Clinical Reference / Dermatopathology: Practical & Conceptual / Oct – Dec 2010 | Vol. 16, No. 4 / Art | Relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician

Art | Relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician

Oct – Dec 2010 | Vol. 16, No. 4
Arnke, Ute

A relief for a physician

In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, a relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician can be found (Fig. 1). The origin of the relief dates back to the Roman Iron Age, the era of Augustus. Under his leadership, the centralization of power and the organization of the Roman Empire profoundly influenced the development of the arts because the Emperor deliberately chose the Greek culture of the 2nd century B.C. as guide and orientation for the artists. Moreover, the adoration of the Greek gods was adopted. During the pest epidemic in Rome in the year 291 B.C., the cult of Asclepius, the god of medicine, arrived in Rome. His holy animal, the nontoxic snake, a colubrid of 1 m in length, was admired as salutary. In the early Roman Iron Age, Asclepius became one of the most adored gods. His most famous place of worship was the so-called Asclepeion in Epidaurus. This site on the Greek west coast was not only a place of pilgrimage but also health resort, where sick persons stayed for weeks and where priest-physicians treated persons psycho-physically and with diets.

Fig. 1

Relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician, first century after Christ. Berlin, Pergamon Museum. Drawing by Ute Arnke, 2006.

This context is important in understanding this relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician. The physician is depicted sitting on a throne, a recliner of Greek style. In his left hand he is holding a scroll while the right hand is elevated in such a gesture, which may indicate he is speaking, but may also be understood as a sign of his blessing, an indication of his priest-like authority. At his feet, there is an altar, as it was manufactured for graves in the first century after Christ, with collars of fruit and the head of a ram. Behind the altar, in a knee-length portrait, a young man presents in his right hand another scroll to the physician to whom he is looking up. In his left hand, the adolescent is holding a box, which can be interpreted in this scene as a box of ointment and as a sign of the medical profession. A woman is placed closely behind the boy. She is holding her coat and she is pointing with her left hand at the altar. This is a subtle gesture of mourning so that the woman can be interpreted as the wife of the physician and as the mother of the juvenile. Asclepius is integrated in the scene in the form of the holy snake which loops around the branches of a tree. A stable lad is bringing a saddled horse, which obviously has meaning to the depicted family. At the upper margin of the relief, a case with surgical instruments is shown.


Comparison of the work discussed here with reliefs dedicated to Asclepius in gratitude for healing (Figs. 2 and 3) shows that this relief neither depicts a scene of medical care nor a pure ritual act. The gestures of the adolescent and of the physician interact so closely that a storyline can be imagined. Carrying a scroll was a sign of divine authority in the ceremonial Roman court. A scroll in the hand of a physician can be construed as a sign of a medical profession based on divine laws. The active gesture of the boy seems to be the answer to the blessing by the physician. A contemplator of this work of art may infer a very important lesson: It is likely that, in the tradition of this family, the physician-father was teaching his son all he knew about the medical profession.

Fig. 2

Fragment of a relief dedicated to Asclepius. Asclepius and one of his daughters welcome a patient, 380-350 B.C. Athens, National Museum. Reproduced from: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Athens.

Fig. 3

Relief dedicated to Asclepius. Offering in a rural Asclepeion, around 100 B.C. Munich, Glyptothek.


This contribution discusses a relief dedicated to an aggrandized physician, which can be found in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Comparison of the work with reliefs devoted to Asclepius and integration of the scenery in its historical context suggests that the relief shows a physician-father who was teaching his son all about the medical profession.

Ute Arnke retired from her work as a high school teacher in the fields of art and philosophy and is now an artist living in Maintal, Germany. This article was reviewed by Almut Böer, M.D. Contact author via e-mail: .