In one of my earlier posts Making art out of dead things, I ruminated on the curious tradition of constructing art objects out of dead stuff. This ‘dead stuff’ ranged from taxidermic kittens and artfully-arranged insects to formaldehyde-preserved sharks and the bones of Italian monks. To this macabre list, I would now like to add the dioramas of the 18th-century Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch.
I first learned of Ruysch’s dioramas while conducting research for my Master’s thesis last year. One of my advisers, a professor of Anthropology at York University who shares my fascination with the unusual and bizarre, sent me a link to the Zymoglyphic Museum, a web site that contains a wealth of information on the curious intersection of art with science. According to this site, Frederick Ruysch (1638-1731) was a pioneer in preservation techniques for organs and tissue. In addition to his scientific achievements, he created a ‘museum of curosities’ that featured his anatomical dioramas of human fetal skeletons and other such bodily materials. Playing off the tradition of the memento mori, these melodramatic arrangements included skeletons weeping into ‘handkerchiefs’ made from papery-thin slices of brain tissue.
Here’s an excellent description of Ruysch’s strange assemblages from author Stephen Gould:
“Ruysch made about a dozen tableaux, constructed of human fetal skeletons with backgrounds of other body parts, on allegorical themes of death and the transiency of life…Ruysch built the ‘geological’ landscapes of these tableaux from gallstones and kidneystones, and ‘botanical’ backgrounds from injected and hardened major veins and arteries for “trees,” and more ramified tissue of lungs and smaller vessels for ‘bushes’ and ‘grass.’ The fetal skeletons, several per tableau, were ornamented with symbols of death and short life – hands may hold mayflies (which live but a day in their adult state); skulls bemoan their fate by weeping into ‘handkerchiefs’ made of elegantly injected mesentery or brain meninges; ‘snakes’ and ‘worms,’ symbols of corruption made of intestine, wind around pelvis and rib cage. Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions. One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, ‘Why should I long for the things of this world?’ Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, ‘Ah fate, ah bitter fate.'”– Stephen Jay Gould in Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors
To view more of Ruysch’s dioramas, as well as other curiosities, visit the Zymoglyphic Museum.