In the 17th and 18th centuries, makers of osteological specimens built fanciful displays with skeletons standing in landscapes made with embalmed human organs, skeletons dangling hearts on a string like a yo-yo, or specimens playing instruments while sitting on a pedestal. While these kinds of anatomical specimens may seem morbid today, a couple hundred years ago they were considered just as scientific as artistic, and were a common part of museum collections.
These early anatomists created sculptures out of human remains to get the public interested in human anatomy and reduce any disgust felt about showing human skeletons. Any aversion people might have felt towards the presentation of human cadavers was likely due to the association that corpses had with capital punishment because of commonplace public executions, the fact that executioners displayed the decomposing bodies of criminals for months and years for added insult, and until the mid-18th century anatomists could only dissect cadavers obtained from the gallows. Because any hangman could display a dead body, early anatomists likely felt the need to separate their work from that of the executioner by presenting anatomical specimens with artistic flourishes.
Preparers of anatomical specimens were also inspired by Andreas Vesalius’ famous book of illustrations De humani corporis fabrica (“On the fabric of the human body”) in which Vesalius chose to have his flayed figures and skeletons drawn in classical poses like any painting or sculpture from that period. It is in the tradition of anatomy as art that anatomists like Frederick Ruysch and Jean-Joseph Sue père prepared their osteological specimens.
Rembrandt of Anatomical Preparation
Frederick Ruysch (1638 – 1731) helped to make the study of human anatomy socially acceptable by creating art out of wet specimens and skeletal tableaus. Ruysch said that he produced his famous preparations “to allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the site of corpses (Kooijmans 2014).”
Ruysch was a Dutch anatomist and botanist who made advancements in anatomical and botanical preservation, was the chief instructor of Amsterdam’s midwives, and a forensic consultant to the courts of Amsterdam. Ruysch’s work is considered especially macabre because of his use of fetal remains, but for him these were just as much scientific and artistic (Kooijmans 2014).
Ruysch’s secret method of preserving his wet specimens made “the tiniest parts of the human body clear to the eye (Kooijmans 2014).” This substance supposedly did not congeal until it saturated the blood vessels and tissue retained its color and malleability. Once Ruysch injected his specimen with this material they were placed in glass jars filled with a clear liquid he called liquor balsamicus. These glass jars were topped with flowering lids that were covered in flowers, shells and fish.
His specimens not only showcased his skill as an anatomist but also as an artist, particularly in the case of his tableaus. He prepared about a dozen dioramas with fetal remains displayed on landscapes made out of embalmed human organs. Skeletons held handkerchiefs made out of membranes, snakes and worms made out of intestines, and trees were made out of dried vessels and bronchioles (Kooijmans 2014, Ebenstein 2010).
“Those who entered were immediately confronted with a tomb containing various skeletons and skeletal remains. Among them was the skull of a newborn baby placed in a box, next to a sign with the motto: ‘no head, however strong, escapes cruel death’. The tomb also contained the skeleton of a boy of three, holding the skeleton of a parrot, which had been placed there as an allusion to the saying ‘time flies’.”
Visitors to Ruysch’s museum also observed skeletons of children of various ages holding objects symbolic of the fleeting existence of the physical realm (Kooijmans 2014).
“Visitors were confronted with the skeletons of a child of four with a toy in its hands, a five-year-old holding a silk thread with an embalmed heart dangling from it, and a girl drying her eyes with a pocket handkerchief. Decorations, memento mori images and vanitas symbols put the horror of death in perspective by stressing the transience of life, by showing that the body was no more than an earthly frame for the soul. After death it no longer served its purpose – only an anatomist could still make it useful to the living.”
According to Kooijmans, not only were these objects symbolic but his use of human bodies was meant to show that the body was useful only to the anatomist after death to further science (Kooijmans 2014).
Ruysch’s work became so famous that Tsar Peter the Great of Russia purchased his entire collection in 1717. This formed the basis for the scientific collection at Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg. After he sold his collection, Ruysch started a new one that was sold to the King Poland after his death.
Preparer of a ‘Symmetrically Deformed Skeleton’
French surgeon and anatomist Jean-Joseph Sue père’s (1710-1792) career and specimen collection also illustrate the intersection of art and anatomy. He was a professor at the College Royal de Chirurgie (Royal College of Surgery) and the Academie de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Paining and Sculpture). He authored many papers on anatomy and surgery, created an estimated 200 anatomical plates, and translated Alexander Munro’s paper “Anatomy of the Bones” into French. Sue is also known to have had an osteology collection with skeletal tableaux similar to those created by Frederick Ruysch.
One skeletal tableau created by Sue is known as the “Macabre Altar” and is described in Katherine Hoffman’s article “Wandering in the company of skeletons: Imaginaries of the body across anatomy and art,” “It has three fetal skeletons, one holding a scythe and the other a stylus with a feather, and a mummified fetus.” In 1829, Sue’s son donated this piece to the Musée des Beaux Arts and is one of the few surviving fetal tableaus (Hoffman).
Although unconfirmed, I believe the below image is of Jean-Joseph Sue père’s “Macabre Altar” because the description of the tableau from Hoffman’s article is extremely similar to the below picture. Also, this fetal skeletal tableau was photographed by Joanna Ebenstein, of the Morbid Anatomy blog, at a “University back room in Paris,” and it’s known that “Macabre Altar” was donated to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Paris. However, the tableau in Ebenstein’s photograph is of a 17th century specimen and Sue wasn’t born until the 18th century.
There is another example from the Sue family collection at the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne. This is a pathological skeleton that holds a wooden recorder and sits on Baroque-style pedestal with its head cocked to one side. This specimen looks like a jolly character (for a skeleton) and reminds me of Danse Macabre paintings. Danse Macabre is a medieval artistic genre that consists of dancing skeletons, some of which play instruments, and encourage the living dance to the grave. What makes this skeleton unusual is not its theatrical display but its osteological abnormalities: curved limbs, a small pelvis, two femurs joined by a single patella, a single tibia and fibula, and a single fully formed foot (Milk 2014).
According to Annelisse Milk (2014) in her article “Mystery and music in the anatomy museum,” George Halford brought this pathological specimen to Melbourne in 1862 when he was hired by the University as its first professor of anatomy, physiology, and pathology (Milk 2014). Halford’s notes state that the skeleton belonged to a 28-year-old beggar who used to play his flute on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris around the time of the French Revolution. Milk suggests that Jean-Joseph Sue père‘s spendthrift grandson Eugene may have sold the skeleton to a man named Pierre Alfred Raginel, who later immigrated from Paris. Pierre started Messrs. Raginel & Co in London, a business that sold anatomical specimens, where Halford is known to have purchased the specimen (Milk 2014).
Halford believed that rickets may have been responsible for flute player’s skeletal deformities, but Milk asserts that sirenomelia is also a good candidate for the abnormalities (Milk 2014). Sirenomelia is a rare congenital deformity where the legs are fused together, because the lower limbs look like a mermaid’s tail it is also called Mermaid Syndrome. This condition occurs in about one out of every 100,000 births (Milk 2014). Milk points out that the problems with the sirenomelia diagnosis is the manifestation of the disease in this specimen and the mortality rate of the disease (Milk 2014).
First, the Halford skeleton doesn’t fit into any of the subtypes of sirenomelia (Fitzharris 2014):
- Sirenomelia dipus: two femora, two tibiae, fused fibulae, and two fused feet.
- Sirenomelia unipus: fused femora, two tibiae, no fibulae, and one undeveloped foot.
- Sirenomelia apus: one fused femora and tibiae, no fibulae, and no feet
The Halford skeleton features two fully developed femurs, one patella, one tibia, and one fibula, and a fully developed foot (Milk 2014). But this alone is not a problem because there have been other verified cases of Sirenomelia that don’t fit any of the classifications (Milk 2014).
Secondly, there are no known cases of anyone surviving infancy with Sirenomelia, much less someone who makes it to adulthood. This is due to the severe organ deformities associated with the disease (Milk 2014, Fitzharris 2014). About half of all cases result in stillbirth, and the infants that survive birth usually die within a few days because of gastrointestinal and urogenital complications like a missing or blocked anus, undeveloped kidneys, and absent genitals (Milk 2014). But according to forensic analysis the skeleton belongs to an 18-year-old Caucasian (Milk 2014).
The Halford skeleton was recently the subject of CT scans at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in an effort to find out if it is indeed a case of Sirenomelia (Milk 2014).
Most of these artistic osteological preparations were destroyed in the 19th century because museums and universities were afraid they were too morbid. Many of Ruysch’s wet specimens can still be seen at the Kunstkamera. None of his tableaus are known to exist and are only known because of engravings by Cornelius Huyberts. Unfortunately most of the Sue Collection was either sold off or destroyed.
Special thanks to:
- Jason Benjamin, Conservation Programs Co-ordinator of the Cultural Collections Unit at the University of Melbourne, and Dr Ryan Jefferies, Curator at the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology and Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Science at The University of Melbourne for permission to use the picture of the Halford skeleton. Follow the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology on Facebook.
- Joanna Ebenstein, Creative Director, The Morbid Anatomy Museum, for letting me use the photo of the fetal skeleton tableau from Paris. Follow Morbid Anatomy on Twitter and Facebook.
Ebenstein, J. (2010). Announcing a new virtual museum dedicated to Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731): Anatomical artist, museologist, Morbid Anatomy patron saint! Retrieved from: http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.com/2010/01/announcing-new-virtual-museum-dedicated.html.
Fitzharris, L. (2014). Disturbing disorders: Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome). Retrieved from: http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2014/09/09/disturbing-disorders-sirenomelia-mermaid-syndrome/
Hoffman, K. A. (n.d.) Wandering in the company of skeletons: imaginaries of the body across anatomy and art. Retrieved from: http://filter.org.au/in-other-words/wandering-in-the-company-of-skeletons-imaginaries-of-the-body-across-anatomy-and-art/
Kooijmans, L. (2014). Frederik Ruysch: The artist of death. Retrieved from: http://publicdomainreview.org/2014/03/05/frederik-ruysch-the-artist-of-death/
Milk, A. (2014). Mystery and music in the anatomy museum. University of Melbourne Collections. Issue 14, June 2014.