From the walking dead of the medieval period to the grisly illustrations of the Victorians, the Royal College of Physicians explores its own library of macabre medical books
From Renaissance Italy to Victorian Britain through to the present day, it seems human beings are enthralled by what lies beneath our skin.
And ever since there have been printed books, people – physicians, scientists, surgeons, artists and printers – have developed tools and techniques to identify, understand and share the inner workings of the human form.
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These beautiful and macabre depictions are the subject of the new ‘pop-up’ exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians which is exploring the works of anatomical illustration in their seemingly limitless library.
And there’s certainly a macabre and surreal quality to the first medical illustrations of the medieval period, when expertly dissected bodies walked about in beautifully rendered landscapes, blurring the lines between the living and the dead.
“I think that was a way of dealing with the horror of it in a world where death was in many respects a great deal more present than it is today,” says Katie Birkwood, the RCP’s rare books librarian and curator of the exhibition. .
“So little was known about the workings of the human body and why people died. Maybe putting these bodies in a living pose in a living landscape was a way of reflecting that back and not necessarily finding comfort, but perhaps a way of dealing with it?”
A certain black humour and tendency for artists to flex their own muscles “because they could do”, also seems to be a factor in the fashions of Renaissance period illustration. Birkwood points to a series of “muscle men in a landscape” put together by an artist “who may have been a student of Titian”.
“If you put several of them together you actually get a continuous panorama in the background. So it is about dealing with death and bodies and dying, but it’s also about an artist showing off!”
Birkwood has spent months with these grim depictions, wading through book upon book on dissection – from the flowering of anatomy in the sixteenth century by pioneers like “the father of modern anatomy”, Andreus Vesalius, through to the books created for a popular audience in the 19th century.
“I wasn’t even able to look through all of them,” she admits, “we have 100s of volumes from the very earliest dates of printing – including a copy of the very earliest known printed book to have anatomical illustrations in it, Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, which is one of the exhibits in the exhibition.”
One of the most famous books in the history of medicine and of art, Vesalius published his book in Basel in 1543, and depicted the human body with a level of detail, accuracy and creative flair completely unknown before.
But for creative flair it’s hard to ignore the 17th century work produced in London showing a flayed man standing as if still alive, holding up his own skin with the features of his face still clearly visible on the ghost-like surface.
Equally shocking is a brightly coloured engraving by Jacques Gautier d’Agoty from 18th century Paris, of two dissected heads once again as if still living but this time lying closely together as though in a bed.
“Pretty much every image in the exhibition is utterly absorbing” says Birkwood, “you could spend a really long time looking at one picture considering how it was made, who it was made for, the influences that came to create that picture and the influences it’s had.”
There are also many different traditions at work – a Japanese illustration shows the female body, its organs revealed with the skin just lifted away, but also shown are the acupuncture points.
An Arabic manuscript of the seventeenth century shows the nervous system, and although for western audiences it’s a recognisably anatomical drawing, just like the Renaissance illustrations it comes from its own tradition in the way the face is depicted, the posture of the body and the way the arms and legs appear on the page.
“No anatomical image is a representation of what you see when you cut a body open – there are always omissions, things that are simplified,” adds Birkwood. “We get used to seeing a style of image that we think has some objective truth to it but when you start to see images from other countries or cultures you realise that in order to appreciate these we really have to try and look at them with fresh eyes.”
And fresh eyes are always looking at this subject matter, whether online or in the august academic libraries like the one at the RCP, so why are we so fascinated by the macabre world of medical illustration?
“What’s more relevant to ourselves than ourselves?” offers Birkwood. “We all have a body, and artworks that reflect what’s going on inside therefore fascinate us. We’re constantly aware of what’s going on in our bodies – although hopefully we will never see it ourselves.
“But the horror of it is appealing because many of these pictures show people as if they have been flayed alive, and like any horror movie there’s an appeal in looking at that through your fingers.
“It reflects the fundamental fragility of our bodies. There’s only this quite thin layer of skin and then there’s this somewhat gloopy mess inside, pulsing away, keeping us going and most of us don’t understand how.”
Under the skin: illustrating the human body’ is at the Royal College of Physicians from 01 February to 15 March 2019.
Royal College of Physicians
London, Greater London
The Royal College of Physicians is the oldest medical college in England. Since our foundation by royal charter of Henry VIII in 1518, the RCP has built up magnificent collections of books, manuscripts, portraits, silver, and medical artefacts. Visit us to experience extraordinary historical and ceremonial spaces set inside a…