This fascinating collection of historical skeleton drawings from the Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine reveals attitudes about death and the preoccupations of artists during the time period. Curator Anne Garner introduced us to the series of morbid drawings and engravings:
The tradition of portraying skeletons as living, emotive beings has been long-established. The first full-scale attempts to accurately represent the human body beginning in the sixteenth century featured skeletons and partially dissected figures, sometimes called “muscle men.” These images, first produced in Italy and later, in the Dutch centers of Leiden and Amsterdam, were the result of close collaboration between anatomist and a hired artist, who worked together to accurately render the human form. Many of these depictions, innovative in their presentation of bones and muscle groups, were concerned not only with perfecting the body’s representation, but also with the moral condition of being dead and dissected.
Taking their cue from Dance of Death imagery which came into fashion in the Late Middle ages, skeletal forms beginning in the 1520s were staged against macabre backdrops, often incorporating tombs, hourglasses, and in at least one instance, the River Styx. Dissected figures were animated, and portrayed acting very alive. These figures are frequently depicted with expressive faces conveying outrage, pain, and sorrow. They grieve for their own deaths. They’re visually arresting because of how human they are, even as they are reduced to bones. This combination of dead and living elements is what chills, and terrifies, even today.
The following images from the collections of the Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for the History of Medicine offer a glimpse at some of the loveliest — and strangest — of these dynamic cadavers.
It’s good to be dead… or so suggests this very early skeleton by anatomist Berengario da Carpi, who smiles and swings his hips and arms in front of an Italian landscape, seemingly unfazed by his own demise. The iconography is consistent with the sinister Dance of Death tradition of dancing cadavers in late medieval and early Renaissance art. For this artist and his contemporaries, animating the skeleton counteracted the harsh realities of dissection — an unpleasant business no matter how you cut it. It also allowed these artists to illustrate the way the bones and muscles would have worked in a living, breathing body.
Early European anatomists performing dissections used executed criminals as their subjects. Most desirable were the bodies of criminals who were hung, since they could be taken down quickly post-mortem, their bodies intact. A sentence of death by hanging could spook even the most hardened criminals. Prescient of Optimus Prime, this flayed convict stars as one of 14 muscle men in progressive states of bodily undress. The book was the most revolutionary anatomy text of all time, Andreas Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543). Some scholars believe the stellar engravings, set in front of a Paduan landscape, were drawn by Jan van Kalchar, a student of Titian’s.
The rangy cogitator pictured, sometimes called “The Hamlet,” seem to be doing a lot of looking for a dead guy without eyes. In this famous plate by Vesalius’ artist, our dearly departed subject’s contemplative pose and firm grip on the skull atop the tomb before him suggests simultaneously that he has given death some thought, but may not fully comprehend his own mortality. The tomb bears the inscription: “Genius lives on, all else is mortal.”
Cheer up, old chap! This howling cadaver by the Vesalian artist seems the most tortured of the sixteenth century cadavers, and, spade in hand, it’s easy to see why. In his own work, Vesalius established the convention of the skeleton posed leaning on spear, spade, scythe or trident, both for decoration, and to add stability to the body. Vesalius’ innovative illustrations routinely appeared in subsequent anatomical works, both with and without attribution.
The earliest rendering of brother and sister in skeleton-form may just occur in this curious etching, by Abel Stimmer for Felix Platter’s Corporis humani partium, printed in 1581. A child skeleton, ferrying a toy bow and arrow akin to those belonging to Cupid, holds the hand of his little brother, here pictured as a two-month-old fetal skeleton. The slightly surprised look on the oldest child’s face, coupled with the youngest’s devilish grin suggest a little sibling rivalry. Status quo, apparently, even among the corpse set.
The pensive figure at the center of anatomist and playwright Govaert Bidloo’s exquisite anatomical atlas is depicted the instant after he’s emerged from his open tomb, his silky shroud tossed carelessly aside. Our dead man’s gaze is down-cast and vacant, as if he’s stricken by his own death. In his hand, he holds an hourglass; he’s out of time. Cyprus trees, classical icons of death, loom in the background. The artist of the plates, Gerard de Lairesse, studied with Rembrandt but embraced a more neoclassical tone than his teacher.
Yikes! In this unsettling image, two lounging human skeletons prop themselves up irreverently on what appears to be a planet, or heavenly body, seemingly deep in conversation. A third winged skeleton listens intently. Visible within the orb are the cadavers and skulls of many bodies — rich and poor, the inscription tells us — in various states of decomposition. The grip of death is universal. Genga was anatomist at the Roman hospital of Santo Spirito as well as professor of anatomy at the French Academy; his co-author Lancisi was the pope’s personal physician. The image itself was made by Italian artist Charles Errard.
In some of the truly weirdest anatomical imagery of the eighteenth century, Frederick Ruysch created large-scale dioramas featuring fetal skeletons, posed whimsically among gall-stone hills and rocks and boulders composed of mummified bladders. Three of Ruysch’s creepy compositions were replicated in engravings, including this one by Cornelis Huyberts. At center, a four-month fetus grasps a string of pearls, near a bird perched on a vascular tree. Two baby friends flanking him, one staring intently at a scythe, the other blubbering into a handkerchief. With more than a hint of whimsy, Ruysch’s compositions imparted a warning about the brevity of life.
If C-3PO ever time-traveled to the countryside estate of Mr. Rochester, this might be the scene. In this large copperplate, a deeply dissected skeleton idles near a fallen urn; in death there is no rush back to the business of the manor.
To achieve optimal anatomical accuracy, Albinus and his artist Jan Wandelaar devised a complicated pulley system, suspending a cadaver preserved in vinegar from the ceiling in the desired pose. A living “thin man” was posed nearby. Despite the scientific attention to detail and their late date, the images of the Tabulae were surprisingly Romantic and reminiscent of the anatomies of a century and a half before; the artist also returned to a Vesalian emphasis on landscape.
Like the other artists in this group, Albinus showed his subjects in both posterior and anterior views, to illustrate the complete structure of muscles, tendons, and in this case, bones. This beautiful skeleton, perfect in his proportion and the accurate rendering of his frame, wanders among the tombs in a verdant landscape, probably a cemetery. Atop the monument before him is a reclining deity of the River Styx, the river that formed the boundary between Earth and the underworld in Greek mythology.
You guessed right: this fetching cadaver is, in fact, a lady. Though the skull is too small for the body and the rib-cage appears corseted (tight-lacing was fashionable even among the seventeenth-century undead, it seems), this tall and elegant skeleton is one of the earliest accurate anatomical illustrations to depict a woman. Here pictured tomb-side, per convention, she’d be equally at home on a catwalk in Hades. In the eighteenth century, medical scholarship began to focus on skeletal male and female differences — a roomier pelvis, for example. This new research focus was reflected in anatomical illustration. A French anatomist — a woman — supervised all the illustrations in this book.
French artist Jacques Gamelin, the artist depicting this busted party, was not shy in his criticism of traditional anatomical illustrations. Trained in Toulouse and Paris, he spent his sizable inheritance to produce the varied illustrations in this book. Here, a gaggle of skeletons ambush a courtly gathering, grabbing at the women’s skirts and hair. The dress and hairstyles of the men and women evoke Marie Antoinette’s reign (the Queen was in power at the time the book went to print).
No, it’s not a still from the Grateful Dead video “Touch of Grey.” Turn up the volume on this etching of these melodic cadavers and you’re more likely to hear the Dance of Death playing. Compositions featuring dancing skeletons had a strong iconographical presence in the late Middle Ages, a period of plague and epidemic. This “living dead” quartet offered an eighteenth century reprise of medieval and early Renaissance fears about mortality. In spite of this plate’s fanciful subject, the skeletons pictured are anatomically accurate, as in many of Gamelin’s plates.
Is your hair-standing on end yet? The wail of the skeletal gent in Jacques Gamelin’s nineteenth-century engraving is almost audible. Here, our living dead figure awakens grumpily, startled by the shriek of the trumpet call of the Last Judgement. The inscription, “Surgite mortui venite ad Judicium” translates, “Arise, dead one, and come to Judgement.” The pile of heads stowed away in the corner and the empty hourglass that’s fallen from the figure’s hand drive home the theme of death’s inevitability.
Boo! The winged skeleton in this image has been called both “Time” and “Death,” but whoever he is he’s most certainly not human — at least not anymore. Drawn by Jacques Gamelin, our man, terrible in his glee — or is it a shriek? — holds artwork featuring several nude drawings; behind him, the floor and table are littered with bones.
Gamelin, artist and engraver and not a physician, was critical of the unvaried poses of previous anatomical figures. Our bony wing man, depicted in an unusual stance with one foot on a step and unrolling a scroll, may have had the last laugh: he’s a breakout skeleton in a new mold.
This early woodcut of a skull from 1537 by the early anatomist John Dryander offers one of the first anatomical illustrations of a skull based on early dissections. Like many early anatomical drawings, the scene is emphatic in its preoccupation with mortality: the skull is mounted to a sundial inscribed “Inevitable fatum” (death), and paired with a sands of time hourglass. Clouds, hovering like thought bubbles, populate the periphery, seemingly rendering this open-jawed skull mid-sentence, and imbuing him with an eerie Tales from the Crypt look.