The Personification of Medicine, Pharmacy and Surgery

For my last post of the year, I’m going to look at an image that has really summed up the fall semester for me. For my degree capstone, I’ve been doing a lot of research in the history and anthropology of medicine (plague, big surprise, huh). This is one of those finds that won’t fit into my final work but I just think is cool. We don’t see allegorical paintings very often today, but they were once all the rage.

Personifications of medicine and chemistryThe Personification of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Surgery “after (?) Nicholas de Larmessin II” (1638-1694). Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC by 4.0. Wellcome Library no. 44562i Photo M0003576.

Like many of the objects I’ve looked at over the last six months, we can only deduce its meaning and origins from the object itself. The only information I have been able to find is the curator’s notes in the Wellcome Collection catalog: “The arrangement of the three figures in a single composition with an ornate colonnade open to a mountainous backdrop seems to be unique to this painting.” This unsigned painting is attributed to a painter after the engraver Nicholas de Larmessin II, but there are no known engravings of it. The Wellcome curator did an admirable job transcribing all these labels and offering a translation and/or interpretation.

The central figure is a physician who personifies medicine; medicinal learning and wisdom indicated by the owl sitting atop his academic hat. His body is decorated with evidence of his learning, books with the three most important being Hippocrates laying open over his right arm, Galen his left arm, and over his chest Avicennia. The others are all recognizable medieval authors with a good representation of Islamic and eastern authors including the Byzantine author Paul of Aegina, the Persian (Iranian) Avicennia (Ibn Sīnā), and Rhazes. On the table next to him, a prescription (ordonannce) listing some common plants like rhubarb to be used in medicines is displayed along with some of his tools for urinalysis.

With a vaginal speculum in one hand and an oral speculum in the other, the sharply dressed surgeon stands ready with tourniquets, trusses, and assorted blades. His hat is a cranial elevator to lift out broken pieces of the skull or those pieces cut out by trepanation and his breastplates are shaving bowels. To the surgeon, the physician orders clysters (enemas), bloodletting and cupping.

On the physician’s right (our left), stands the pharmacist or apothecary with his alembic or distilling flask as his hat. He hoists a chalice of medicine as bags, bottles, and jars of medicinal stuff hang from all over his body. To the apothecary, the physician orders laxatives, juleps, and emetics. A julep is an alcohol-based remedy. Up through the early modern period, purgatives were probably the most common type of medicine given, sometimes as prophylactics. Even today, some people think ‘cleaning out’ the body is good for general health.

This painting is an unusual allegory because it is spelled out its meaning so blatantly. Allegories use metaphors or symbolic objects to convey meaning. Biblical, classical or mythological figures in Renaissance or Early Modern paintings often have an allegorical message. The person who painted or commissioned this wanted to display their knowledge and tools.

Who could be the audience for this painting? What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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