“Most Wonderful and Glorious Collection of Anatomical Matter in the World:” Popular Anatomy at NYAM; Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Grand Anatomical Museum

“Six splendid female figures, size of life… the EXQUISITE FORM in all its natural delicacy… and consummate BEAUTY which ever has and ever will captivate the heart of man.”

Above is a fantastic piece of ephemera housed in the NYAM Historical Collections which was recently brought to my attention by Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at NYAM.

This is a handbill advertising New York City’s Grand Anatomical Museum, one of the many for-profit, open to the pubic anatomical museums which were operating in New York and other European and American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These collections were popular with the general public; they were both educational and spectacular, and often showcased objects of a titillating bent such as beautiful, unclothed wax women with real hair and glass eyes called Florentine, Parisian or anatomical Venuses (more on these fabulous creatures here), human freaks and–at a time when syphilis was both widespread and incurable–lurid wax depictions of genitalia deformed by venereal disease. These last could be found, more often then not, in a special “gentleman’s only” chamber.

Such museums were initially lauded by the medical establishment as excellent for laymen and medics alike. However, by the late 19th century, they became increasing associated with “quack” medical practitioners, who would use them as an kind of advertisement for their often mercury-based cures for sexuality transmitted diseases. Eventually, most of these museums were closed down–or even destroyed–under anti-obscenity laws.

Grand Anatomical Museum 2

You can find out more about popular anatomical museums in this article and book by Michael Sappol, who will be participating in NYAM’s upcoming Festival of Medical History and Arts on October 5th.  They were also explored in The Wellcome Collection’s 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies (for which I acted as curatorial consultant), and Maritha Rene Burmeister’s wonderful dissertation on the topic.

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.

“Physica Sacra,” Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer, 1731 : Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein



My name is Joanna Ebenstein; I run a blog called Morbid Anatomy as well as the related Morbid Anatomy Library—an open-to-the-public research collection in Brooklyn, New York—and the Morbid Anatomy Presents series of lecture and workshops. All of these projects aim to explore the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, with a particular focus on historical medical collections and libraries.

In the run-up to NYAM’s October 5th Wonder Cabinet and Medical History Festival (which I am co-curating), I have been invited to write a series of guest posts in which I will report on the treasures and curiosities I find in my explorations of NYAM’s excellent rare book and historical collections. In this, the first of that series, I would like to focus one of my favorite books—and one of the most enigmatic books of all time—Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer’s 4-volume high baroque extravaganza of art, science, mysticism, and all worldly knowledge, Physica Sacra.

NYAMsacra7Originally published in 1731, this bizarre large-scale book features over 700 copper plate engravings. With a fine balance of careful observation and allegorical imagination, these depict—in frames each more fanciful than the last—such scenes as: lamenting fetal skeletons with the motto “homo ex humo” (‘man from the ground’, or ‘dust’); a variety of anatomical views of the human body projected on drapery or foregrounding mysterious landscapes; birds in biblical landscapes augmented by baffling cyphers; comparative snowflakes with the text “thesauri nivis” or “treasures of snow”; and much more.

These images serve as an excellent reminder that our views of science—and particularly the study of the human body—have changed over time. As explained by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace in their book Spectacular Bodies:

The purpose of anatomical images during the period of the Renaissance to the 19th century had as much to do with what we would call aesthetic and theological understanding as with the narrower interests of medical illustrators as now understood . . . . They were not simply instructional diagrams for the doctor technician, but statements about the nature of human beings as made by God in the context of the created world as a whole . . . they are about the nature of life and death. . . .

I have not been able to find too much about this book in English, though my friend—and Wonder Cabinet speaker—Daniel Margócsy has promised a future lecture on the topic. In the mean time, Christie’s Auction House has a helpful entry on the book that explains that Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733)—a Swiss doctor and natural scientist—”planned the Physica Sacra as an explanation of and a commentary on the Bible on natural-scientific grounds. He himself oversaw the illustrations which were largely based on his own natural history cabinet or on other famous European cabinets of rare specimens.”

Scheuchzer’s work also inspired an art exhibit at the University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth in 2007/8: “Science, Religion, Art.”  The organizers note that:

a lifelong scholar, Scheuchzer’s pursuits of knowledge were wide-ranging and diverse, from science to medicine to paleontology. Like many scientists of the late 17th and early 18th century, Scheuchzer held to the belief that the Old Testament was a factual account of the history of the earth. . . . In a period before public museums, Scheuchzer presented a seductive view of an imaginary world, viewed through lush frames depicting secondary symbols, plants, animals, heads and other objects, providing the viewer rich material for an inspired vision of the interaction between the natural and the divine powers.

Below are just a very few of my favorite images from the book, some that I photographed from the original, and others coming from the set of almost half of the 737 images from the book (!!!) so kindly provided by greyherbert’s amazing Flickr stream; you can see them all by clicking here.

Stay tuned for more posts in the days and weeks to come!

Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy
Guest post # 1