Ruysch's anatomical curiosities

Find more images of Ruysch's curiosities in the Gallery of Curiosities.

Human beings have been fascinated by the oddities of the natural world for thousands of years. Ancient Greek tales tell of one-eyed Gods; biblical characters appear in the form of giants and magicians. Objects which produce a sense of wonderment for their rarity, or for their curious unfamiliarity, will probably always be a source of intrigue and inquiry.

The engraving above shows the tableaux (or dramatic scenes) created by the anatomist Frederick Ruysch (1638 - 1731) and included in his wondrous cabinet of curiosities. Ruysch discovered the recipe for a special coloured substance that, when injected into human organs, revealed the journeys taken by the blood vessels through the lymphatic system. He later included these injected body parts in his museum of curiosities: body part specimens in glass jars, baby skeletons, and preserved organs sat alongside exotic birds, butterflies and plants. He thought of these exhibits as highly educational, but also felt that they should be decorated 'prettily and naturally'. So his daughter would prepare delicate cuffs or collars to be slipped on to severed arms or placed around necks. Ruysch turned other pieces in his collection into theatrical scenes. Small skeletons were positioned in 'geological' landscapes, crying into handkerchiefs, wearing strings of pearls, or playing the violin. The 'botanical' landscapes were also made up of body parts: kidney stones or tissue from the lungs would become bushes, grass or rocks.

The scenes were intended to work like plays or stories, representing particular themes or ideas - the idea that our life on earth is short for example, or that our love for the material things of this world is irrelevant given the enormous complexity of the universe. Clearly, Ruysch was as much an expert showman as he was a scientist. His public dissections would be held by candlelight and accompanied by music and refreshments. And his curiosities, held open to public viewing in a number of Amsterdam houses, were known as the 8th wonder of the world.

In these instances the body has become a metaphor (or symbol) with which to tell a story and encapsulate a particular idea. It is a lifeless object to be put in a case like a jewel. Dead things are re-animated to become part of a fantastical cabaret. While we might now see these exhibits as macabre forms of entertainment, perhaps it is important to reflect on the different ways that other cultures and eras have looked at death.

From the late 1600s, thanks to advances in preservation techniques, there was a fashion for collecting and exhibiting body part specimens. The specimens were either submerged in alcohol, or injected with resins or wax and then dried. In either case, the body parts seemed chillingly lifelike – the dead seemed to be reanimated, and viewers were captivated.

There was a widespread craze for cabinets of curiosity during this period. These small exhibitions were displayed in the houses of wealthy collectors and would include strange, beautiful and outlandish objects. Exotic shells and jewels, stuffed animals, preserved bodies, clockwork and scientific instruments would often be accompanied by the stuff of fairytales - mermaids, dragons, or the clothes or footsteps of giants. Collections frequently included examples of rare and misunderstood deformities. Among the curiosities of the Russian emperor Peter the Great was a two-headed sheep, a four-legged rooster, the teeth of a singer and a tablecloth maker (which Peter himself had extracted), and the bones of a giant footman. There were also live exhibits: a hermaphrodite (a person with both male and female sexual organs) and a man with only two digits on each of his hands and feet.