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The cast of the crucified body of an executed murderer

The cast of James Legg during the 2012 MOLA exhibition. To see full size image go to the BBC.

In the 19th century many artists forged relationships with surgeons and medical schools because cadavers were needed in anatomy classes, like those taught at the Royal Academy of Arts.  However, the supply of cadavers was in very short supply because English medical schools could only legally dissect the corpses of executed criminals, that is until the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed.

In 1801 unique opportunity presented itself when an artistic debate about crucifixion was sparked among the sculptor Thomas Bank, and artists Benjamin West and Richard Crossway. The three Royal Academicians wanted to demonstrate that historical artistic depictions of Christ on the cross were anatomically inaccurate.

Photo via MOLA of a sculpture conservator working on the 19th century cast.

With the help of Joseph Constantine Carpue, a well-known surgeon, the artists acquired the body of James Legg, a 73-year-old captain from the Chelsea Hospital who was hanged for murdering a fellow pensioner. Immediately after Legg’s execution, his body was taken from the gallows and nailed to a cross. After the cadaver settled, it was taken to Carpue’s anatomy school where it was flayed to remove all skin, and cast in plaster by Banks.

The Royal Academy still has the cast and will occasionally lend it out of exhibitions. In 2012 the cast of James Legg’s body was on display at the Museum of part of their Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition.


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