Zonæ Morbidæ



IN 1998 THE ARTIST Anthony-Noel Kelly was imprisoned for theft of human anatomical specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons. Kelly made casts from the specimens which he embellished with precious metals, later burying the parts in a field. Although doubts were raised over the College’s right to possession, Kelly became the first person in English history to be convicted of theft of the human body: legal precedent had previously dictated that the human corpse ‘has no possessor but the earth’. Current law provides for bodies to be bequeathed on limited-period licence for medical study, but no formal legislation allows artists access to the dead. Yet the history of artists and anatomists meeting to collaborate over the dissected human corpse is long, with origins dating back at least to the 15th century.

Both professions have received some notable contributions from felons and murderers. Both have been implicated in illegal activities in their pursuit of anatomical knowledge. On occasion they have resorted to felony themselves. The scarcity of corpses for legitimate use, and the restriction (before refrigeration became available) of working on corpses during cold weather, created problems of supply and demand, which made the dead into objects of rare value up until the early 19th-century. Criminal elements capitalised by supplying corpses to anatomy schools for profit: Burke and Hare notoriously murdered up to 16 people for this purpose in Edinburgh between 1827-8, a key factor leading to the Anatomy Act, 1832. This Act brought an end to the legal supply of executed murderers’ bodies for dissection, which had continued since the mid-16th century. It substituted the sadly more reliable and plentiful supply of the bodies of ‘unclaimed paupers’. Until the 1832 Act, therefore, a considerable material contribution was made to the canon by criminals who died under capital punishment: it is their bodies which can be seen replicated in many anatomical artefacts, including casts derived from moulds taken directly from their corpses.

In the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts is a plaster cast of the body of James Legg, who was executed for murder. It was made in 1801 at the request of the Academy to help test theories about the anatomical disposition of the crucified Christ. Legg’s body was suspended from a cross after execution, flayed by the anatomist Carpue, and cast by Thomas Banks, RA.2 This was not the first full body cast of a dissected corpse made for the benefit of the artists in London. Dr William Hunter was requested by the Society of Artists in the early 1760s to choose a subject from the recently hanged criminals at Tyburn; it is believed the resulting écorché cast is the one featured in Zoffany’s paintings of the Academicians.3 In 1769 Zoffany sat on a committee with George Stubbs, recommending that William Hunter should be asked to choose and ‘set’ models for the artists.4 This entailed posing the bodies while they were warm, waiting for them to cool, and thus benefiting from rigor mortis, which maintained the pose during dissection and mould-making.

According to the Sporting Magazine for July 1808, Stubbs, renowned for his Anatomy of the Horse - and engaged upon an ambitious but unfinished comparative anatomy at the end of his life - made human dissection his ‘diligent pursuit’. ‘Mr Stubbs’ the magazine reports, ‘has, an hundred times, run into such adventures as might subject anyone with less honourable motives to the greatest severity of the law’.5 As a young man Stubbs received anatomical instruction in York and, as a result of his aptitude, was invited to lecture to the medical students.6 He was also commissioned to execute illustrations for Dr John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery, 1751. Still in his twenties he was, at the time, apparently ‘of vile renown’ locally.7 The circumstances surrounding the procurement and dissection of a subject might explain why. A contemporary account relates that the body of a woman who died in childbirth was transported to York by Stubbs’s pupils and ‘found singularly favourable for the purpose of these studies’. The corpse was ‘conceal’d in a Garret and all the necessary dissections made’8 The fact that the woman had not been executed made the procurement and dissection of her corpse illegal in the mid-18th century. This account does not explain how the woman’s body came into the possession of Stubbs’s pupils, but at the time grave-robbing for supply of corpses to anatomy schools was sufficiently prevalent for the term ‘Resurrectionists’ to be commonly attributed to perpetrators of the crime.

Accounts of body-snatching are a marked feature of the history of medical and artistic explorations into human anatomy from their inception. One of the greatest milestones of medical anatomical understanding, and of artistic rendering of the dissected human form is Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543. Vesalius described how he went, in the mid-1530s, looking for bones in the country, where ‘to the great convenience of students, all those who have been executed are customarily placed’. He found a dried cadaver, which he removed from the stake, taking the limbs home in secret, and returning on successive occasions for the rest of the corpse. He was, he relates, ‘burning with so great a desire…that I was not afraid to snatch in the middle of the night what I so longed for’.9

This burning desire for anatomical knowledge, and its consequences, is still in evidence some three hundred years later when it was criticised by Goethe, who also offered a remedy. As a student in Strasburg, Goethe attended lectures on anatomy; in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels he gives a vivid account of Wilhelm’s experience in dissection class, which appears to draw on personal experience. Due to a scarcity of subjects, Wilhelm relates, ‘The higher officials…hastened as quickly as possible to make use of the prize [an unfortunate young woman’s corpse] and to divide it for use’. However, when Wilhelm removes the covering on ‘ the prize’ he finds: ‘the most lovely feminine arm…which had ever been thrown round the neck of a young man. He held his case of instruments in his hand and did not trust himself to open it…The repugnance to deform still further this splendid production of Nature was at variance with the demand which man, thirsting for knowledge, has to make on himself’.10

Wilhelm is rescued from his predicament by a sculptor who takes him to a large old house with many apartments full of statues. There he is astonished to find a spacious room fitted out with anatomical dissections in wax, with ‘the fresh coloured appearance of [anatomical] preparations which had just been finished.’11 The sculptor believes that, in a more civilised future, the use of accurate wax anatomical models should largely replace the need for dissection of the human cadaver, a ‘repugnant handicraft’ which, ‘especially among well-mannered and well-thinking men…has always something cannibalistic about it.’12 He is well informed about the activities of the ‘Resurrection men’. He also confides to Wilhelm: ‘"I confess it to you my friend, murder had been committed in order to procure a subject for the insistent anatomist who pays well. The dead body lay before us…the anatomist discovered the monstrous deed, and I also; we both looked aside and kept silence and went to our business."’13

In arguing that anatomical research might be more humanely served by hygienic wax models, Goethe points the way to a more regulated and sanitised future. But, in seeking to address the issue of supply and demand, he also avoids contemplation of the fact that production of these models required large numbers of corpses. It is likely that Goethe knew of the collection of wax anatomical models - one of the ‘sights’ of the Grand Tour - in Florence.14 Opened to the public in 1775, the collection survives and includes nineteen life-sized bodies, together with thousands of anatomical pieces, occupying seven rooms and a corridor in the Museo La Specola. They represent a tour de force in the collaboration between artist and anatomist: the standard of dissection exhibited is extremely high, and the minutely detailed wax models are lifelike in their accuracy. However, it has been suggested - and contemporary records lend credibility to the theory - that over two hundred corpses were needed in order to produce one whole body model.15

As Goethe makes clear, a considerable advantage of the wax anatomical model (in the absence of refrigeration facilities) was that it could safely be approached in the heat of summer, while its counterpart in flesh might be so noxious one ‘could scarcely draw near in the most severe winter’.16 This factor contributed to the need for large numbers of corpses in the models’ production, and it gives a revealing insight into the actual conditions of the historical dissecting room. A comment from the 18th-century physician Sir John Pringle confirms this: surveying the detailed handiwork of the Parisian anatomical wax modeller Catherine Biheron, he reportedly declared, "Mademoiselle, there is nothing lacking but the stench."17 His vivid evocation of the effect on the senses is confirmed by Albinus, who gives a graphic account of the difficulties encountered in early anatomical documentation, in his introduction to the Table of the Skeleton And Muscles of the Human Body, 1749. Albinus describes hanging a skeleton complete with ligaments and ‘cartilaginous crusts of the joints’ still attached, using an elaborate system of ropes suspended from the ceiling. He also mentions that the drawings from this subject took up to three months to complete, causing problems with drying and with putrefaction. To re-hydrate the cadaver Albinus resorted to cutting the ligaments in order to pour water into the joints; to check putrefaction he sprinkled the cadaver with vinegar, and ‘wrapped it in the night time with paper, and cloths dipped in the same liquor’. He was relieved when a hard frost occurred: ‘the best thing that could happen’, but hindered by the artist’s model who, posing naked, unsurprisingly ‘neither could nor would’ stand in the same room without a fire.18

The picture which emerges from these accounts is certainly vivid: occupational hazards included the sheer physical labour of transporting, hanging and posing the subjects; the elaborate rigging systems, and the lack of antiseptic or hygienic procedures. Hours, days, even months might be spent in intense cold - perhaps in isolation and secrecy - engaged in painstaking handiwork, in the company of putrefying flesh. Collecting these accounts, and considering them in the context of Wilhelm Meister, I am reminded of the folk-tale character of Bluebeard, whose story was already in circulation in the 17th century. Bluebeard is a wealthy and apparently civil man who nonetheless has a reputation for marrying women who then mysteriously disappear. In the story, he takes a new wife and apparently behaves well. But he goes away, leaving a master-key to the house with his wife, allowing her access to all his property. He also gives her another, tiny key, to a chamber which he forbids her to enter. The wife’s curiosity inevitably gets the better of her, and on opening the door she discovers: ‘the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women ranged against the walls.’ Her disobedience is betrayed by the key, which remains indelibly stained with blood.19 The domestic references: Vesalius taking his stolen corpse ‘home’, Stubbs illicitly concealing the body of a woman ‘in a garret’, Wilhelm Meister being taken to a ‘large house’ where the artist produces wax models which require hundreds of corpses in their manufacture: all leave an impression which must have had its effect on the popular imagination.

Theirs were not clinical operations which took place in sanitised institutions. Behind the sophisticated display, and the supreme medical and artistic craftsmanship, of the waxworks at La Specola, the elegant formality of the illustrations to the works of Vesalius, Albinus et al, lie stinking, bloody scenes. Could these scenes fail to rouse strong human emotions in anatomist and artist alike, despite the declared objectivity of their endeavours? Contemporary accounts suggest that anatomy was dominated by men of extraordinary curiosity, determination and skill, but to assume their response to their subjects was uncomplicated is to be seduced by the exquisite aesthetic of the products of their collaborations. Like Bluebeard, these were cultivated men, who nonetheless carried with them the key to a secret, bloody chamber, the contents of which are terrifying to human instinct.

‘Burning desire’ to discover the mysteries of the body, ‘thirst for knowledge’ and professional ambition apparently led to the single-minded detachment of Vesalius roaming the countryside in search of conveniently abandoned human remains, the Hunters trawling Tyburn for subjects, and Stubbs finding the corpse of a woman who died painfully in childbirth ‘singularly favourable’ for his studies. But did some of the more ambivalent feelings of Wilhelm Meister afflict them too? Albinus said he was driven ‘by a love of the work’,20 while Goethe himself admitted: ‘Anatomy…taught me to endure the most repulsive sights, while I satisfied my thirst for knowledge’.21 Certainly the anatomical artefacts which resulted from this background continue - it seems, increasingly - to fascinate. Their haunting, poignant beauty, and their curious air of calm seem strangely at odds with the macabre circumstances of their production. But has Goethe’s prophecy been fulfilled today? Have modern conditions reduced the specialists’ urge to appropriate the human corpse?

Recent accounts suggest they have not. Writing in 1995, the pathologist F. Gonzalez-Crussi recalled how, as a student in Mexico, he went on a grave-robbing expedition with his fellows, aided by an ‘obliging’ (and bribed) grave-digger. His part of the spoils, after being suitably treated, ‘ended up in a cardboard box under my bed. The cleaning lady found them there, and thenceforward refused to clean my room; nor did she approach again that area of my apartment without first making the sign of the cross.’22 In Germany, Gunther von Hagens is currently paying tribute to the tradition of Vesalius using over two hundred ‘plastinated’ donors’ bodies in the exhibition Körperwelten. More than 2.5 million people attended Körperwelten when it showed in Japan, and the opening hours were extended round the clock when it was first shown in Mannheim in 1997.

As to the artists, the American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s use of cadavers, in carefully arranged studio compositions, is well documented. In this country, Anthony-Noel Kelly’s case was notable for the way in which it was treated in the press. The artist (a man of previously good character) was repeatedly described as ‘macabre’, and even as a ‘necrophiliac’. Today the products of the anatomical tradition and of modern imaging techniques are readily available, making the desire personally to delve into the body for first-hand information appear unnecessary. However, no amount of modernising seems capable of subduing the spirit of Bluebeard for long, and nor does our curiosity about the secrets of his chamber seem to have diminished.

© Jane Wildgoose November 1999


Copyright Jane Wildgoose and The Wildgoose Memorial Library