Asclepius (Greek Ἀσκληπιός) is the god of medicine and the healing arts, also known by various respellings such as Aesculapius, although strictly his Latin equivalent is more likely to be Vejovis or Vediovis, inherited from the Etruscans. He’s most probably the son of Apollo by Coronis, and has his own daughters who share the same trade. Best-known among them is Hygieia, whose name gives us the English word hygiene, the goddess of cleanliness. Her sisters include Iaso (recovery from illness), Aceso (the healing process), Aegle (good health), and Panacea (universal remedies, also taken into English).
There is much about Asclepius which is unusual. His main attribute is a rod or staff, around which there is normally a single snake. This is quite different from the caduceus of Hermes (Mercury). The caduceus normally has a pair of entwined serpents along its length, and may also bear small wings; in contrast, the rod of Asclepius should have but a single serpent coiled around it. Hermes’ caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger; the rod of Asclepius is associated with healing and medicine, and still widely used as a medical symbol.
In the eighteenth century, Giovanni Battista Cipriani drew Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake, following this classical traditions.
Johannes Zacharias Simon Prey painted this group of Aesculapius, Apollo and Hippocrates in 1791. Asclepius, holding his distinctive rod, 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, Asclepius’ father, 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.
If you look at classical sculpture, there are dozens of statues of Asclepius. Considering artistic 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 Asclepius’ daughter Hygieia in that painting, it isn’t clear whether Asclepius himself appeared in it.
The next unusual feature of Asclepius is his infancy. The myth of Apollo and Coronis holds that she was unfaithful to the god, and took on a mortal lover named Ischys, whom Artemis killed as punishment. As she was carrying Apollo’s son at the time, the god rescued the unborn child by Caesarian section before the body of Coronis was burned on her funeral pyre, and he carried the infant to the centaur Chiron to be brought up. It was during his childhood that the centaur taught Asclepius the arts of medicine.
When Asclepius was young, he helped a snake, who returned the favour by licking the boy’s ears clean and teaching him secret knowledge, presumably of the healing arts. The snake was said to be a non-venomous species, now known as the Aesculapian snake.
Giovanni Tognolli painted The Finding of Aesculapius between 1822-39, which tells one version of this curious legend, in which a man discovers the infant Asclepius 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 Asclepius raised by a goat, but includes a couple of shepherds and omits the crucial snake.
Asclepius also inspired a singular depiction by the learned Victorian artist Edward Poynter.
Poynter’s painting of A Visit to Aesculapius from 1880 is sadly now darkened and hard to read, but below is a lithograph version which shows its details more clearly.
A few 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 Asclepius sitting at the left, contemplating the left foot of Aphrodite, 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 Asclepius, although another figure stands to the left of Asclepius.
Poynter is also unusual in painting Asclepius’ distinctive staff with its snake in the immediate foreground, although neither the staff nor snake appeared in his earlier watercolour version. It’s possible that they were added later to the oil version, to clinch the identification.
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: Aphrodite was out with one of Artemis’s hunts, when Aphrodite’s foot was wounded by a thorn from a bramble bush. Aphrodite then visited Asclepius, 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/Aphrodite) with disease (Asclepius) – 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.
Finally, to Klimt’s lost masterpiece which we know at least showed Hygieia and possibly Asclepius too. These huge ceiling panels for the Great Hall of Vienna University were being stored in Schloss Immendorf in 1945 when it was set alight by retreating German forces, and were tragically destroyed as a result. I have only been able to find a monochrome image, apart from one detail for which a colour photo survives.
The panel for the Faculty of Medicine was rich in figures, rising up from that of Hygieia. Dotted over swirling masses of dark hair are white symbols or corpuscles, at the top of which is a full skeleton. The figures at the right represent the river of life, and linking that with the woman at the left are two arms. At her feet is an infant. Klimt’s projection would have made this appear even more impressive when it was in position on the ceiling.
This colour detail of Hygieia gives a small impression of how wonderful the painting must have appeared, with its rich colours and extensive gold leaf. The serpent is the snake of Asclepius, and the cup which she is holding is that of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the underworld.
For the Romans, Asclepius was a major guardian deity, and the subject of a legend about the early history of the city of Rome. I’ll tell that tomorrow in my series on the history of Rome in paintings.