William Cheselden’s Memento Mori and Skeletons at Prayer: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Cheselden 1

Cheselden 1

William Cheselden (1688–1752) is remembered today as one of the greatest English surgeons; he was surgeon to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to whom he dedicated the wonderful, epically scaled book Osteographia, or the anatomy of the bones  (1733), which is described by the NYAM Library as “one of the finest of English works containing anatomic illustrations.” The copperplate images were done by Cheselden and his engravers, Gerard van der Gucht and Mr. Shinevoet, with the use of the camera obscura—a pre-photographic drawing aid; this is delightfully alluded to in this wonderful image featured on the title page (images 1 & 2) .

Cheselden 2

Cheselden 2

The book is best known for its large scale and exquisite renderings of skeletons brandishing bones (image 3); leaning on skulls (image 4); with “the same proportions with the venus de Medicis” (image 5); “in the same proportions and attitude with the Belvidere Apollo” (image 6); or, most famously of all, “the side view of the skeleton of a very robust man” at prayer (image 7).

Less seen—yet equally delightful—are the wonderfully imaginative anatomically-themed initial capital letters (8-12); the playful chapter openers (13-19); the memento-mori themed end piece (30); and delicately exquisite animal skeletons (20-22) which fill the book. Despite—or perhaps because of—these luxurious touches, this large-scale atlas was a financial failure.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Jacques Gamelin’s Marauding Skeletons and Écorché Crucifixions: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Gamelin 1

Gamelin 1

I was so excited to finally have the opportunity to pore over a book in the NYAM collection which I had long admired from afar: Jacques Gamelin‘s beautiful and lavish Nouveau recueil d’osteologie et de myologie (“New collection of osteology and mycology”) of 1779. This book, as explained to me by Arlene Shaner—acting curator and reference librarian for historical collections, at NYAM—was intended as a large scale, deluxe manual for artists interested in understanding human anatomy in order to create more convincing depictions of human figures.

The meat of the book, as it were, is a collection of extremely virtuosic anatomical renderings (12-15) showing skinned—or écorché—human figures in a variety of poses. But what is much more interesting—at least to me—is the assortment of animated skeletons which fill the opening pages; these fanciful figures are engaging in such activities as waking up in a cemetery to the trumpet of the resurrection (text reading: surgite mortui venite ad judicium, or “Rise up, come to the judgment of the dead”; image 6); brandishing anatomical drawings in what looks to be a dissection room littered with bones (3); and raping and pillaging the parties of fashionably bewigged lords and ladies (9, 10). I am also very drawn images playing on biblical themes, such as a calm Saint Bartholomew being flayed alive (an old staple of anatomical illustration; image 11), and a skinned and anatomized Christ on the cross (12) which evokes this more literal rendition, cast from a convicted murderer just a few decades after this book was published.

Interestingly, Gamelin is best remembered today not for this book, but as a painter and engraver of battle scenes, genre scenes, and portraits. He dedicated this book to his mentor, a certain Baron de Puymaurin (image 1 and 2), who had recognized Gamelin’s artistic abilities and funded his training when his father refused to do so. It is thought that Gamelin funded the book himself after inheriting a great deal of money upon his father’s death, which perhaps accounts for its delightful eccentricity.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

17th Century Anatomical Striptease: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Tab VI

Another series of most wonderful and enigmatic anatomical illustrations in the New York Academy of Medicine historical library collections are to be found in De humani corporis fabrica libri decem, tabulis XCIIX aeri incisis … exornati … Opus posthumum and Tabulae anatomicae (Venice, 1627) by Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578–1625), Giulio Cesare Casserio (1533–1616), and Daniel Bucretius (d. 1631). In this complex effort, van de Spiegel produced the text; Casserio commissioned the plates (for his own unrealized work); and the whole was published through the editorial offices of Bucretius, after both van de Spiegel and Casserio had died.


These illustrations are described beautifully by Michael Sappol in the exhibition text for his National Library of Medicine exhibition  “Dream Anatomy” where he placed them under the header “Show-off Cadavers” and described them thusly:

The emergence of anatomical illustration in the period 1500-1750 coincided with a larger phenomenon, a new definition of personhood that was performed at court, in salons, coffeehouses, country estates, theaters, marketplaces, and at court. Inevitably anatomists took up, commented on, and played with, the contemporary obsession with self-fashioning and individuality—it was an era of manners, wit, foppishness, and coquetry. In the works of Giulio Casserio, John Browne and Pietro da Cortona, the illustrated anatomy book is a stage featuring posing, prancing cadavers. Animated with an exuberant vitality, the corpses perform an anatomical show for the reader’s gaze.

The images in this post are from the Tabulae anatomicae and show the anatomized body engaging in a sort of exuberant anatomical striptease. All images are drawn from the National Library of Medicine’s brilliant online exhibition Dream Anatomy; click on the exhibition name to see more!

Tab XV

Michael Sappol will be both speaking and screening films from the National Library of Medicine as part of the October 5th NYAM Festival of Medical History & the Arts; more on that here. Hope very much to see you there!

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

16th Century Anatomy and Pornography? De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, Charles Estienne, 1545; Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy


The first image above and those in the gallery below are illustrations from De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres [Three Books on the Dissection of the Parts of the Human Body], published by Charles Estienne in Paris in 1545. Although this book came out 2 years after Andreas Vesalius’ landmark Fabrica, Charles Estienne’s Dissection was actually completed in 1539, so it is considered a work of pre-Vesalian anatomy.

Not only are these illustrations delightfully surreal, they also have a very surprising back story, creating an unlikely link between pornography and anatomy! This is revealed in the similarity of pose between the first image, a woodcut from Estienne’s work, and the second, a slightly earlier erotic engraving.

As explained on the Christie’s auction site:

The anatomical woodcuts in De Dissectione have attracted much critical attention due to their wide variation in imagistic quality, the oddly disturbing postures of the figures in Books 2 and 3, the obvious insertion in many blocks (again, in Books 2 and 3) of separately cut pieces for the dissected portions of the anatomy, and the uncertainty surrounding the sources of the images. The presence of inserts in main blocks would suggest that these blocks were originally intended for another purpose, and in fact a link has been established between the gynecological figures in Book 3, with their frankly erotic poses, and the series of prints entitled Gli amori degli dei [The Loves of the Gods], engraved by Gian Giacomo Caraglio after drawings by Perino del Vaga and Rosso Fiorentino.

A possible explanation of this interesting connection between pornography and anatomy is that the engraver of the female nude woodcuts did not have access to a model, and for the sake of expediency copied the general outlines of the female nudes from “The Loves of the Gods,” eliminating the male figures from the erotic illustrations. Another wood engraver, perhaps [Etienne de la] Rivière, would then have prepared the anatomical insert blocks showing the internal organs.

Still another explanation might have been that in an era in which there was little graphic erotica available the author and the publishers deliberately exploited the erotic undercurrents of this anatomical work as a way of expanding the market beyond medical students. Perhaps because of the erotic undertones the book sold unusually well for a dissection manual and anatomical textbook, causing the publishers to issue an edition in French only one year later, in 1546.

All images except the second are from De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, using the National Library of Medicine’s fantastic online resource Historical Anatomies on the Web; you can see all the images from Estienne’s book by clicking here.

The second image is by Jacopo Caraglio (engraver), after Rosso Fiorentino (artist): “Pluto and Proserpina,” 1527, from the series, The Loves of the Gods. It was exhibited in “‘An Earthly Paradise’: The Art of Living at the French Renaissance Court,” at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, January 16 – April 18, 2010, and is found on the Cornell University website.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Theatrum Anatomicum, by Caspar Bauhin and Theodor de Bry, 1605 : Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

Bauhin1Here are some wonderful images from another of my favorite books in the NYAM historical collections, Theatrum Anatomicum (1605), by Caspar Bauhin and Theodor de Bry. This edition also has some especially lovely image ghosting going on.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Icon durae matris in concavâ superficie visae…, Jan Ladmiral and Frederik Ruysch, 1738: Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

Here is a lovely small frontispiece etching and some lush and wonderful mezzotints by Jan Ladmiral, pioneer of early color printing, drawn from the NYAM copy of Icon durae matris in concavâ superficie visae, ex capite foetus humani octò circiter à conceptione mensium, desumtae; ad objectum artificiosissimè praeparatum à clarissimo viro Fred. Ruyschio by Jan Ladmiral and Frederik Ruysch from 1738.


Ladmiral3 Ladmiral2


This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Festival of Medical History & the Arts

We are excited to announce our first all-day extravaganza, co-curated by Lawrence Weschler, Morbid Anatomy, and the Center, and featuring esteemed speakers, artists workshops, behind-the-scenes tours, and more. Please check the Festival of Medical History & the Arts page and schedule for more information.

save the date Oct 5

2011-2012 Helfand Fellow

Earlier this year we were delighted to host artist and scholar Cindy Stelmackowich as our 2011-2012 Helfand Fellow. Cindy was kind enough to share her thoughts on the Fellowship, and how it fits into her research trajectory.

“Receiving the 2011-2012 Helfand Fellowship in the History of Medicine has wonderful meaning to me, on both personal and professional levels. In fact, the opportunity to conduct research in the Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine completes a circle for me; its rich holdings have been pivotal to my development as a scholar.

Antoine Toussaint de Chazal, Maladies du Poumon [Lung cancer, lung cysts], 1829-1935, lithograph, 15 x 7.5 inches, pl. ll. in Anatomie pathologique du corps humain by Jean Cruveilhier. (Paris 1829-1835).

Arriving to New York from Canada for the residency at the Rare Book Room in March and April 2012 was not the first time I had an extended stay in New York City. After I finished an M.A. in Art History in 1999 from Carleton University in Ottawa, I moved to New York and worked in a contemporary gallery in SoHo as a curatorial assistant. Visiting galleries and exhibitions was a daily activity for me. Featured at The New York Public Library at this time was an exhibition entitled Seeing is Believing – a wonderful exhibition that focused on the ways illustrations were essential in spreading new scientific and medical ideas. I was hooked! I knew at that moment that not only did I now want to complete a Ph.D, but I needed to see and learn more about the illustrations and rare books I was exposed to in that exhibition. The exhibition labels noted that a number of the medical books were from the collection of the Rare Book Room at the New York Academy of Medicine. Off I went to find this treasure-trove of a library on Fifth Avenue. Needless to say, I continued to consult The Rare Book holdings at the New York Academy of Medicine while writing my dissertation on nineteenth-century anatomical atlases; no scholarly attention had previously been conducted to analyze this specific group of important medical publications and visual diagrams.

It was thereby very heartening to receive the 2011-2012 Helfand Fellowship at a time when I had finished my dissertation and am happily preparing a book manuscript on anatomical and pathological atlases. At the end of my residency in April 2012, I presented a public presentation on my research entitled Picturing Pathology: Morbid Anatomy Diagrams, Pathological Atlases and Disease 1800–1840. This paper examined how pathological ideas were embedded in new types of visual representations and newly re-ordered types of anatomical textbooks. It focused on the complex web of interconnections among disease, the body and visual representation; how aesthetic strategies, visual codes and rhetorical tropes attempted to represent key pathological concepts, discoveries and models of perception as visual diagrams became crucial to this young discipline of pathology.

The two images included in this posting represent the new types of visual imagery that emerged within medicine at the beginning of the nineteenth century in France and Britain as new systems of pathology were developing. Doctors used these innovative pathological illustrations to teach medical students how to identify signs of morbidity and disease. The desire for precise diagrams based on minute dissections of diseased tissues was of great interest to both surgeons and medical students; physicians began to either commission artists to execute detailed diagrams to add to their novel publications or spent years executing drawings of their findings. Renowned for his artistic skill as well as his anatomical knowledge, Sir Robert Carswell for example, executed the drawings in his 1838 folio-sized atlas entitled Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Diseasehimself, and, as an expert lithographer, personally transferred the drawings to stone for the lithographs used in the atlas.

Robert Carswell, Neoplasms of the peritoneum, the stomach, the kidneys, the portal vein and the lung, 1832, lithograph, 13.8 x 9 inches, plate III., in Pathological Anatomy. Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease by Robert Carswell. (London 1832-1838).

My scholarly interest in  these early pathological manuals outline how the dead body was initially made into a working pathological object by the profession. Central to this work is a close analysis of the visual languages of this specific archive of pathological diagrams. In this regard, I am interested in how art – its grammar, forms, aesthetic strategies – articulated and represented pathological concepts, discoveries and models of perception in the young field of pathological anatomy. This study examines the aesthetic theories that informed the dissection diagrams’ languages of representation; such as the Western art historical models and academic techniques in the art schools where anatomical illustrators were trained. Furthermore, my project will examine the myriad of representational techniques that encoded these unique images so that the various types of morbid specimens appeared as systematic, encyclopedic collections of disease.

Thank you once again to Bill and Audrey Helfand for creating and endowing this Fellowship at the New York Academy of Medicine, and to the librarians and staff in the Rare Book (Arlene Shaner and Rebecca Pou) for making my residency fruitful and enriching.

In 2012-2013, Cindy will be a Postdoctoral Fellow with the “Situating Science Strategic Knowledge” Cluster group at University of King’s College and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Her most recent publication, “The Instructive Corpse: Dissection, Anatomical Specimens and Illustration in Early-Nineteenth Century Medical Education,” will appear in a special September 2012 issue of Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science devoted to “Visual Representation and Science.” You can view some of Cindy’s artistic investigations here.