Body of a courtesan in nine stages: A 19th century study of decomposition

Painting, handscroll. Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition. Ink and colour on silk. Image credit: The British Museum

Painting, handscroll. Body of a courtesan in nine stages of decomposition. Ink and colour on silk. Image credit: The British Museum

“Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages” was painted on handscroll by Japanese artist Kobayashi Eitaku in the 1870’s. It’s not unusual for artists to study corpses and body parts because of their need to learn about the human form, and because of the historical connection between the science of anatomy and artistic illustration.  What makes this style unique is that it’s part of a Japanese artistic tradition devoted specifically to the study of human postmortem changes that stretches back hundreds of years.

“Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages” is an example of kusozu, the illustration of a decomposing corpse, that was popular in Japanese art from about the 13th to 19th centuries.  Kusozu was inspired by Buddhist beliefs that urged followers to meditate on the temporary nature of life and the physical world by contemplating postmortem changes.  The below panels illustrate nine stages of death that include: (1) dying; (2) newly deceased or fresh; (3) skin discoloration and bloat during early decomposition; (4) leakage of blood in early decomposition; (5) skin slippage, marbling, and leakage of purge fluid during early decomposition; (6) caving of abdominal cavity and exposure of internal organs during advanced decomposition; (7) animal scavenging during advanced decomposition; (8) skeletonization; and (9) extreme decomposition.

Though the painting maybe religious and/or scientific in nature, according to the British Museum it also has erotic themes. Because the subject matter is a courtesan, the curator notes for this piece at the British Museum say that this handscroll also falls into the genre of erotic art, or shunga.  The word shunga means picture of spring in Japanese.  The word “spring” is a common synonym for sex.

Below are all 9 panels.  All images come from The British Museum. AN00603867_001_l   18p65ca13gi7yjpg   18p65cvqiip09jpg   18p65dfgue5c2jpg 18p65e1629981jpg 18p65ekwahxjtjpg 18p65f8kn8fx9jpg 18p65fsayrfe5jpg 18p65gfzk9q7bjpg

Categories: Art and Ephemera


9 replies

  1. Interesting…and oddly accurate.

  2. I have been looking for these pictures all over the web, museums etc.. thanks.


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