Medical Portraits in the Early Modern Period



Image 1: Portrait of Andreas Vesalius in Herman Boerhaave’s edition of Vesalius’s Opera (Leiden, 1725), plate between A3 and A4.


This image of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) is perhaps one of the most famous medical portraits of all time. It was first published in his famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica of 1543 and was again included in Worth’s copy of Herman Boerhaave’s 1725 edition. It portrays Vesalius in the act of dissecting, and thereby draws attention to his position as Professor of Anatomy at the University of Padua. As you will see in the following exhibition, not every early modern physician and surgeon opted to be depicted with the tools of their trade.


The practice of portraiture as a means of recording one’s likeness dates back thousands of years. It is a traditionally flattering means of depicting royalty, noblemen, and scholars alike. It captures the sitter’s identity and gives the modern-day viewer insight into how the subject wished to be seen, generations after the portrait was rendered. To have one’s portrait painted was not only an honour, but was designed to project the sitter’s importance. The Edward Worth Library in Dublin houses a wonderful variety of portraits, particularly of physicians who Edward Worth (1676-1733) held in high regard. The portraits depicting physicians and surgeons are not by any means homogenous. Some individuals wished to be represented generically as scholars, while others drew attention to their medical disciplines. Increasingly, physicians and surgeons sought to present themselves as gentlemen, focusing more on their social status than their chosen occupation.


Image 2: Portrait of Jean Fernel in Universa medicina (Frankfurt, 1592), verso of title page of all three parts.


In the sixteenth century, physicians who revolutionized the medical field were often illustrated in profile view. Though it is impossible to know for certain if this was intentional, the positioning of the portraits of Jean Fernel and John Caius are reminiscent of portraits of religious reformers, such as Jan Hus (d. 1415). Born into an affluent family in Montdidier in northern France, Jean François Fernel (1497-1558) was essentially a recluse, spending his days studying philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. In 1524, Fernel fell ill with quartan fever, forcing him to retreat to the countryside for a period of rest. Upon his recovery, he relocated to Paris to study medicine exclusively, and eventually became one of the most famous French physicians of his time. He is credited with coining the term “physiology” to describe the body’s functions. Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), wife of King Henri II (1519-1559), is known to have sought out his counsel regarding her difficulty conceiving a child. The portrait above was published in a book entitled Universa Medicina (Frankfurt, 1592), just one of the many books Fernel penned during his lifetime which was subsequently re-printed after his death. To commemorate his various accomplishments as a physician and scientist, a crater on the moon is named Fernelius in his honour.


Image 3: Portrait of John Caius in his Opera (Louvain, 1556), Sig. A2v.


John Caius (1510-73) is often considered one of sixteenth-century London’s most prominent physicians. His family name was Keys, but he later chose to Latinize his surname, a prevalent trend during the Renaissance. An excellent linguist, he studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, often translating texts for his friends in his spare time. He received his medical degree from the University of Padua and practiced medicine in London. He reportedly treated many members of the royal family, including Queen Mary I (1516-58) and Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603).  He is credited with the discovery of sweating sickness, recording one of the first epidemics of the sickness, which is characterized by headaches and dizziness, followed by violent bouts of severe sweating and delirium. The symptoms usually lasted about 3 to 18 hours, and if the patient lived for a full day after the onset, he or she would usually survive the ailment. The mortality rate was incredibly high, and Caius blamed “dirt and filth” as the underlying causes. Many historians theorize that Dr. Caius from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was based on John Caius himself. In this woodcut, Caius appears to be dressed in finery, with furs draped over his shoulders. It appears that Caius wished to be pictured primarily as a wealthy gentleman.


Image 4: Portrait of Nicolaus Taurellus from Biographiae professorum medicinae qui in Academia Altorfina (Nuremburg and Altdorf, 1728), plate 1.


Nicolaus Taurellus (1547-1606) studied philosophy at the University of Tübingen. After receiving his philosophy degree, he then went on to earn his medical doctorate at the University of Basel. A man of science, philosophy, and theology, Taurellus held both theistic and secular philosophies as equally important, even in the face of opposition by the Lutheran church. In his portrait, Taurellus is shown draped with furs and wearing a garment with a high, ruffled collar. He holds two objects in this portrait: a book in his left hand, and a human skull in his right. It is clear that Nicolaus Taurellus was proud of his high social status and wanted to be depicted as such. However, the objects he is pictured with also portray him as an intellectual. The book shows him as a literate man of philosophy, while the skull denotes his occupation as a scientist and physician.


Image 5: Portrait of Ernst Soner from Biographiae professorum medicinae qui in Academia Altorfina (Nuremburg and Altdorf, 1728), plate 3.


Taurellus eventually succumbed to the plague in 1606, despite arduous treatment administered by his pupil and colleague, Ernst Soner (1572-1612). Though he was known to be an herbalist, in his portrait above, Soner holds a book displaying two illustrations of human skeletons. The book is tilted forward so the viewer can fully view the contents. Therefore, Soner likely found the object important to his identity as a physician. The fact that skeletons are featured rather than plants may allude to the fact that he studied anatomy as well as medicinal botany.


Image 6: Portrait of Georg Noessler from Biographiae professorum medicinae qui in Academia Altorfina (Nuremburg and Altdorf, 1728), plate 5.


Born into a Protestant family in Cöln al der Spree, Georg Noessler (1591-1650) learned several trades throughout his life. He attended the University of Frankfurt, thereafter traveling primarily through Rome, Venice, and Mantua. Afterwards, he ended up in Padua where he earned his M.A. and doctorate in 1617. Knowing of his status as a medical doctor, a band of Croatian troops took him hostage in 1632. Under death threats from his captors, he was forced to serve as their field medic for five years, whereupon he regained his freedom. Not only was Noessler a physician, he was an accomplished poet and created Poet Laureate at Altdorf in 1627. He is depicted here as a gentleman, with his coat of arms in the background.


Image 7: Portrait of Ludwig Jungermann from Biographiae professorum medicinae qui in Academia Altorfina (Nuremburg and Altdorf, 1728), plate 6.


Ludwig Jungermann (1572-1653) had been professor of anatomy and botany at the University of Giessen between 1614 and 1625 and had been responsible for creating a botanical garden there, which is still in existence. In 1625 he moved to the University of Altdorf to take up the position of professor of anatomy and botany and there too he established a botanical garden. He is shown here holding a flower to indicate his occupation as a botanist.


Like Noessler, Ludwig Jungermann is included in Baier’s Biographiae professorum medicinae qui in Academia Altorfina, which is a collection of medical biographies of professors of medicine teaching at the University of Altdorf. This book was clearly produced to enhance the reputation of the medical faculty at Altdorf and includes engravings of fifteen of the members of the faculty. Most of the portraits (including the ones of Taurellus, Soner, Noessler, and Jungermann), were engraved by the engraver Wolfgang Philipp Kilian (1654-1732), who was the son of another well-known engraver Philipp Kilian (1628-93).


Image 8: Portrait of Theodore de Mayerne from Praxeos (London, 1690), frontispiece.


Mirroring the depiction of Nicolaus Taurellus, Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (1573-1655) holds a human skull in his portrait. He appears to be almost pointing to the skull, drawing the viewer’s eye to it and thus indicating its importance to the portrait. The skull not only represented anatomical studies – it also symbolized mortality and may have been included for this reason. The lack of finery in the portrait is an unusual choice, given the fact that Mayerne practiced medicine for high-status individuals such as Queen Anne (1574-1619), wife of James I (1566-1625). In this portrait, he may have simply wished to represent himself as a man of science rather than flaunt his high status as “the queen’s physician.”


Mayerne had studied philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and medicine at the University of Montpellier, graduating in 1596. He became a well-known hermeticist and alchemist with his father’s friend, Joseph du Chesne (1544-1609). Hermeticism was viewed as blasphemous due to its esoteric tenets, and their alliance angered the devout Galenists at the time, causing them to ban Du Chesne and Mayerne from practicing medicine in the city. However, the ban was completely ineffective and was ignored by both men.


Despite his controversial school of thought, Mayerne became hugely popular and incredibly successful. After several instances in which he treated nobility suffering from a Spanish epidemic, he was appointed by the crown to treat Queen Anne I. Knighted in 1624, Mayerne dropped the low-class Turquet portion of his name, and only went by Theodore de Mayerne from then on. He went on to become the most successful physician in London of his time. This portrait is an engraving after an unknown painter’s portrait of him. It was engraved by William Elder (fl. 1680-1701) who often copied earlier portraits for London booksellers in the later seventeenth century.


Image 9: Portrait of Thomas Brugis from his Vade Mecum (London, 1681), frontispiece.


Thomas Brugis’s portrait in Worth’s copy of his Vade Mecum, or Companion to a Chirurgion (London, 1681) is unique in this online exhibition. Not only does it feature the physician himself, but it also depicts the range of his medical interests. On the top left panel, one can see an examination underway, possibly of a head wound. On the top right, a chemist prepares medicine in a laboratory, the walls lined with bottles and jars of various ingredients. The centermost panel features Thomas Brugis himself, dressed in modest clothing and facing the viewer. The bottom two panels show various medical tools, from surgical instruments to bellows used to stoke a fire. One may never know whether Brugis dictated the content of this portrait in its entirety, or if the artist took creative liberty. However, it is apparent that he wished to be seen as a chemist, a surgeon, and a general man of science.


Though his exact date of birth is unknown, it is estimated that Brugis was born sometime between 1610 and 1620. We know this because of his recorded service in the English civil wars, though it is unknown which side he enlisted on. However, his book Vade Mecum, or Companion to a Chirurgion was dedicated to William Cavendish, third earl of Devonshire and a devout royalist. After earning his medical degree, Brugis began practicing surgery and penned two books: The Marrow of Physicke (1640) and Vade Mecum eleven years later. The latter became wildly popular and ran for seven editions. However, none of it is original, which was admitted by Brugis himself. Much of its content was gleaned from other medical books of the time, particularly those of the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-90). This frontispiece portrait was engraved by Thomas Cross (fl. 1644-1682), who was an active, if not entirely accomplished, engraver in seventeenth-century London.


Image 10: Frontispiece portrait of George Wilson and title page of A Compleat Course of Chymistry (London, 1721).


Brugis was not the only chymical author collected by Worth, who was particularly interested in the new pharmaceutical remedies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This exhibition includes a portrait of another, George Wilson (1630-1711), who established himself in London as a chemist in 1665, creating an array of medicines for “Doctors of Physick, Apothecaries, Chirurgions, and others Studious of Physick or Curious in Chymical Operations.” When the plague struck London, Wilson was kept in business by supplying medicines to the afflicted, many of them containing poisons such as arsenic and sulphur. Frightened by his alchemical approach to healing, townspeople destroyed his laboratory in 1688.


Unlike the portrait of Thomas Brugis, George Wilson’s portrait gives us no clue that he was a chemist or a physician. He is depicted in a dignified, gentlemanly manner, dressed in fine robes and labeled in ornate script at the bottom of the picture. The image itself is signed by the engraver Michael van der Gucht (1660-1725) and the draughtsman ‘E. Knight’, who was active in London circa 1700s-1730s. Van der Gucht had been born at Antwerp and traveled to London, where he worked with the famous artist and engraver David Loggan (1635-1700?). He was responsible for many such engraved portraits.


The combination of Vander Gucht’s engraving and the title page presents us with an interesting dichotomy for on the title page of A Compleat Course of Chymistry, Wilson draws specific attention to his profession, signing his work “by George Wilson, Chymist.” Wilson thus projects two different self-perceptions: on the frontispiece portrait he appears as a gentleman of wealth while on the title page he proclaims himself a chymist.


Image 11: Portrait of Thomas Sydenham from Observationes Medicae (London, 1676), frontispiece.


At the age of 17, Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) studied medicine at Oxford and Montpellier. He then went on to practice medicine in London. His innovative treatments and descriptions of ailments such as gout, scarlet fever, smallpox, and malaria ushered in a new age of medicine. He is often considered to be one of the founders of modern medicine and epidemiology. His book Observationes Medicae became the standard for medical textbook for over two centuries, earning him the nickname “The English Hippocrates.” He is credited with discovering Sydenham’s Chorea, a neurological disease also known as St. Vitus’s Dance. The disease is characterized by spastic, irregular movements in the hands and feet that seem to flow from muscle to muscle.


The engraving of Sydenham in Worth’s copy of Syndenham’s Observationes Medicae (London, 1676) is signed ‘Maria Beale pinxit’ and ‘A. Blooteling Sculp.’ Mary Beale (d. 1699) was a well-known English portrait artist whose 1688 oil on canvas portrait of Sydenham now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Abraham Blooteling had been born in Amsterdam in 1640 and in 1676, had travelled to England and where he spent some time working as an engraver. When one compares Blooteling’s engraving with Beale’s original painting we can see that the engraver made significant changes, presenting Sydenham in a much plainer costume than that of Beale’s 1688 portrait. However, there is nothing in both portraits to indicate his occupation. If not for the presence of the title page, which lists “M.D.” after his name, the viewer would not know he was a physician at all. The lack of objects in his portrait shows that Sydenham perhaps wished his work to speak for itself.




Benezit, E., ed. (1960) ‘Blooteling (Abraham)’, Dictionnaire de Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs, Vol. 1, [Paris]: Librarie Grund, p. 711.

Benezit, E., ed. (1961) ‘Gucht (Michael van der)’, Dictionnaire de Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs, Vol. 4, [Paris]: Librarie Grund, p. 473.

Benezit, E., ed. (1961) ‘Kilian (Wolfgang Philipp)’, Dictionnaire de Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs, Vol. 5, [Paris]: Librarie Grund, p. 250.

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Text: Ms Paige Blancett, third-year student of Museum Studies, Arizona State University.

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