Serpent Reverence During the Renaissance


Most ancient religions made reservations for the snake as a symbol of wisdom. The symbol of the Medical Profession, the caduceus,[1] comes mainly from Asclepius, son of the Roman God Apollo, who is traditionally held to be the father of medical practice after watching a snake bring healing herbs to another snake.[2]

Renaissance artwork that portrays the Genesis narrative always includes the serpent in its traditional role, but there are many cases where it was used as a symbol of virtue.

In Saint Symbolism, John the Evangelist (arguably the writer of John’s Gospel) is often portrayed with a chalice… and a snake![3] This symbolism is largely lost to history, one of those esoteric Renaissance symbols for which the meaning was such a tightly held secret that no one today remembers it with anything even remotely resembling accuracy.

The snake is even featured prominently on Elizabeth I’s sleeve in the famous “Rainbow Portrait,” in which she is arguably portrayed as a kind of mythical Flora figure. It would seem that here the snake represents wisdom, as it did in many ancient cults, showing that Elizabeth I reigned with her head, not her heart.

To this day we hold the snake with respect and honor, a symbol of wisdom in an age of foolishness.

[1] Some scholars argue that it was originally the Symbol of Hermes, a symbol of commerce.

[2] Edelstein, Ludwig and Emma Edelstein. Asclepius: a Collection and Interpretation of the Testamonies. Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998. pg. 68

[3] Piero di Cosimo, St. John the Evangelist, oil on panel, 1504-6, Honolulu Museum of Art, USA; see also Saint John and the Poisoned Cup by Alonzo Cano Spain (1635-1637) and Saint John and the cup by El Greco

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