Todays photo is of a bronze medallion on the vestibule floor of the Adams Buildings 2nd Street entrance. I have walked over it for several years and was curious about the imagery.
The symbolism of the torch – often a symbol of knowledge, learning, and enlightenment, is obvious and makes sense in the context of the Library. After all, torches, lamps, and other symbols of light are used quite a bit around the Library – we even have a torch on top of the Jefferson Building dome. However, the two serpents on the medallion confused me. They did bring to mind two well known symbols that are remarkably similar, so it was there that I looked for enlightenment.
First, I investigated symbols used by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and many other professional medical organizations. Their symbols have a single serpent wrapped around what looks to be a staff. This is the Rod (or Staff) of Aesculapius (Asclepius), the Greek god associated with healing and medicine.
Since the Rod of Aesculapius has one serpent instead of two, that didnt seem to be the answer for the medallion. Then I looked to a second symbol – one that is often confused with the Rod of Aesculapius. It is the Caduceus which was carried by Hermes (and Mercury in Roman mythology) and it has two serpents facing each other twined around a staff. This seemed much more likely. Hermes is the Greek god of transitions and boundaries and acted as the messenger of the gods, as well as being considered the patron god of invention and trade–and he does appear on the bronze doors of the Adams Building. His Roman counterpart Mercury was known as the patron of commerce.
Seen in that light, what is on our vestibule floor makes a bit more sense. The artist used the more known mythological symbol of the Caduceus and modified it for the mission of the Library by using the torch symbolizing knowledge. This doesnt really explain the serpents facing outward, but I wonder if the artist chose to have them facing away from the torch to symbolize the Librarys mission to spread knowledge.
After the creation of the Science & Business Reading Room on the 5th floor of the Adams Building, this medallion took on additional meaning. The Rod of Aesculapius and the Caduceus can also be seen to symbolize the subject areas of the reading room itself – science and medicine on one side and communication, trade, and commerce on the other.