Studying Depictions of Nurses During World War I: Images from Religious Art in Red Cross Posters

This post is by Keely Shaw, a 2020 Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress.

This summer, I worked as an intern with the Learning and Innovation Office of the Library of Congress to research a group of primary sources from the Library’s online collections related to public health for educators. As the project developed, it became more clearly focused on public health nurses during the interwar period, but I held onto some of the sources I found in the early days of research, including these posters from the Red Cross during World War I, with the hope I would be able to share them at some point.

These posters are rich sources full of color and symbolism, some of which we talked about in a previous post where we examined gender. While most of the Red Cross posters can be analyzed or read in distinctly gendered ways, there is a subset that carries clear references to imagery from religious art. Two posters that stand out in particular are titled “Greatest Mother in the World” and “Keep this Hand of Mercy at its Work.” Both employ references to religious imagery through common iconography from Christian traditions, but in very different ways.

The Greatest Mother in the World – Red Cross Christmas roll call December 16-23rd. A.E Foringer, 1918

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica

The first poster, the Greatest Mother, seems to be directly modeled after another piece of art, Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. In Michelangelo’s work, the biblical figures of Mary and Jesus are shown, with Mary holding the body of Jesus after his death. This iconic image, which has been reproduced widely since its creation, is employed in this poster, but rather than biblical figures it shows a nurse cradling the body of a soldier.

Keep This Hand of Mercy at its Work One Hundred Million Dollars: War Fund Week. P.G. Morgan, 1918

The second poster, Keep this Hand of Mercy at its Work, also uses an image widely recognized from religious art, though it isn’t one that began with Michelangelo. Instead, this poster calls on a tradition that can be found in art ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day – one that uses a hand from above to symbolize the actions of God, like in this stained glass window from the 1950s. Similar to the window, in this poster a hand reaches down from the clouds in a ray of light, only it is clearly the arm of a nurse.

Guide students through an exploration of these posters with these questions in mind:

  • Why did the creators choose these types of images? What messages do the images send?
  • Do these works remind your students of other, more modern advertisements?
  • How is common cultural knowledge of populations, like art or religion, used by different entities to promote their goals? Why?

While I have my own theories as to why the artists chose these images, there is a lot of room for interpretation. The end goal is not to have a concrete answer, but to have questioned the motivations of the artists and creators, and understand how religious or cultural imagery might be used to persuade people.


One Comment

  1. Karon Altman
    August 20, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    I really enjoyed this article

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