A Goddess for the Renaissance

One of the distinguishing features of early modern Europe is its fascination with and embrace of the Greco-Roman past. While this is perhaps most obvious in the literary and visual arts—think of the many new editions of classical works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or paintings such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus—medicine was equally enamored with the classical period. This is most apparent in physicians’ eagerness to embrace the newly uncovered works of Galen, but we can also see it in the iconography used to embellish the period’s medico-anatomical publications.

The figure of the anatomist conducting a dissection is a frequently used motif, familiar to us from frontispieces such as the one introducing Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica. Perhaps equally prominent are the various female figures who appear as caryatids supporting the central title vignette, handmaidens to the intrepid anatomist, or bystanders looking approvingly down at the medical investigations. These women, whose flowing drapes clearly evoke classical statues of Greco-Roman goddesses, are often visual representations of some overarching concept such as Philosophy, Nature, or Science. But one of them is particularly prominent: a woman crowned with a five-pointed star.

But who is she? Look closely, and you might notice the letters SALUS written around the points of the star (Figure 1). In Roman mythology, Salus was the goddess of safety, prosperity, and well-being, for both individual Romans and the state itself. She might not seem like she has enough of a connection to medicine to warrant pride of place in so many publications, but examining her depiction in the frontispiece to Johannes Antonides van der Linden’s Lindenius Renovatus (Figure 2),reveals why. In the Van der Linden frontispiece, Salus holds a rod with a snake wrapped around it and is accompanied by a rooster and a dog. All of these are traditional sympbols of Ascelpius, the Greek god of healing. Therein lies the key: Salus is often conflated with the Greek goddess Hygeia, one of Asclepius’s daughters and the goddess of cleanliness and hygiene, who is just the sort of figure we’d expect to find introducing a medical text.

Figure 1: Johann Nicholas Pechlin, Observationum physico-medicarum libri tres, Hamburg: Ex Officina Libraria Schultziana, 1691.
Figure 2: Johannes Antonides van der Linden, Lindenius Renovatus, Nuremberg: Johannis Georgii Endteri, 1686.

But what about the star? It doesn’t seem to be part of the goddesses’ classical iconography, judging by their statues. Hygeia is usually depicted with her snake; Salus also tends to appear with a snake, or sometimes a patera, a shallow bowl used in Roman religious rites. There is, however, some speculation that the star was nevertheless associated with the goddess of health. In classical Greece, the five-pointed star was supposedly a symbol among the Pythagoreans, followers of the philosopher Pythagoras (now known primarily for the mathematical Pythagorean Theorem), and that they called it “Hugieia.” Still, contemporary evidence for this connection is scant. The theory might instead have its roots in the writings of the Renaissance occultist Henirich Cornelius Agrippa, whose 16th century work De Occulta Philosophia includes a pentagram with points topped by the Greek letters forming Hygeia’s name.

The Salus we see in Renaissance frontispieces is ultimately more of a Renaissance creation than an accurate representation of the classical goddess. She is an amalgamation born from early modern humanists’ love of classical mythology, coded imagery, and allegory; a personification of the healing arts created from a mixture of the Greek Hygeia, the Roman Salus, and a dash of Pythagorean philosophy. Yet this is also what makes her perfectly at home in the Renaissance. She is like so many other pieces of Renaissance art: a figure that evokes an idealized Greco-Roman past while still being distinct from it.