, who painted his watercolour of The Infant Aesculapius Discovered by Shepherds on a Mountain (1851) while he was a patient in Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital, after murdering his father. Dadd follows Tognolli’s lead in having Aesculapius raised by a goat, but includes a couple of shepherds and omits the crucial snake.
Edward Poynter’s painting of 1880 thus appears a singular depiction of this particular motif. Below is a lithograph version which shows its details more clearly.
Three years ago, an earlier watercolour version of this painting, signed and dated to 1875, was sold by auction at Christie’s. On its backboard was a label bearing a slightly altered quotation from the Elizabethan author Thomas Watson:
In time long past, when in Diana’s chase
A bramble bush prick’d Venus in the foot,
Old Æsculapius help’d her heavy case
Before the hurt had taken any root:
Wherehence although his beard were crisping hard
She yielded him a kiss for his reward.
(from Hekatompathia number 20, 1582.)
The watercolour also had the suggested title of Venus Aesculapius, although the oil painting has always been known as A Visit to Aesculapius.
Set in his sacred grove, Poynter shows Aesculapius sitting at the left, contemplating the left foot of Venus, who is supported by the three Graces, acting as her handmaidens. The rightmost Grace, who conforms to classical style by turning her back to the viewer, reaches to a young woman, who is drawing water from the fountain at the right. She is most probably Hygieia, daughter of Aesculapius and goddess of health and sanitation (‘hygiene’), although another figure stands to the left of Aesculapius.
Poynter is also unusual in painting Aesculapius’ distinctive staff with its snake in the immediate foreground, although neither the staff nor snake appeared in his earlier watercolour version. It is possible that they were added later to the oil version, to clinch the identification of Aesculapius.
Allen Staley (The New Painting of the 1860s) dismisses this painting as being “slightly absurd” and an example of “soft-core pornography made acceptable by mythical or classical titles”. He ignores the fact that Poynter and many of the critics of the day considered this to be his finest work, making comparison with Titian and Raphael.
In addition to Staley’s reading of the painting as an excuse for four nudes, there are at least two other readings. The most basic is the narrative offered by Watson as source: Venus was out with one of Diana’s hunts, when Venus’ foot was wounded by a thorn from a bramble bush. Venus then visited Aesculapius, with the Graces in attendance, for him to remove the thorn from her foot, in return for which she rewarded him with a kiss.
The remaining reading relies on this perhaps unique conjunction of love (the kiss of Venus) with disease (Aesculapius) – and the thoroughly Victorian concern with the diseases of Venus, or venereal disease. Either way, I think it is a mistake to dismiss this as a feeble excuse for four nudes. It is one of Poynter’s most important paintings, and merits further study.
Wikipedia on Asclepius/Aesculapius.