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The 18th-Century Anatomist Who Celebrated Life with Dioramas of Death

An engraving of a tableau of injected vessels and infant skeletons by Frederik Ruysch (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
An engraving of a tableau of injected vessels and infant skeletons by Frederik Ruysch (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)

Like his anatomist peers, 18th-century Dutch scientist Frederik Ruysch preserved human and animal specimens for study, either dried or in jars. Unlike them, he shaped these specimens into a strange art, posing infant skeletons holding blood vessels for tissues, as if mourning their own mortality, or striding with tiny fetuses dangling from their bony fingers. Then he captured these tableaux in detailed illustrations, published from 1701 to 1716 as engravings by Cornelius Huyberts in the Thesaurus anatomicus primus.

Frederik Ruysch's 'Thesaurus anatomicus primus' on Memento Mütter (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Frederik Ruysch’s ‘Thesaurus anatomicus primus’ in ‘Memento Mütter’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

In March, the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia launched an online exhibition called Memento Mütter, which highlights the institution’s most curious medical holdings, including an 18th-century copy of Ruysch’s manuscript. It’s joined by some of the Mütter’s better-known objects, like the 1874 death cast of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker and a collection of swallowed objects extracted by Philadelphia doctor Chevalier Jackson. There’s also a dried, bound foot from 1874; a deeply unnerving doll called “Michelle,” which was used to demonstrate nonsurgical techniques for removing objects from children’s throats; a prosthetic arm from the 1930s with springs for fingers; a 1789 example of anthropodermic bibliopegy (a book bound in human skin); and a fantastically realistic late-19th-century papier-mâché eyeball. With high-resolution, rotatable images, this is not an online interactive for the weak of stomach.

Engraving from Frederik Ruysch's 'Thesaurus Anatomicus,' showing sea creatures with a severed human hand and turtle (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Engraving from Frederik Ruysch’s ‘Thesaurus Anatomicus,’ showing sea creatures with a severed human hand and turtle (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

In the entry on Ruysch’s book, you’re able to click on such tags as “incredible!,” “what?,” “surreal,” and “gross” to view different digitized pages (unfortunately, the whole book is not available). The Mütter notes that Ruysch’s arrangements involved injecting specimens with white wax to make them pliable, as well as a “liquor balsamicus,” created with his son, to preserve their color. (Scientific art was something of a family pastime; his daughter Rachel Ruysch painted still lifes of flowers swarmed with insects.)

“Though his preparations, and the museum that housed them, were immensely popular at the time as a spectacle or oddity, Ruysch was committed to the growth of medical knowledge, making the invisible visible in a way that was impossible before his contributions,” the Mütter states.

Ruysch’s Amsterdam museum was called the Cabinet and had over 2,000 specimens. According to Christie’s, Czar Peter the Great of Russia was so impressed with the museum that he bought the whole thing for the St. Petersburg Kunstkammer, the first public museum in Russia. Later eras, ours included, often see Ruysch’s work as disturbing, but it was meant to be a celebration of the natural world. Luuc Kooijmans wrote in an article for the Public Domain Review that Ruysch “would have been dismayed to hear his specimens described as macabre, since it was precisely the beauty of his preparations that earned Ruysch long-lasting fame.” He goes on to note that, three centuries after Peter the Great’s acquisition, Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander was kept away from the work by diplomats who wanted to protect his royal eyes.

Almost all of Ruysch’s specimens deteriorated and disappeared over time, so the Thesaurus anatomicus primus is the best portal we have to view the anatomical creations of one of the most unusual still life artists in history.

Frederik Ruysch's 'Thesaurus anatomicus primus' on Memento Mütter (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Frederik Ruysch’s ‘Thesaurus anatomicus primus’ on ‘Memento Mütter’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Frederik Ruysch's 'Thesaurus anatomicus primus' on Memento Mütter (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Frederik Ruysch’s ‘Thesaurus anatomicus primus’ on ‘Memento Mütter’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Engraving from Frederik Ruysch's 'Thesaurus Anatomicus,' showing botanical and zoological preparations (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Engraving from Frederik Ruysch’s ‘Thesaurus Anatomicus,’ showing botanical and zoological preparations (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Engraving by Frederik Ruysch (via Wikimedia)
Engraving by Frederik Ruysch (via Wikimedia)

Memento Mütter is available to explore online through the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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