Editor: Jose Morales
London, UK – May 12, 2020, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. As the current Covid-19 health crisis continues to affect us, it has put the highlight on the exceptional work that doctors, nurses, healers, and other carers do. The National Gallery of London invites its visitors to celebrate these miracle workers through a curated selection of paintings found at the gallery.
Through these works of art, we can reflect on the role that the arts can have on people’s well-being during this difficult time, with art being a source of comfort, hope, solace, and strength. Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research, said: “The National Gallery is here for everyone, in Britain and beyond. Our role now, as ever, is to provide access to some of the world’s greatest art, to give people inspiration and solace. Our paintings and our programs are helping people maintain good mental health, at a time when this has never been more important.”
The following paintings (which visitors can now see in person again since the reopening of The National Gallery this July 8) feature portraits of doctors and other health professionals. The works showcase the synergy between the wisdom and therapeutic value of the arts and the knowledge of the sciences.
Tobias and the Angel
Tobit, a blind merchant and devout Jew, entrusted his son Tobias on a long journey to collect a debt. God assigned the Archangel Raphael – the winged figure on the left of the scene – to accompany Tobias and his dog.
Tobias carries with him a fish that he has gutted; Raphael holds its organs in a small box, explaining they could be used as an ointment to heal blindness. The fish is painted like a minute still life; the scales reflecting the light like shining armor.
It has been proposed that Verrocchio’s student, Leonardo, may have painted the fish and the dog.
Tobias and Raphael’s journey to Media was very popular in the late 15th century when devotion to the Archangel, known as Saint Raphael, was backed by a number of confraternities dedicated to him. The story ends with Tobias’s return home, where he used the fish organs to cure his father.
Saints Cosmas and Damian and the Virgin
This is a fragment of an altarpiece conceived for the high altar of the Benedictine abbey at Liesborn. It originates from the central scene, which portrayed the Crucifixion. A fragment showing Christ’s head is also in the National Gallery’s collection. The fluttering cloth in the top right corner is part of Christ’s loincloth; below, we see part of Christ’s right leg, details which validate the position of the fragment in the altarpiece.
It was customary for Crucifixion scenes to include the Virgin Mary grieving her son beneath the Cross. Beside her are two third-century saints, the brothers Cosmas and Damian, as the altarpiece was dedicated to them, among others. They are lavishly dressed in fur-trimmed clothing, and they hold ointment jars, a reference to their medical expertise. According to their legend, they healed many people but did not accept payment for treatment.
The Physician Giovanni Agostino della Torre and his Son, Niccolò
Giovanni Agostino della Torre was a distinguished doctor and resident of Bergamo. He had taught at the University of Padua, and the ensemble he wears is an official or academic dress. In 1510 he was elected prior of Bergamo’s College of Physicians, an office he retained until his death.
The texts on the two square pieces of paper below the inkstand are prescriptions. The paper label on the back cover of the book held by Agostino reads ‘Galienus’, meaning Galen, who was the renowned medical authority of the ancient world. On one of the pieces of paper in Agostino’s right hand is an inscription that refers to Aesculapius, the physician god of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The portrait is signed and includes a date, which is illegible today but recorded as 1515.
The man behind Agostino is Niccolò, who was 33 in 1516 when his father died. It appears that he was added to what was formerly conceived only as a portrait of Agostino, perhaps on the occasion of his father’s death.
Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro
Girolamo Fracastoro (1476/8–1553) was a renowned medical doctor, as well as a mathematician, astronomer, and poet. His most influential medical book was ‘De Contagione’ (On Contagion), published in 1546. It demonstrates how and why the plague was spread.
Portrait of Ludovicus Nonnius
The aged antiquarian and doctor Ludovicus Nonnius meets our gaze with watery eyes. With his slightly parted lips, he appears to engage us in discussing a passage from the book he holds, which is most likely his recently published text, ‘Diaeteticon sive de recibaria, Libri IV.’ In this book, he argues for the importance of diet, his research based on the eating habits of the ancient Romans.
Nonnius was a friend of Rubens in Antwerp, and the artist manifests his respect for the old scholar by painting him in fine clothing, seated in a luxurious chair, and framed by grand classical architecture. The bust is identified in Greek lettering as Hippocrates (around 460–around 370 BC), the founder of medicine, and an important forebear of Nonnius in terms of his medical and classical learning. The books on the shelf emphasize the scholarly accomplishments of the sitter; the cover ties of two hang undone, suggesting that he has recently consulted them.
Alexander and his Doctor
Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) lies on a bed taking medicine provided to him by Philip, his doctor. Philip has been accused of treason against his leader in a letter, which he is reading aloud to Alexander. Hands raised in horror, eyes widened, their attendants wait to learn the truth. Alexander gazes towards Philip to acknowledge his innocence and loyalty, which is further confirmed as Alexander’s health improves. A male figure looks towards us to encourage our reaction.
Portrait of Cornelis van Someren
Aelbert Cuyp is renowned for his landscapes, but he also painted a small number of portraits, of which this is a rare example. For some time, it was thought that the sitter might be Cuyp’s father, Jacob, a portraitist who trained his son to paint. However, it is now believed to depict Cornelis van Someren (1593–1649), a leading Dordrecht doctor who was 56 years old in 1649, the age and date inscribed on the picture. This suggestion appears to be confirmed by a matching pendant portrait of a woman whose age is given on the picture as 49 years old, the same as that of van Someren’s wife.
This is one of five paintings meant to hang collectively, each of which denotes one of the five senses – a popular theme for painting in the Low Countries in the 17th century. In each of these paintings, Gonzales Coques has used a common activity to represent the relevant sense.
Here, “Touch” is portrayed as a man with his sleeve rolled back, letting blood from his arm, a procedure which was thought to help cure or prevent some medical ailments. Blood was probably correlated with the sense of touch because, like feeling, it permeates the whole body. By contrast, the receptors for the other four senses are located only on the head.
This may also be a true portrait. We don’t know who it is, but as three of the other paintings in the series are artists, he may be one too. It was plausibly designed as the central image of the five, since the sitter faces forwards; among the others, two turn to the left, and two to the right.
Dr. Ralph Schomberg
In 1759 Gainsborough moved to the elegant spa town of Bath, where he founded a very successful portrait-painting practice and remained for 15 years. He painted this portrait of Dr. Ralph Schomberg, aged about 56, in Bath around 1770.
Gainsborough consulted various doctors during his years in Bath, both for his own medical problems and about the recurring mental instability of his elder daughter, Mary. This portrait may have been painted in place of medical fees. – GM
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE ART ISSUE