Naissance Macabre: Birth, Death, and Female Anatomy

Brandy Schillace, PhD, the author of today’s guest post, is the research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She will speak at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Click to enlarge.

The danse macabre, or dance of death, features whirling skeletons and other personifications of death stalking the living. These images appeared regularly in the medieval period, particularly after outbreaks of bubonic plague. One of the salient features was death and life pictured together, frequently in the form of a young and beautiful woman. The juxtaposition symbolized how fleeting life could be, and served as a warning against vice and vanity. While death and the maiden might remind viewers of their own mortality, another set of images became far more instructive to the preservation of life: death and the mother—the anatomy of the pregnant womb.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

The 1500s saw the proliferation of full-figure anatomy. Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife (and other texts like it) displayed women with their torsos peeled back, daintily displaying their inner organs. Plenty of scholarship has focused on the near-wanton and sexualized poses of these and of the “wax Venus” figures, some of whom appear to be in raptures despite being disemboweled. Male figures also appeared in full and sometimes opened—many of Vesalius’ plates in On the Fabric of the Human Body provide these interior views. The male gaze is often directed at the viewer or at the anatomy, while female figures tend to look askance (perhaps with modesty or shame at the revelation of their innards). By the 18th century, however, the whole had been replaced by sectioned and partial anatomies. No longer were the figures walking, dancing, or—in the case of women—curtseying. Instead, only the relevant bits appear in the pages of the atlas, which meant (in pregnant women) only the womb.

Easily the most famous works on pregnant anatomy in the 18th century, William Smellie’s A Sett of Anatomical Tables and William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus provide a portal for viewing key developments in the practice of 18th-century midwifery. In Tables, Smellie set out to demonstrate technique, but, as historian Lucy Inglis explained in a recent talk at the Dittrick Museum, Hunter was more interested in ensuring his fame by making scientific discoveries on the causes of maternal death in childbirth. In fact, the title Gravid Uterus suggests just how primary the womb had become; the women to whom they belonged are depicted headless, limbless, with bloodied cross-sections of stumped legs.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum. Click to enlarge.

Neither anatomist provided entire forms—there was no expectation that they should. But Smellie’s models often included sheets of cloth to hide, but also to suggest, extremities. There is some debate about whether Hunter deliberately tried to achieve artistic or visceral impact,1 but unlike the birthing sheet, which hid the woman’s body from the midwife, the atlas rendered the female form more than denuded: It was naked of flesh, severed in places, the internal matter laid open for observation. At the same time, these female anatomies, like silent muses, were invaluable to the practice of midwifery, particularly as it pertained to difficult and dangerous cases. So what was gained—or lost—by these piecemeal renderings?

In February 2013, I worked with Lucy Inglis on a temporary gallery at the Dittrick that showcased both atlases, not for the sake of their authors, but to exhibit the work of the artist. Jan Van Rymsdyk—the artist behind the majority of figures in both atlases—had a “forensic eye.” He attended when Hunter obtained a new corpse and sketched as the dissections took place. Once, he watched a stillborn baby, more suited to the illustration, substituted within a dead woman’s womb. Lucy and I pondered the ramifications of this, the strange artificial quality of these posed cadavers. Enlightenment ideals required strict adherence to evidence, to the “real.” And yet, even here, anatomies were constructed by doctor and artist, a “dance” that renders plain the problems and process of birth at the moment of death.

In Dream Anatomy, historian Michael Sappol suggests that mastery over the dead body was akin to mastery over oneself, and even a kind of mastery over death.2 He notes, too, the attempts of early anatomy texts to shock the reader, and even the pleasure of shock; the sense that anatomists and anatomy artists wielded an erotic power in undressing the body.2 The detachment necessary to the task (and feared by a public concerned that dissection rendered doctors inhuman) cannot be universally applied to all, however. Van Rymsdyk suffered something akin to a breakdown from the hours spent hovering over dead women and their children with his palette of chalks—and Smellie turned his anatomical information into instruction for saving the lives of women and children. Even so, in the naissance macabre, artist and author reduce female anatomy to constituent parts: woman becomes womb, objectified as teaching tool…a mute muse, but a muse none the less.

References

1. McCulloch, N.A., D. Russell, S.W. McDonald. “William Hunter’s casts of the gravid uterus at the University of Glasgow.” Clinical Anatomy 14, no. 3 (2001): 210-217.

2. Sappol, M. (2006). Dream Anatomy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 34.

4 thoughts on “Naissance Macabre: Birth, Death, and Female Anatomy

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 7 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Global Celebrations of Vesalius’s 500th Birthday | Books, Health and History

  3. Pingback: Vesalius 500: Art, Anatomy, and the Body | Books, Health and History

  4. Pingback: At the Crossroads of Art and Medicine | Books, Health and History

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