Hundreds of years ago, doctors did not have easy access to cadavers or examples of disease to learn from. Even those who had seen a dead body during medical school lost the chance to bone up on things as autopsies were illegal in many places and cadavers for scientific dissection were rare. An art form developed whereby wax works were made of the human body and the diseases it can suffer from. Not only wax works were used; doctors also prepared anatomical specimens as teaching tools which are now considered artistic objects in museums around the world.
These three skulls, which show the ages of death of each of person, are rather shocking. It is difficult to realize they aren’t just skulls in a museum but what is left of three young men who walked the earth, lived, loved and died just as we will.
The Josephinum: Vienna, Austria “Anatomical Venus” Wax model with human hair in rosewood and Venetian glass case; Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence, 1781-1786
Joanna Ebenstein is a photographer and historian. She traveled to numerous medical museums around the world to document the objects that were considered important during different times and eras. Joanna put them all together in a gallery called the “Anatomical Theater” and we look at some of these fantastic but eerie acquisitions here.
A wax model of human entrails in a body spilling from a beautiful woman juxtaposes beauty with reality. The coloration makes me think it is meant to be of a diseased body as other models have a more natural coloration.
“La Specola” (Museo di Storia Naturale): Florence, Italy; Wax model in rosewood and Venetian glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
In this image are the ribs and the musculature surrounding them. Note that they have the body in a very life-like pose, both for ease of a 360 degree viewing and to make it as realistic as possible
“La Specola” (Museo di Storia Naturale): Florence, Italy; “The Slashed Beauty”Wax model with human hair in rosewood and Venetian Glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
Most of these are wax models, some are actual remains and all were used to teach anatomy and disease. Joanna has this to say: “These artefacts were created to teach medical and surgical students in a time when cadavers were difficult or illegal to come by. These preserved objects – be they skeletal, actual human remains, or depictions of the body in various forms of media – were invaluable teaching aids – portable, durable and easy to understand.”
Above is a set of intestines spilling out, beautifully made, natural in color with the blood vessels and other minutiae included.
The Josephinum: Vienna, Austria Wax models with human hair in rosewood and Venetian glass cases; Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence, 1781-1786
Joanna finds that death is the central problem of humanity. It brings reason and meaning to our culture and shows what is really important in life. Without death we would not have the same ability to appreciate life. In many ways North America is unique among cultures when it comes to death; in European fine arts it is celebrated and diverse while people in the US are not as exposed to images of death as part of the cycle of life.
“The objects on display here have a great deal more to teach us than simply how the lymph node system functions or how to diagnose syphilis,” says Ebenstein. “They function also as cultural/ historical artefacts, revealing the world-views of their eras and cultures, such as notions of gender, race and class, shifting ideas about the ideal body versus the aberration, and the ways in which scientific objects should be presented.”
Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum (Pathologisch-anatomisches Bundesmuseum): Vienna, Austria,Wax moulages; Probably by Carl Henning (1860-1917) or Theodor Henning (1897-1946); Early 20th Century
Here is a collection of faces, some with diseases or deformities. What I find interesting is the covering around the wax models – very reminiscent of the draping technique used in surgery where the rest of the body is walled off from view with only the part to be examined on display.
The Vrolik: Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Anatomical preparation; 1900
Here we have a pathological specimen of a child’s brain, prepared for viewing. This sort of thing was key to anatomists and doctors as the only way for them to understand what was going on underneath the skull. It has a beauty of its own, the child preserved forever.
The Vrolik: Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Anatomical preparation; 19th Century
Our culture and daily surroundings make up what we consider to be acceptable or unacceptable as well as what beauty is. In some cultures, overweight women are the most beautiful while in others the skinnier the better. Both are correct according to the values of their society. It is the same with medical and anatomical preparations. Different cultures view them in vastly different ways. Some consider any actual preparations as desecrating the body while of course others find them of scientific and artistic beauty. Even wax models generate differing reactions depending on the society someone grows up in, from wonder to matter of fact to disgust.
Hunterian Museum: London, England; Part of John Hunter’s collection of specimens illustrating morbid anatomy; Acquired or prepared by John Hunter (1728-1793)
Some will look at these preparations of anatomical parts as disgusting while others from different societies will think of them as useful and beautiful.
“They reveal the artistic hand and aesthetic sense of their creators with a surprising and sometimes macabre beauty. And, once we acknowledge these as objects created by individuals making aesthetic choices, it is easy to take the next step and speculate on their nature as art objects,” Ebenstein says.
Hunterian Museum: London, England; A portion of a foot with a piece of the epidermis reflected at the site of a corn to show the depression in the underlying skin caused by the conical form of the corn; Acquired or prepared by John Hunter (1728-1793)
The Mütter Museum: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pathological models, backroom; Joseph Towne, 19th Century
The two images above are a pathological preparation and an anatomical wax work which is so true to life, I had to check the notes on the card under them to be sure which was which. Compare the wax model of hands to the real feet in the first image. These are artists whose works are as recognisable to curators and experts as Van Gogh’s are to others.
Gordon Museum: London, England; Pathological wax models; Joseph Towne, Circa 19th Century
This picture fascinates me, I wonder what message the curator of the museum wanted to send by putting teacups in front of each face? A reminder that even though they are wax models these represent real people? Or that even though objects now, we must not completely objectify them?
Whatever it was, this journey through the galleries of medical museums teaches us much about the eras the exhibits are from. The teaching aids needed, how doctors learned and perhaps most importantly, how they viewed the body and death.
Please see many more of Joanna’s images in the gallery here.