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ExhibitionPicturing a Woman’s Mission: Service to Humanity

Ideas about women, health care, and healing in Western cultures have religious and cultural origins reaching back to ancient times. Later, with the coming of Christianity, the care of the sick is largely undertaken by religious nursing orders, such as the Sisters of Charity.

Images of nurses in the European art traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries are often based on ancient Classical and Christian feminine archetypes such as healer, handmaiden, mother, angel, and guardian or warrior.

  • A White female dressed Classically as Hygeia, pouring the contents of a vase on an altar.

    Hygea “The First Nurse,” 1933

    Produced by Ring Sanatorium and Hospital Inc., Arlington Heights, MA

    Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, is often thought of as the first nurse. Daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine, Hygeia was in charge of cleanliness and preventative medicine in the religious cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world.

  • A large winged woman angel with Red Cross symbol on her chest. Women bring their children to her.

    Promotional postcard portraying an angelic nurse, 1916

    Created by Ezio Anichini (1886—1948)

    Produced by Italian Red Cross

    The archangel Gabriel with a red cross enfolds suffering humanity in her protective cloak. In Christian art and literature, female angels are often associated with spiritual cleansing of the body and mind; they are also agents of hope and compassion, appearing to those in need of moral guidance and enlightenment.

  • A woman in white carrying a shield and axe (fasces), in front of four hissing black snakes.

    Anti-Tuberculosis Campaign, ca. 1935

    Created by G. Saccomani

    Produced by Anti-Tuberculosis Consortium of the Province of Udine, Italy

    Postcards to raise public awareness often drew on ancient religious and cultural associations between women and health; here the nurse is imagined as a battle-axe-wielding Amazon. In 1902 an international conference, convened to discuss the problem of tuberculosis, adopted the Cross of Lorraine to symbolize the fight against the disease.

  • A White female nurse holding a White baby, with nine White children around her in a village.

    The Visiting Nurse, United States, 1911

    The nurse, cradling a baby and dressed similarly to a nun in a veil and habit, is shown as a Christian mother figure. This imagery was designed to appeal to respectable middle class women and encourage them to volunteer to visit the poor in their own homes, this work became known as ‘women’s mission.’

  • A White female Red Cross nurse with wings gazing at the viewer with arms open.

    The Real Angel of Mons, ca. 1915

    Produced by Inter-Art Co., London

    Nurses working on the battlefields of war were frequently depicted as angels; sometimes, when wounded soldiers are shown close to death, they appear beside them, ethereal and unearthly. Here she is given concrete form, a symbol of healing, spiritual comfort and hope for the future.

  • Winged White female with Red Cross symbol on her chest tending to a bandaged praying soldier.

    1st Compagnia Sanita Ospedale Militare-Torino (1st Sanitary Company Military Hospital of Turin), ca. 1916

    Produced by 1st Sanitary Company Military Hospital of Turin, Italy

  • White female nurse holding a spoon to the mouth of a wounded White male soldier in bed.

    Per i feriti in guerra (For the wounded in war), ca. 1915

    Created by Luigi Fiorini

  • White man in a hospital bed holding a book, a White female nurse stands over him.

    His Overseas Mother, United States, ca. 1918