Death was everywhere. From the slaughtering of animals to inexplicable epidemics to the fatal complications of childbirth, it’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of dying in 18th-century Europe. And yet, since few people understood the many potential failings of the human body, most simply held fast to their faith and left the rest up to God.
“To understand the human body was to understand the mind of God.”
So God got more involved: Progressive leaders in the Catholic Church threw their weight behind medical research and education, helping congregants better understand the mysteries within their own bodies. The movement’s crowning achievement was the Anatomical Venus, an incredibly lifelike wax model—down to her real hair and eyelashes—whose serene face never betrayed the fact that her chest was sliced open to reveal her internal organs.
Working in tandem with religious authorities, artists and scientists constructed these elaborate wax figures to display the inner workings of the human body. “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics,” wrote one anatomical illustrator at the time, “but how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?” The Anatomical Venus was an attempt to answer that question.
Sometimes called Slashed Beauties or Dissected Graces, these models offered an ingenious solution to the messy display of dissected human bodies, which are destined to stink and decompose. But for the Church, promoting such intimate anatomical knowledge—including a surprisingly frank discussion of sexual reproduction—was a way to remind worshippers that our complex bodies reflected God’s infinite wisdom. As doctors gained greater understanding of our internal anatomy, the Church provided contextual framing for the miracle of life.
This cooperative moment is often forgotten, partly because it contradicts our biases about the fundamental divides between science and religion, beauty and death, medicine and magic. These issues are confronted in a fascinating new book by Joanna Ebenstein, founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, entitled The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic. Ebenstein’s research explores the cultural environment that led to these unique anatomical models, and the reasons they appear so bizarre to modern viewers. We recently spoke with Ebenstein about these wax figures and their pivotal moment in history.
Collectors Weekly: Where did the Anatomical Venus originate?
Ebenstein: The first Anatomical Venus was created in the late 18th-century to be the centerpiece of the first truly public science museum in Florence, Italy—the Museum for Physics and Natural History—which was founded in 1775 by a Habsburg prince, Leopold II. [The museum is often informally called La Specola, meaning “The Observatory,” after an observatory that was added in 1789.]
Prince Leopold had been given the territory of Tuscany by his father, but before his father controlled the region, Tuscany had been ruled by the Medici family for centuries. When Leopold took charge, his progressive Central European government began imposing new values on what he saw as a decadent, frivolous, superstitious culture.
The original Anatomical Venus, which is sometimes called the Medici Venus, didn’t appear until 1780. She was part of a wax collection whose purpose was to seduce the general public into learning about the human body and to show the mechanics of our anatomy. These displays were not aimed at medical students; they were for men, women, and children. Anyone who was decently dressed was able to get into the museum, which at that time was really rare.
Collectors Weekly: How were these figures made?
Ebenstein: The process usually started with a team, an artist and an anatomist or a natural philosopher, who would pick a pose from one of their trusted anatomical atlases by Vesalius, Albinus, or another respectable author. Then they’d acquire body parts from a nearby hospital to model each wax organ on actual organs.
A larger figure might have required as many as 200 body parts. Remember, this is before refrigeration or embalming, and is happening in Italy where it’s warm. Eleanor Crook, who’s a wax worker and has restored some of these pieces, believes they were actually hand-modeled rather than cast because when organs are dead they have a different, flatter look. All of the organs in La Specola models look like they’re alive, and that takes some artistic translation.
The stylized exteriors and faces were not necessarily based on real humans. They were meant to be idealized representations of women and typically had real hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic hair, and glass eyes. I’ve also never seen one without a fetus in her womb, even if the body doesn’t look pregnant from the outside.
Collectors Weekly: What else made these female models distinctive?
Ebenstein: In Ludmilla Jordanova’s book, Sexual Visions, she writes about the ideas of gender in science at the time, and argues that the male body was seen as canonical. The male body was used to represent the muscular system and other universal attributes. Male figures were usually flayed, so they don’t have their skin—they looked like what we think of medical models today.
In contrast, the female body was used to display things that were unique to female bodies, like the reproductive system—the ability to create and feed a child. People still didn’t know many things we take for granted about embryological development, so there was an element of mystery to it—and a real fascination. At the time, people also believed that women had a more “nervous” sensibility, meaning they were more reactive or more intuitive, so the nervous system was also supposedly different.
I focused on female models because they’re often much weirder than the males, and part of what makes the females unique is that their exterior skin is almost always kept intact. It was probably seen as an attribute of femininity at the time, and it creates this tension between beauty and the grotesque.
Collectors Weekly: Why was this model given the name Venus?
Ebenstein: At the time the Anatomical Venus was created, it was very popular for affluent Europeans to take a Grand Tour, or a trip to visit the great artworks of Europe. In Florence, one of the organizing principles for the Grand Tour was to visit all the city’s famous Venuses. There was Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” and the Venus de’ Medici, which was a Hellenistic marble sculpture believed to have the perfect female proportions. She was originally pigmented with color and gold leaf, which I think links her even more dramatically to the Anatomical Venus.
Scholar Rebecca Messbarger, whom I found very influential, sees the Anatomical Venus as Prince Leopold’s way of expressing his own values. Rather than commissioning an artwork for the Grand Tour, he created a useful object that’s both beautiful and ingenious. By choosing the name Venus and drawing on this fine art tradition of reclining beautiful women, she’s further separated from ideas of death. She’s also connected to representations of the female nude that people understood were not intended to be erotic. It was a great gimmick to get people to stop and see the Anatomical Venus on their Grand Tour, which I think is so brilliant.
Collectors Weekly: Was the Anatomical Venus influenced by the wax figures at the Palazzo Poggi?
Ebenstein: As a matter of fact, the Palazzo Poggi museum in Bologna was a direct inspiration for the wax workshop in Florence. In the 1740s, the Institute of Science at the Palazzo Poggi was expanded by Pope Benedict XIV. He was an incredibly progressive pope—he corresponded with Voltaire and was really interested in human anatomy. He even encouraged his laity to give their bodies to science. I had never heard anything like that before; that’s not a perceived truth about the Church. Reading about him really changed my attitudes about religion and medicine more broadly.
“That’s really at the root of all of this, understanding the body so we can heal ourselves.”
Another thing I should mention, which is also drawn from Messbarger’s research, is that before the Palazzo Poggi museum was founded, Bologna was already famous for its “carnival anatomies.” During carnival season, bodies would be dissected for the general public on a ticketed basis in an anatomical theater that was custom-built for this purpose. The bodies that were used were often condemned criminals, and it was a very popular form of entertainment. Viewers would come in costume, and there’d be drinking, flute music, and this spectacular educational display.
Messbarger argues that the Palazzo Poggi museum was a way to capitalize on these anatomical dissections year round. Basically, the pope commissioned this series of anatomical wax models, which were built on real human skeletons. They’re displayed in one beautiful room, and you start with a female figure, the Eve, on one side, with an Adam figure on the other. As you continue around the room, the figures are progressively stripped-down bodies or écorchés. First, it’s just the musculature, then some muscles are removed, and so on, until you get to the completely stripped skeletons who represent the Angels of Death. You can still see this exhibit at the Palazzo Poggi, and in the center of the room, there’s a table for dissections. It’s epic.
Collectors Weekly: What was the goal of these exhibits?
Ebenstein: They seem to straddle a religious meditation on the nature of death and its introduction to mankind—as described in the Bible through Adam and Eve’s original sin—with this goal of anatomical education. This idea of natural philosophy, which was the precursor of science as we know it, implied that to understand the human body was to understand the mind of God, because we were created in God’s image.
When I docent at the Morbid Anatomy museum, often people will ask, “OK, so which was it? Was it spectacle or education?” And I say it was both. These displays were both metaphysical and scientific; they were entertainment and education. I think it’s impossible for us to entirely understand these objects because we’ve separated all of these things out. But I don’t think it seemed strange to people at the time or it wouldn’t have been popular.
Today, our ideas of the proper ways to view and learn from a dead body are much more limited and conservative than they were at that time. I think death has become exotic to us because it’s something we don’t see. At this time, death was not exotic. Life expectancy was much shorter and children often died before reaching adulthood. People butchered their own animals. Horses were dying in the street.
So it wasn’t seen as improper to take an interest in the dead body and to learn from it. The fact that Gunther von Hagens’s “Body Worlds” is still hugely popular shows that this really hasn’t changed. People are really curious about their bodies and learning about them.
Collectors Weekly: What other anatomical models existed before the Venus?
Ebenstein: Earlier in the 18th century, Abraham Chovet had exhibited an anatomized woman including glass veins with wine inside them to look like blood circulating. But Chovet’s model was criticized because it represented the figure as if she was basically being dissected alive—she looked as if she was in pain.
The first anatomical wax was created around 1700 by this guy named Zumbo, who was already renowned for making what are now called his “Theaters of Death.” These were allegorical dioramas filled with lots of tiny dying and decomposing bodies. The scenes had names like “The Triumph of Time,” “The Plague,” or “The French Disease,” which would have meant syphilis.
A doctor and anatomy professor named Guillaume Desnoues asked Zumbo to make a wax copy of a medical preparation that was starting to decay—a real human dissection of a woman and fetus who had died in childbirth and were preserved in spirits as a teaching aid. That partnership between a doctor and an artist to create naturally observed effigies is how anatomical models were born.
The Anatomical Venus also drew on anatomical illustration. At least since the 15th century, there were flap books or “fugitive sheets” that allowed you to do a virtual dissection on a paper drawing of a human body. You could lift up the chest and see the lungs, and then lift up the lungs and see what was beneath that.
Within the church, there was also this tradition of theological waxes, which were a form of memento mori. The intent of these waxes was to urge viewers to contemplate their own mortality so that they’d live a better life on earth before they’re judged by God. Memento mori was at the heart of the Anatomical Venus, and though science eventually tried to divorce itself from this, I think it never quite shed that relationship.
Collectors Weekly: What was the symbolic significance of wax?
Ebenstein: In ancient Rome, when someone died, they would make funeral effigies of the body in wax, and parade these effigies around. In Egypt, they would create Fayum mummy portraits from wax encaustics, or wax colored with pigment. These were portraits painted during a person’s life and kept in the home, then put on their coffin when they died. Wax was also used in mummification more generally.
There’s also this whole tradition of anatomical ex-votos: When going to the shrine of a saint and commemorating them or requesting divine intervention, usually for health-related issues, you would leave a small anatomical wax votive or ex-voto at the altar of the saint. If you go to traditional churches in Italy and Spain, you’ll also see a lot of wax effigies of saints. Sometimes they hold the person’s bones, and these effigies look like the Anatomical Venuses in many ways.
As a material, wax also just seems kind of magical. It can melt, or it can be solid. It’s very easy to work with because it can be molded easily or cast. It doesn’t take a lot of strength to craft, and it’s lightweight. Wax also looks remarkably like human flesh, and if you see these Venuses in person, that’s what you notice. Obviously, Madame Tussauds still capitalizes on that.
Collectors Weekly: Was death a particularly public spectacle in the 18th century?
Ebenstein: I would argue that death and the body have been a public spectacle in every time except our own. I think it is today, too, it’s just we push it into subcultural expression and demonize it in some ways. But look at horror movies—we love them.
“Death is a very complex thing. The more I look at other cultures, the more strange Americans seem today.”
It’s as though we can’t respectfully talk about death anymore, but I think that’s changing. I think the Morbid Anatomy project and death-positive people like Caitlin Doughty are changing that. Death is our constant companion; we’re all going to die. There’s something very morbid, I would argue, in denying it, pretending it doesn’t exist, or having this one-size-fits-all response to death.
I’ve gone to Mexico for Day of the Dead and I’ve been in Korea for their equivalent, which is called Thanksgiving Day. When you go to the cemeteries there, you see people mourning their dead but also laughing and having fun. It was shocking to me because in the United States we’d be looked at angrily if we did that, if we laughed at a funeral. But death is a very complex thing. The more I look at other cultures, the more strange Americans seem today.
Collectors Weekly: Were human bodies exhibited in other non-academic contexts?
Ebenstein: There were many different popular bodily displays in the 18th and 19th centuries, and some of these existed up until the 1960s. Panopticons were Europe’s version of the dime museum, and they included anatomical models, ethnographic displays, wax figures of famous and infamous people, death masks, and medical preparations.
An Anatomical Venus might have been the centerpiece, but you’d also see other kinds of bodies displayed in glass boxes, like breathing Venuses or “Sleeping Beauties” as they were also called. Madame Tussauds in London has a wax Sleeping Beauty that was cast from an original 1767 mold by Philip Curtius. Sometimes there would even be living women lying in glass boxes, exhibiting themselves as Snow Whites or Sleeping Beauties. Part of the attraction was trying to guess which one was real.
In Europe and the United States, there were also popular anatomical museums, which were the non-academic cousins of medical museums like the Mütter in Philadelphia. As more people in cities had leisure time, they wanted to do things that were entertaining and educational. It was part of aspiring to be middle class, this desire to learn but with pleasure.
Often, these exhibits placed a major emphasis on sexually transmitted diseases. At the time, syphilis was still fatal, and no one quite knew what to do about it—there was not a lot of frank discussion about these things. There might also be displays of different birthing problems, like breeched births and cesarean sections.
These museums also had models showing the effects of tight corsetry, because that was something being debated in the medical community. Is it bad for you? Is it not? The ones we have at the Morbid Anatomy Museum show the impact on the internal organs, and they definitely take an anti-corset stance, so there was a progressiveness to these displays. They weren’t pandering to what people already believed—they were really trying to educate them on the latest science.
Towards the end of the 19th century, popular museums increasingly became a way of advertising quack medicine. If you were a young man visiting the exhibit, a doctor might come over and say, “Would you like to come into my office? Do you have any symptoms?” And then they’d prescribe some questionable cures, usually mercury-based. At this time, the medical establishment came out against these shows, but this was also when the field became more professionalized, and they didn’t want outsiders getting in on their business. For whatever reasons, by the late 19th century, everyone was saying these shows were horrible and pornographic and a menace to society.
Collectors Weekly: How did religion shape perceptions of the Anatomical Venus?
Ebenstein: La Specola was open to men, women, and children, and was hugely popular from the time it opened. In Anna Maerker’s book, Model Experts, she talks about the visitor responses in diary entries and guest books that were left behind. Nobody was saying this was crazy and horrible, or women shouldn’t be allowed to see it. Everyone was saying it was beautiful and such a great way to learn anatomy.
When I was trying to understand the Venus and why she took this form, I went to Italy for a while. After seeing the remains of what they found in Pompeii, and all these paintings and sculptures on the street, what really hit me is that for centuries, Italy has been the master of idealized female figures. When you go into Italian churches, there are many saints with these similar facial expressions of ambiguous ecstasy. If that had been seen as erotic, they wouldn’t have been in churches.
The most famous sculpture like this is Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, which was finished in the 1650s. It’s on view in a church in Rome, and they have an excerpt from Teresa of Avila’s autobiography with it. When I read it, I thought, “This is insane. She’s describing an auto-orgasm. How could this be in a church? And why would they translate it in English?” I’m not Catholic, so I was very shocked. But I took a picture of the sign and emailed it to my friend, who’s a very smart woman and a practicing Catholic. And I said, “Megan, can you read this in any way other than a sublimated sexual experience?” She was like, “Yeah, of course I can.” That really blew me away.
Today, most of us have lost our belief in the mystical experience, so we’re left with a purely mechanical view of the body. We also tend to demonize everything that replicates the mystical experience—sex, drugs, even ritual dance, like raves. But really, what is an ecstatic experience? Be it mystical or sexual, I think shedding our sense of self and our ego and merging with something larger than ourselves is something that gives us deep bliss. We’re connected to the universe for that one moment. The whole history of religion is all about these things. Think of Bacchus and Dionysus or other elements of release. It’s like reuniting with the Garden of Eden. There’s something very profound about it.
I didn’t expect my work on this book to lead to Catholicism, but in order to understand the Venus, I had to understand the Catholic worldview that helped create her. Catholic ritual objects and the items we see in medical museums can be so similar. Both Catholicism and medical museums were obsessed with creating lifelike effigies of the body or preserving body parts as relics. The Anatomical Venus is an object in which you can almost see the torch being passed from religion to science, dictating the appropriate way to arbitrate our relationship with death, the body, medicine, and healing. That’s really at the root of all of this, understanding the body so we can heal ourselves.