FRAME|WORK: A Statue of Asklepios from Hellenistic Greece

The subject of quality health care has dominated political rhetoric for decades, but the issue has been of interest for centuries. This week’s FRAME | WORK examines one of the earliest manifestations of the power of medicine in the form of the Statue of Asklepios currently on view in the Hall of Antiquities at the Legion of Honor.

 Statue of Asklepios

Statue of Asklepios. 2nd century BC. Greece. Pentelic marble. Museum purchase, United Hellenic American Congress and the William H. Noble Bequest Fund. 1981.41

The Greek god of medicine and patron of all physicians, this image of Asklepios bears in his left hand a staff and the snake coiled around it. This symbol, the caduceus, was later appropriated by the medical profession and remains today the most recognizable emblem of doctors and physicians everywhere.

Although Asklepios was the son of the god Apollo, his appeal lasted well into the Christian era. Asklepios’s daughters are also associated with the healing arts, chief among them Hygieia, whose name serves as the root of the word hygiene and Panacea, which means a universal remedy.

During the Hellenistic period, sculpture was highly realistic, as evinced in the careful modeling of this statue. Positioned in an exaggerated contraposto stance, Asklepios’s (disembodied) right hand rests on his weight-bearing hip and serves as the perfect palette for the artist’s detailed attention to the drapery of his himation (a Greek form of clothing similar to a toga or cloak). The contrasting directions representing the planes of the body and the strong folds of the drapery produce an elegant spiral twist that convey a sense of movement. The now missing head would have likely been bearded with a full mane of hair.

No matter which side of the aisle you stand on regarding universal health care, the beauty and impact of this sculpture is universal. The Statue of Asklepios is currently on display at the Legion of Honor.