Let’s talk about urine.
Trends come and go over time, but one visual motif that hasn’t received the attention it rightly deserves is the painting genre of people holding pee.
They hold great flasks of it – there are paintings of urine being heated over candles, held up to the light to examine and, of course, people casually reclining with a flask full of the stuff (as you do).
Now, these aren’t just any people, because that would be odd – they’re physicians. Still, if you’re anything like me you may have some valid questions like, ‘what on earth’ and ‘why’? So let’s explore this painting niche...
What’s the preoccupation with urine?
Though many of the urine paintings on Art UK date to the 17th and 18th centuries, the practice of uroscopy – the examination of urine – extends back to the ancient Greeks, and information is still gathered from a patient’s urine output today. From a urine analysis, a physician can glean information about hydration, kidney health, and even screen for diabetes. It’s may be one of the first things you do when you register to a new GP with the NHS, and it’s a routine part of pregnancy check-ups.
Without the dipstick tests that you may be familiar with today, a way to analyse urine in the past was to examine the colour. The urine wheel below dates to 1506, and shows twenty different shades of urine and their possible indications – it includes some particularly curious hues like white (not clear) and green. Before modern advances, a physician might smell and even taste the urine sample to suss out any health issues as well.
In a period when there was still much to discover about the body, uroscopy would have been a physician's most powerful tool for diagnosis. A patient’s urine sample could offer insight into the inner happenings of their body, but it’s also fair to say that there were many practices that lacked scientific accuracy. Not only would urine have been examined in cases of illness, but courtesy books from the medieval period show that servants might also examine their master’s chamber pots in the morning to check for disease.
At one point, the practice began to lose its grounding in science while simultaneously growing in popularity with inexperienced physicians. As a result, Thomas Brian published a book in 1679 called The Pisse Prophet that discredited the more dubious elements of uroscopy and aided in its decline in medical practice.
Why so many pee paintings?
Our podcast guest on medieval medicine and art, Jack Hartnell, explained that uroscopy was so closely linked with the work of physicians that urine flasks became part of the iconography of the job, much like a white coat might be linked to doctors today. Seeing the flask in a painting serves as an instant indication that the subject is a physician. Furthermore, on taking a closer look at the physician pictured, one may be able to make a conjecture about the condition of the patient. In most examples, the examiner has a scrutinising expression that wouldn’t give much away, but in some cases, like the above painting of a pregnant woman, the physician looks quite pleased, suggesting a positive assessment of the sample.
These serve as a subset of genre painting, offering a glimpse into a small part of everyday life. One book on uroscopy makes a stylistic connection between paintings depicting alchemy and uroscopy, so it’s possible that these paintings fit into the concurrent craze with alchemy and were created to meet the buying demands of the public.
So, there you have it – the introduction you didn’t know you needed into the world of urine paintings.
Ferren Gipson, Social Media Marketer at Art UK