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The beauty of human decomposition in Japanese watercolor

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9. Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9.
Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers.

I think I might be obsessed with kusozu, Japanese watercolor paintings that graphically depict human decomposition, which were popular between the 13th and 19th centuries; Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages is another series in this genre featured previously on this site.  Kusozu works of art were inspired by Buddhist beliefs and these paintings were meant to encourage people to ponder the temporary nature of the physical world.  Kusozu watercolors also happen to be fantastic early studies of human decay and taphonomy, which is why one series, titled Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, is currently on display as part of the Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibit in London.

According to the Wellcome Collection, Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body was painted some time in the 18th century.  The below scenes include: (1) the woman’s impending death and her preparation for it; (2) the noble woman has just passed away and her loved ones are seated around her; (3) slight skin discoloration (maybe some liver mortis) and a bit of bloating of during early decomposition; (4) the onset of putrefaction with bloating and marbling; (5) advanced decomposition as seen by pervasive marbling, leakage of purge fluid from the mouth, and the abdominal cavity has burst open (6) caving of abdominal cavity and scavenging animals; (7) start of skeletonization and the disappearance of soft tissue; (8) complete skeletonization and scattering of remains; (9) finally human remains have been completely scattered or consumed by unseen animals so all that remains is a memorial for the deceased woman.

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 1 of 9. This first painting depicts a court lady in a kimono is seated indoors with a scroll in her left hand, upon which she has written her farewell poem. Image credit: Wellcome Collections

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 2 of 9. In this painting the woman has died. She is laid on the floor covered in a blanket and is surrounded by loved ones. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 3 of 9.
The woman’s body has been laid outside and there are early signs of bloating and discoloration. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 4 of 9. Putrefaction has started with marbling and bloating. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 5 of 9.
The body of the noble woman has entered an advance state of decay that shows purge fluid escaping the mouth, the abdominal cavity has burst open, and maybe signs of skin slippage. Image Credit: The Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 6 of 9.
Decomposition continues with the help of scavengers. Image credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 7 of 9.
The body has started to skeletonize; much of the soft tissue has been removed. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 8 of 9
The body has completely skeletonized and many of the bones have been scattered or carried away by unseen scavengers. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body, panel 9 of 9.
In this final image the human remains are completely gone and all that remains is a memorial structure upon which the woman’s Buddhist death-name is written in Sanskrit. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

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