University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Medical Iconography

Surgical Instruments, Greek Art, and the Medical Caduceus

The “knotty tree limb” symbol appears frequently on surgical instruments, as well as being linked to representations of Asclepius and, in particular, Hercules. It can also be found on the handles of apotropaic instruments, which ward off evil forces. Some scholars claim that the motif is limited to instruments particularly liable to cause pain. Given the widespread worship of Hercules in the Roman world, this motif was probably adopted by Greek physicians to please their Roman clients.

Red figure, Attic Cup

Red figure, Attic Cup, c. 490 BCE

Illustrations of physicians at work are rare in Greek art. This scene, on the inside of a dish dating about 490 BCE, depicts Achilles binding a wound on Patroklos’s arm. It exemplifies the prevalent formality in patient treatment at that time: a prescribed kneeling position for particular tasks and an overall calmness of manner. Achilles was trained in medicine by Chiron, the centaur-sage. Although he was invincible in battle, Achilles is shown here as an inept medic. He is attempting to make a crisscross tourniquet, which should be at once comfortable and capable of staunching the wound. To judge from Patroklos’s wince, the tourniquet is painful and inexpertly applied because the two ends will not meet. His work will have to be unraveled and redone.

The Origins of the Medical Caduceus

Detail, Pompeiian wall painting

Detail, Pompeiian wall painting, 1st century BCE

Snakes are familiar symbols of healing because of their presence on the medical caduceus, the symbol of the herald’s wand used by Hermes. The medical caduceus originated during WWII, when medics used it as a symbol for a truce. Its association with medicine goes back even further, to ancient Greece, where the snake entwined upon a walking staff was one of the accoutrements of the healer-god Asclepius.

The Asclepian staff has often been confused with the caduceus. Both were probably symbols of truce in wartime, but the Asclepian staff entwined by only one snake is regarded by Classicists as the true symbol of the medical profession.

Roman Marble Statue

Roman Marble Statue, 1st Century CE

The snake has been a symbol of healing since prehistoric times. It was associated with regeneration, due to the easily observable phenomena of it shedding its skin. Because they were used in the healing rites at his temples, the god Asclepius (at right) often appears accompanied by one or more serpents. Snakes were also used in Italy as part of the private family worship. Each household contained a shrine, or lararium, where offerings to the familial ancestors were placed.





Detail, Pompeiian wall painting

Detail, Pompeiian wall painting, 1st Century BCE

These ancestors, or Lares, were thought to assume the form of snakes, and they were credited for the family’s health and prosperity. The detail shown here is from a lararium uncovered in Pompeii. The god Bacchus is shown, morphed into a cluster of grapes.