Staffs in paintings: 1 Myth, Age, Travellers

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Die Lebensstufen (Strandbild, Strandszene in Wiek) (The Stages of Life) (detail) (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m taking a long weekend to look at another common feature in paintings: a staff or walking stick, which appears in many guises from Mercury’s caduceus to the shepherd’s crook and the monarch’s sceptre. This first article of three looks at two contrasting types of staff seen in classical mythology, staffs used to indicate age, and those of the traveller. Tomorrow I move on to look at shepherd’s crooks, and in the third and concluding part I look at them as a symbol of power or fashion.

Deities and mortals in classical myth carry or use staffs and sticks for normal purposes, including the shepherd’s crook, but two have special significance: Mercury’s caduceus, and the Aesculapian Staff.

Mercury’s Caduceus

As the messenger of the gods and their emissary, Mercury’s attributes normally include winged sandals (talaria), a distinctive rod or staff known as a caduceus, and a brimmed hat or helmet known as a petasos, which often bears wings too.

His caduceus conventionally has a pair of entwined serpents along its length, and may also bear small wings, and is distinct from the rod or staff borne by Aesculapius (or Asclepius), which has but a single serpent coiled around it. Mercury’s caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger; the rod of Aesculapius is associated with healing and medicine.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Judgement of Paris (1806-1817), pen and grey ink and watercolour over graphite on paper, 38.5 x 46 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

William Blake’s Judgement of Paris (c 1806-17) is a very curious story for him to have painted. The underlying narrative is the beauty contest between the goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Above them is the naked figure of Mercury, with his caduceus and its pair of intertwined serpents, and a winged helmet. There’s a second and contrasting staff just below, in the right hand of Paris: a shepherd’s crook. This marks his origins when he was raised by the herdsman Agelaus on Mount Ida.

Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651), Mercury, Argus and Io (c 1592), oil, 63.5 x 81.3 cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Abraham Bloemaert’s carefully composed Mercury, Argus and Io (c 1592) shows Mercury playing his flute at the left, his caduceus leant against the rock that he’s sitting on.

Iris, the other divine messenger, can also be depicted carrying a similar caduceus to that of Mercury.

Aesculapian Staff

There is much about Aesculapius which is unusual. His main attribute is a rod or staff, around which there is normally but a single snake, which is associated with healing and medicine, and still widely used as a medical symbol.

Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727–1785), Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Wellcome Library, London. Courtesy of Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the eighteenth century, Giovanni Battista Cipriani drew Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake, following this classical traditions.


Staffs, particularly those in the form of a walking stick, are frequently used to indicate that the bearer is old and possibly slightly infirm as a result. This is most frequently seen as a device in paintings of Joseph the carpenter, husband of the Virgin Mary.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Nativity (1476-7), fresco, 200 x 300 cm, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Photo by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli’s fresco of the Nativity from 1476-77 follows this convention. With the infant Christ at its centre, Joseph the carpenter is on the right holding a walking stick.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), The Nativity (1504-07), oil on panel, 34 x 24.5 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Fra Bartolomeo’s Nativity from 1504-07 shows a simple nativity scene based on his fine tondo Adoration of the Child from 1499, with Joseph on the left, and a very long walking stick.

This extends into mythology, notably in the story of Vertumnus and Pomona. In his quest for the love of Pomona, the shape-shifter Vertumnus posed as a reaper, a hedger, and in various other gardening roles. Although these enabled him to gain entry into her garden, it was only when he disguised himself as an old crone with a bonnet over her white hair, leaning on her walking stick, that he was able to engage the beautiful Pomona in conversation.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Vertumnus and Pomona (1613), oil on canvas, 90 x 149.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrik Goltzius shows them together in his Vertumnus and Pomona from 1613, and arms Pomona with a vicious-looking pruning knife to match the walking stick resting against Vertumnus’ lap.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Stages of Life (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), The Stages of Life (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Stages of Life (1834-5) shows five figures marking those stages. Two of the figures are children, who raise a small Swedish flag between them. To their right is a young woman, pointing and looking towards the children. To their left is a mature man, wearing a top hat, who is turned towards an elderly man, the closest to the viewer, his back towards us and a walking stick in his right hand, as shown in the detail below.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Die Lebensstufen (Strandbild, Strandszene in Wiek) (The Stages of Life) (detail) (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.

The Traveller

A staff is a common element in paintings of travellers, wanderers and wayfarers.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Wayfarer (exterior of The Wayfarer triptych) (1500-10), oil on oak panel, 71.3 x 70.7 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The exterior of Hieronymus Bosch’s reconstructed Wayfarer triptych from 1500-10 shows the figure of a travelling man in the foreground, against a countryside background with a single tumbledown building. He is thin and gaunt, and wears ad hoc clothing for walking: a long-tailed jacket and trousers, with a soft cloth chaperon hat. His clothes are tatty, in need of repair, and a dull grey-brown. The right knee of the trousers has a large hole, and the left lower leg is pulled up above a dirty bandage tied around a wound in that leg. His footwear is odd, with a short black boot on the right foot, and a low, flat black ‘mule’ on the left.

In his left hand, he carries a brimmed hat, which has a bobbin stuck into it, and in his right hand a walking stick, which he holds upside down, its club-like handle close to the ground by his right foot. He has a knife in a sheath secured to his belt, and carries on his back a large wickerwork pack, which is secured across his chest. Attached to the outside of the pack is a ladle, and an animal skin.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Haywain Triptych (exterior) (c 1510-16), oil on oak panel, left wing 136.1 x 47.7 cm, central panel 133 × 100 cm, right wing 136.1 × 47.6 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The same figure appears on the exterior of Bosch’s Haywain Triptych from a decade later. Over those years, the traveller has aged significantly. He now has white hair and a close-cropped full beard, and looks to the left of the panels. He wears a black chaperon-style hat, a long brown tunic, and matching brown trousers. His tunic is loosened at the neck and upper chest to reveal a black waistcoat and white underclothing. The left knee of his trousers is split to reveal most of that kneecap. He wears a pair of short black boots. A sheathed knife is on his belt, and he holds a walking stick, with its club-like end on the ground, in front of a collared dog which is snarling at him.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Mists (1818), oil on canvas, 94.8 × 74.8 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg. Wikimedia Commons.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Wanderer above the Sea of Mists (1818), oil on canvas, 94.8 × 74.8 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg. Wikimedia Commons.

After Bosch, perhaps the most famous traveller appears in Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Mists from 1818. A bareheaded, blond man stands as a Rückenfigur astride a rocky outcrop in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, a walking stick in his right hand. He looks out over a blanket of lower cloud, pierced by occasional rock pinnacles and peaks. In the distance, more gradual slopes suggest higher mountains to the sides, and vaguer forms of rounded peaks, and a massive rocky butte, fade into mist.

Tomorrow I turn to the staffs and crooks carried by shepherds while they’re tending their flocks.