When Art and Science Meet

Elisa McClear (Class of 2020) examines how anatomical models straddled the boundaries between art and science, the erotic and the educational.

This essay was completed for Professor Elizabeth Maynard’s Spring 2018 course, Body in/as Art.

Anatomical wax figures and models inhabit the realms of both art and science. These works reflect the epistemologies of anatomy in their periods of creation, but they were also made to entice and entertain as much as to educate. Anatomical Venuses of late 18th-century Florence are intricate, full body wax females reclining on a bed of curtain and cloth. The surface of the chest can be removed to uncover layers of skin and organs, revealing, for example, the uterus and a fetus [Figure 1]. Wax moulages made in 19th-century France are fragmented molds used to document disease, primarily those inflicting genitalia. When viewing either, one is struck by the artistry of the creations. Made with the intention of advancing medical knowledge, the added features and details, suggestive sexuality, and the uncanny all point towards creations straddling two disciplines. The anatomical wax figures and moulage cannot simply be classified as an artifact of science or as a work of art; they are a melding of the two, creations that span branches of knowledge into one coherent work.

Wax as a medium has a long history. From pre-Christian times to present day, wax, primarily beeswax, was used for votives and ex-voto images, offerings stationed in places of worship or pilgrimage. In Florence, from the 13th through the 17th centuries, these botis became a common industry, often depicting full bodies of saints or fragments (1). The malleability, capability for meticulous sculpting, and naturalistic coloring, allowed wax to imitate body tissues and skin with an uncanny resemblance. The association of wax with mortality, and the inherent changing of its form lent perfectly to the creation of anatomical models. It was the ideal medium to represent the body in a state between life and death, real and the ideal, and pleasure and horror. It was because of this ability to straddle perceptions, that wax was understood as a medium of death in the 19th century (2). Different colors were attained by melting wax with various metals, allowing the figures to take on an even more realistic form. Models made from wax have long been considered on the edge of true artistic endeavor, until the exclusion of ceroplasty from the high art realm led to a disappearance of wax from artistic literature (3). Nevertheless, the ability of wax to create life-like models made it an ideal medium for anatomical figures.

The Anatomical Venuses, also referred to as “Slashed Beauties” and “Dissected Graces,” developed from a long history of anatomical illustration and atlases. Female figures in these works were represented as the non-normative counterpart to the male form, almost exclusively illustrating pregnancy and reproductive systems (4). These atlases transformed into fugitive sheets (anatomical illustrations with flaps that revealed underlying structures) and then to the German manikins of the 17th century (wooden dissectible figurines used by midwives that were more suggestive than detailed) (5). It was in 1717 that Guillaume Desnouese created the first anatomical wax woman in Bologna, paving the way for the Anatomical Venuses and the heightened interest in human anatomy during the Enlightenment. In 1780, Clement Susini created the Medici Venus for the Museum for Physics and Natural History (La Specola) in Florence, a Venus dissectible into seven layers, adorned with pearls and human hair [Figure 1] (6). Pope Benedict the XIV imposed a new form of rational Catholicism, one which married science and religion, and the Anatomical Venuses served the ultimate Enlightenment objective of expanding knowledge to the public. These Anatomical Venuses served as an educational tool to marry science and religion, but were also used to establish La Specola as a destination on the Italian leg of the European Grand Tour (7). The beautiful and educational marvels of these female figures effectively brought 6,000-22,000 visitors annually to La Specola, not only fulfilling the mission to educate the public, but also the aim to bring newfound fame to Florence (8).

Figure 1. Clement Susini, “Medici Venus,” 1780. La Specola, Museum of Natural History, Florence, Italy.

Anatomical Venuses are adorned with human eyelashes, eyebrows, hair, and glass eyeballs. Pearl necklaces are added to conceal the cut on the model’s neck. They are presented atop lavish silk and velvet blankets and curtains. To make them, actual cadavers were cast into molds that were then painted with wax and dyes that were then stuffed with rags or metal for support. Hair was attached with varnish, eyelashes were individually planted, blood vessels were created with silk fibers dipped in wax, and the Venus was assembled and glazed. These models were often accompanied by leaflets detailing the organs and structures inside, educating the public without the need of a lecturer present (9). Often, it required over 200 cadavers in order to create just one Venus.

These models represented an ideal of beauty, rather than the specific features of the cadavers used. Models were positioned in a sleep-like pose, embellished with a look of ecstasy on their faces. While the erotic charge of the hyper-realistic exterior of the Venuses seems to undermine their educational aims, the Venuses were created in a moment of intertwining science and religion. While the ecstatic expression many appears sexual in a modern context, in 18th-century Florence the ecstatic could also be a sacred, mystical experience between the woman and the holy spirit. Saints and martyrs in ecstasy filled churches, most notably with Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa [Figure 2 & 3]. Ecstasy was not solely about sexual pleasure, then, but rather about losing oneself into the larger ‘other,’ the universe, and achieving religious transcendence (10). The ecstatic Venuses allowed for scientists to take the place of the Divine Creator, and present science through the realm of religion.

Figure 2. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” 1647-1652. White marble. Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy.
Figure 3. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” 1647-1652, detail. White marble.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy.

However, many of the Venus features went beyond that of scientific practice. Beauty and utility uniquely merged through these creations, an intersection “where art served to facilitate scientific learning” (11). The Venuses, prior to dissection, do not appear pregnant or show any signs of gestation, yet the fetuses included within the interior of their wombs are too far along for the outer appearance of the models. This points to an importance of aesthetics in the creation of these Venuses, even at the expense of the scientifically accurate. The models adhered to the principles of classicism due to the inclusion of attributes unnecessary for medical understanding. Their positioning often evoked artistic masterworks, and their bodies were an idealization of the feminine. Felice Fontana, the director of the Specola, stated in 1789 that, “the interest of the Royal Museum demands that the defects be removed and that the works perfect” (12). Fontana was referring to the process of dissection, demanding that no visible evidence of dissection be present, only beautiful works of art.

The Anatomical Venuses were a direct precursor to the anatomical wax moulages of Paris in the 19th century. These wax models depicted truncated genitals, with the primary purpose of exemplifying “moral diseases” such as syphilis and the overindulgence of sexual appetite and masturbation (16). These figures resulted from casts done directly on the living, suffering, patient, which were then molded with wax and colored and detailed by the mouleur under close instruction from the practitioner. These moulages were the epitome of reproduction, again produced with the object of education and medical advancement at the forefront. However, these models also reveal aesthetic enhancements, making them fluctuate between art form and a purely scientific endeavor.

Each moulage was signed by the mouleur, marking each piece as an original creation (17). This simple addition aligned these works with the idea of a unique art object in a collection, rather than a tool for objective examination. Once such models are no longer tied to the whole human form and their intended function, their meaning and worth becomes solely dependent on the collector (18). These works allowed the medical practitioner to fulfill the role of both an artist and scientist. The moulages were ornamented with pubic hair in a range of color variations, coinciding with the individual tastes of the doctors (19). These additions had no scientific function in identifying diseases, and simply demonstrated the sexual preferences of those creating the moulages. The fingers of the doctor prying open the female patients was cast and included in the final moulage. Jules Emile Pean, a leading medical practitioner of the time, created a vast number of anatomical waxes of both female and male genitalia. However, he is most well-known for his female reproductive casts, and exclusively publicized his charitable operations to females and not males (20). This inherent sexual preference demonstrated in not only choice of patients but also choice of artistic rendering, created mixed public opinions of medical practitioners and their moulages.

As with Anatomical Venuses, these molds were created under the guise of scientific objectivity. While some advocated for the professional disinterest of these practitioners, many viewed the intrusive process of casting as a sign of desire reaching beyond that of scientific professionalism (21). The moulages were interpreted as a way of normalizing the touching of naked women, blurring the lines between professionalism and voyeurism, and became increasingly associated with awakening the “imagination of young boys” (22). Anatomists were not unaware of these implications at the time and often manipulated them for their own practices (23).

Many interpreted these figures as simply a legitimizing frame from which to view the female nude, which becomes prevalent upon inspection of the male counterparts of these figures. Full male body wax figures covered in flesh are relatively absent. The few that do exist are positioned in upright, active poses, displaying musculature and bones. Venuses, on the other hand, are positioned laying down passively, inviting the viewers’ gaze, displaying the fetus and lower bodily functions. These females are therefore erotic, lying in a “teasingly seductive pose in contrast to the upright, heroic, musclemen postures of male anatomical figures” (24). This femininity allowed for the total empowerment of the male gaze and touch. There exists an erotic charge in the unlayering of these Venuses, proliferated through the feminization of the nervous system and masculinization of musculature in the 18th century (25). The ability to anatomically undress and literally possess pieces of the woman further elicits voyeurism, desire, and sexual possession.

This sexualization becomes further pronounced when the relationship between doctor and patient and artist and model is examined. Neither profession was free from criticism regarding access to the naked female, as models were generally financially forced into prostitution, and the women inflicted with genital diseases were commonly prostitutes as well (26). This only intensified the public opinion in relation to professional versus personal relationships. This sexualization and eroticism, displayed through both the means of creation as well as the public perception, pushes these wax anatomical models further away from the scientific realm of objectivity.

The realism achieved through the use of wax, as well as the added features and hints of sexuality, place these works in the realm of the uncanny. Ernst Jentsch, and later Sigmund Freud’s, interpretation of the uncanny exists as the line between the living and dead, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and challenges to basic notions of reality (27). Until the Enlightenment, the supernatural was commonly accepted. The Anatomical Venuses were then an Enlightenment project aimed to impose a sense of order and control on an epistemology that defied understanding (28). The ability of wax work to imitate the human body in the midst of death, yet seemingly life as well, created anxiety, confusion, unease, and a “repulsive attraction.” Upon witnessing the wax models in 1863, Henri Blasé de Bury commented: “You know that strange and mysterious feeling that seizes you when you are in the presence of these bizarre figures, of a reality that is so life-like that a certain fear forbids you from speaking, for you are unsure as to whether or not their lips will answer you…. You step back and then reapproach; it is like a sick curiosity, hysterical, a sort of repulsive attraction (29).”

Wax produced a radical resemblance, with an uncanny power to create the illusion of the living. Aside from the artistic realism, natural preservation techniques of the time required injecting resin into blood vessels (30). This technique resulted in swelling in certain parts of the body, which added exaggerated, or even grotesque proportions to the models. This generated an impression of these figures being simultaneously “same” and “other.” The intense emotions elicited from the viewer undermined the strictly medical function of these models.

Not only did the viewers of such models recognize the artistic traits of the Venuses and moulages, but the creators did as well. The mouleurs and medical practitioners in France feared that without a proper scientific setting for anatomical models, their works would be seen as a curiosity rather than instructional tools. They therefore created simple wood cabinets and black backdrops in which to present their works more clearly as medical studies (31). French scientists believed it necessary to moderate the “spectacular” side of their waxes in order to maintain them in a medical context and divoce them from the tradition of the lavish Anatomical Venuses. The Venus is a sign of beauty and is a symbol of art itself (32). Creating a scientific model from such an image immediately conjures a relationship with art. Both the Anatomical Venuses and wax moulages were housed primarily in science, natural history, or anatomy museums. The creators themselves recognized that the site of display would drastically impact their interpretation, further blurring the line between scientific and artistic.

Anatomical Venuses of 18th-century Florence were undoubtedly enhanced with non-scientific artistic additions. Likewise, the wax moulages of 19th-century France relied on artistic processes to create models intended for medical advancement. Both of these traditions fulfilled male desire by sexualizing the female body. The context and housing for the display of these models would insist on their scientific and medical purposes, but the uncanny effect produced by the realism of wax created an emotional impact on the viewer, an experience more associated with the arts than with scientific rationalism. Anatomical Venuses and wax moulages continue to challenge the boundaries between art and science, suggesting the porous nature of the two domains.

(1) R. Ballestriero, “Anatomical Models and Wax Venuses: Art Masterpieces or Scientific Craft Works?” Journal of Anatomy 216, no. 2 (2010): pp. 224.

(2) Mary Hunter, “Effroyable Réalisme’: Wax, Femininity, and the Madness of Realist Fantasies.” RACAR 33, no. 1-2 (2008): 54.

(3) Hunter, “Effroyable Réalisme,” 5.

(4) Roberta Panzanelli, Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2008) 84.

(5) Joanna Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death and the Ecstatic (New York, NY: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2016) 48.

(6) Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus, 18.

(7) Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus, 32.

(8) Rebecca Messbarger, “The Re-Birth of Venus in Florences Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History.” Journal of the History of Collections 25, no. 2 (2012): p. 197.

(9) Ebenstein, 49.

(10) Ibid, 185.

(11) Messbarger, 212.

(12) Ballestriero, “Anatomical Models and Wax Venuses,” 227.

(13) Panzanelli, Ephemeral Bodies, 96.

(14) Ballestriero, 230.

(15) Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus, 42.

(16) Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus, 141.

(17) Hunter, “Effroyable Réalisme,” 45.

(18) Hunter, 46.

(19) Ibid, 49.

(20) Ibid, 43.

(21) Ibid 45.

(22) Ebenstein, 148.

(23) Ebenstein, 122.

(24) Panzanelli, Ephemeral Bodies, 53.

(25) L. J. Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 58.

(26) Hunter, 49.

(27) Ebenstein, 202.

(28) Ebenstein, 208.

(29) Hunter, 52.

(30) Panzanelli, 46.

(31) Hunter, 51.

(32) Ebenstein, 203.


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