Resurrecting the Anatomical Venus: Death, sex and ecstasy intersect in 18th-century dissectible wax women

Salon talks to the author of a new book on the Enlightenment's most famous memento mori about religion, death & art

Published June 6, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Anatomical Venus model   (DAP Press/Joanna Ebenstein)
Anatomical Venus model (DAP Press/Joanna Ebenstein)

Snow White in her glass coffin or Sleeping Beauty supine in her grim castle are no match for their more visceral sister, the Anatomical Venus. She and her sisters elegantly recline at the intersections of death, sex, and ecstasy, an uneasy (though surprisingly holy) outlier in medicine’s bloody history. In her new book, "The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death, & The Ecstatic," Morbid Anatomy Museum co-founder Joanna Ebenstein digs deep into the fascinating story behind this beautiful oddity, and lays it all bare in tight, engaging prose that spans centuries and takes us from the artisan workshops and cathedrals of 18th century Italy into the dusty dime museums of turn-of-the-century New York and deep into the uncanny valley inhabited by sex dolls and surrealism in search of an answer: Who was the Anatomical Venus?

First rendered by Italian sculptor Clemente Susini around 1780, the so-called Medici Venus was the first of her kind: a life-size, anatomically correct, fully dissectible woman whose divine purpose was to educate. She resided at La Specola, Florence’s Museum of Natural History, which was founded by a Habsburg prince in 1775.  At the time, the study of anatomy was still murky, and the general populace depended on models like these to provide practical insight into the human body’s inner workings. These exquisite corpses with their shining glass eyes, glamorous strings of pearls, and waves of real human hair could be methodically taken apart, piece by piece, thanks to carefully sculpted layers of faux skin, muscle, and organs; most models were depicted pregnant, with a tiny wax fetus hidden deep inside like a Kinder Egg prize. Demand for wax surrogates dropped as laws against human dissection loosened and the mysteries of the body became better understood, but the Venus never strayed too far from the public eye; her changing role took her from a time when the sacred and the scientific were cozy bedfellows into a far more skeptical, curious age, a progression which Ebenstein traces with a master’s steady hand..

There’s a strong temptation for us to view these waxen women through a feminist lens—focusing on what the juxtaposition of their beauty, immobility, and perceived powerlessness might say about their continuing appeal to men of science as well as casual punters. The heavy-lidded, beatific expression found on so many models may read as post-coital—orgasmic, even—to modern eyes; in another time and another place, you’d almost be inclined to offer her a cigarette. But truly, the Venus’ character is more ecclesiastical in nature; contemporaries would have understood them to be much more innocent, as tactile portrayals of mere mortals in the throes of religious ecstasy—who’d just happened to be conveniently chopped up to meet an academic need.

A populace raised on the Bible’s effusive, florid prose (with its iron-tipped spears, rapturous passions, and mystical communions) would see nothing sexy about these waxen women, naked as they may be; getting hot under the collar in the Venus’ presence would be akin to catching a nun in the nip. Later on, viewers who lacked this specific religious foundation were more titillated by the slashed beauties lying in state at 19th century panopticons and dime museums, their educational beginnings abandoned in favor of sideshow allure. Now, we as a largely secularized people grapple to find our own meanings in the fascinating, confounding beings Ebenstein works so passionately to explain within these richly adorned pages.

These waxworks came into being during a time when the saints and Jesus Christ were seen as very real, very visceral figures; the body and blood of Christ can still be found in any Catholic church, but the Venus was born into a world where pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles to worship holy relics—fragments of cloth and bone allegedly left behind by dead saints and safeguarded by village churches who needed the boost in tourism. Ebenstein herself was surprised at the extent to which religion figured into a story she’d initially thought was rooted in art and science.

“All of anatomy—this idea of using the skeleton and the anatomized body—has been used for centuries in memento mori imagery before anatomical science claimed it as its own, so there's some historical weight there, too," she explains. "We're all animals that are going to die, we're all aware of that, so these images of anatomized bodies—even if they're just supposed to be teaching us about medicine—I think they can't help but speak to us on another level. Death is still a great mystery.”

She also cautions against the impulse to cast a revisionist view upon the Venus and her place in the society that created her, saying, “I feel like it's ahistorical. We see the Venus today through the lens of developments that came after the Venus: slasher films using a their main object a beautiful woman, lust murders, The Black Dahlia, and the surrealists’ aesthetic dismembering of the female form,” she explains. “Not to say there's not an element of that, or that you can't read that into it too, but to see it as just that misses something really important and really interesting,” she explains. “It takes away the object's complexity, and the complexity of the past. It's not useful to oversimplify to that extent; I don't think history's that simple.”

We spoke to Ebenstein from her home in Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw away from the Morbid Anatomy Museum and its current collection of 19th century anatomical waxworks—including more than a few Venuses.

What prompted you to write about the Anatomical Venus?

At first, I thought I would do a general book about medical museums, which is kind of what my body of work leading up to this is about, but as I thought about it, I realized that I don't even want to write that book, much less read it. The Anatomical Venus is such a great hook; here at the museum, we have pictures of the Anatomical Venus, and when people see it, I watch their response; they're totally mesmerized, and their questions are so basic: "What is that thing? What was it used for? Is it real?" and I felt like if I used that as a framework, that'd be a way to seduce people into the really interesting history of all this stuff. The Venus is interesting because it becomes an object lesson—one of these things from the past that look so bizarre to the contemporary eye that I believe tell us more about who we are today than they do about the past. People look at it now and say it's disgusting, or it's male patriarchy at its worst; that's how we read it now, so I like to ask how were they encountered at the time, how has that way of dealing with them changed, and what does it say about who we are today?

Do you think the Anatomical Venus’ legacy as a medical and educational tool is in danger of being overshadowed by its aesthetic — that shocking, mesmerizing image of a beautiful woman with her guts on display?

I think today we take that kind of knowledge for granted. In the 18th century, it was still new. It's important to remember that the Anatomical Venus was made not for medical people or for students, but for the general public. I think at the time of her making, they saw her as a novel instrument demonstrating human anatomy. Also, at the time that she was first on display, people were going on the Grand Tour in Italy, and part of the organizing principle of the tour was that you'd go see all these other Venuses—so you'd go to see the Venus at Urbino by Titian, Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," and the Venus de Medici. Rebecca Messbarger makes a really good argument that the idea of making [the wax model] into a Venus was also a way to capitalize on that, and get the Grand Tour to come see this new museum, La Specola, and see a Venus that wasn't just about art and decadence, but was about education as well as beauty. It's an ingenious machine in a sense—what's cooler than a dissectible woman? It's like a painting come to life, that you can take apart to learn about human anatomy. It's a perfect object.

People were much less squeamish about the physical body back then, too.

People saw bodies all the time; they butchered their own animals, they died at home, disease cases were much more extreme than what we see now. I think this squeamishness about the body didn't exist yet, but that said, the makers were very much trying to distance the Venus from death. You look at her and her eyes are open, she's really not depicting a dead figure. They made a very conscious decision not to depict a cadaver on the table; there's no blood, there's no gore, there's no discoloration. She's a beautiful woman in full flush of life offering her body to you, in a sense, for education.

There’s definitely a sexual undertone to that phrase, “offering her body for consumption,” and a lot of the shock that surrounds these waxworks is due to their expressions: to contemporary viewers, they’d have seemed consumed by religious ecstasy, but to modern eyes, they look positively orgasmic.

I would argue that it was a much different thing back then. First of all, I read about how these models were received. The museum was open to men, women, and children, and it was popular from its inception; if it was seen as overtly sexual I don't think that would have been the case, and the reviews are like, "This is great! This is wonderful! This is a great way to learn anatomy!" No one is saying, "What the hell is this crazy thing"—which is what we say today, right? [laughs]

The other thing I would say is that when I was trying to understand her and how she could've possibly taken this form, I went to Italy and took some time going to museums and churches. Once I spent time there, I did begin to see all of these figures in similar states of ecstatic release in a sacred context. They're everywhere! The only difference is that they're clothed. So I just think this idea of the ecstatic is different from the idea of the erotic, and in this day and age when we don't really believe in the ghost in the machine anymore, in this idea of a mystical soul, there's no way to read that feeling that people would've had at the time

The idea of being filled with God's love was something totally innocent.

Right, and the other thing that really convinced me is that on that same trip, I went to Rome to see the famous statue of saint teresa, she's the contemporary most erotic statue of that sort; she's got her head turned back in ecstasy, and she's white marble, and she's beautiful, and they had there next to her, in English and Italian, the part of her diary where she describes her visitation by the angel. It talks about this beautiful boy angel who takes his golden arrow and plunges it into her bowels, and this divine pleasure, and I was so shocked— was in a church, and I couldn't believe they had it printed there in English; [the diary entry] was like an auto-orgasm. I could think of no other meaning for it, but I sent it to a friend of mine who's a practicing Catholic, and asked if she could give me any other explanation other than a sexual one, and she said "Absolutely!" That completely blew my mind, though when you think about it, that statue is in a church; she's a saint, and her diary is read by young girls in the Catholic world, so clearly no one thinks this is improper. So something has to have changed in us.

Sex and death have always been intertwined, from the French la petite mort [“little death,” i.e. orgasm] to Snow White's glass coffin to Girls & Corpses Magazine. After spending so much time exploring the subject, why do you think the two are so inextricably linked?

It’s hard to put into words; I think we all recognize that link instinctively. The things that make us animals, and not just humans, are eating, sex, and death; those things link us to the animal kingdom in a way that we can't resist. When we have sex, instinct takes over, eclipsing our will and our sense of individuality into a moment where we kind of blur into everything, which is kind of a mystical experience, too; it’s of like what Saint Teresa felt with her union with God—the bliss of losing oneself, losing one's conscious mind. These things that make us so lonely in the world are necessary for humans—the idea of abstraction, the idea of language to describe what we're encountering; all of these things divorce us from pure experience. Our knowledge of our own death is what makes us human, I think that's the human condition, and all of these things are linked. In Catholic and Christian belief, death came to humanity because of Adam and Eve's original sin in the garden of Eden, and that's also when sexuality comes into existence, or at least shame about the body, so they really are inextricably linked in that Genesis myth. It's all tied up in that moment.

That heavy religious theme is so surprising when you take into account that these figures are so physical—they’re quite literally visceral creations.

I know! And that's not where I expected this to lead. I first encountered the Anatomical Venus in the history of medicine, but I think there's a whole other history to be written about the religious connotations. When I went to Italy and went into the churches, I began to really look at the visual similarities, and there's a functional similarity, too; so many of those saints and their miracles were health-related. You'd go to a saint's shrine and offer a votive to ask for help or give thanks for what was usually a health-related miracle. And then you have these anatomical waxes, which are trying to teach us how to stay healthy and cure disease in the body, so there's a connection there, even down to the wax they’re using; there's this whole tradition in Italy, before the Anatomical Venus, where wax was used for these anatomically-themed votives that are left at shrines. Clemente Susini, who created the first Venus, was also known to have created two very beautiful dying Christ figures. This is what so few people talk about: how come anyone could make the Anatomical Venus so beautiful? Because Florence had been famous for centuries for making wax models in a sacred context! It had to be the same artists that were making both. Those skills don't come from nowhere, they just suddenly moved over to science.

The Catholic Church means so many different things to so many people, and even if you hold a negative view of the church itself, it's hard to deny that it has had a massive historical impact on the world. It seems like lot of people shy away from addressing that aspect of the church, whether it's because they want to deny it that legitimacy, or don't know how to approach it. It can be tough; I was raised Catholic and wholly reject the entire institution, but I still think the sculpture of Jesus in my hometown church is beautiful, you know?

I could not agree more; I think another reason that people don't want to touch it is because we're so mono-disciplinary now that we can't understand it. The realization I had at the end of this was that almost all roads lead to Christianity, because that's been our dominant way of looking at the world for the past two thousand years (which is kind of incredible when you think about it). Whatever you have to say about it—and I certainly have my criticisms of it—it gave enough people a meaningful framework for experiencing the world that i think to understand anything that was done in the culture before 1850, you have no choice but to really understand Christianity.

These objects and anatomical science in general developed in a Catholic context, and there are so many similarities; the more you read about Catholics, they're obsessed with the body in a way unlike any other religion I've seen, they're obsessed with preserving the corporeal body, and the corporeal body has this very powerful supernatural effect; they'd save relics, which were thought to have healing properties, and they'd make effigies of saints as well, and if you look at medical museums, it's the same shit! They're filled with objects that are preserved from the body that have power because they have scientific meaning. The meaning shifts but the practice doesn't, and what it means ultimately doesn't, either; they preserve the body for reasons of health and protection. It's like magic, in a way.

It’s really amazing to see just how embedded these seemingly bizarre, almost alien objects are in our cultural fabric. It’s not something you’d immediately think of when you encounter one of them in the “flesh.”

To me, the Anatomical Venus is what I would call a perfect object, because you can follow the threads that lead to her or run off from her, and never end. I could spend the rest of my life following the paths to and from her, it's endless. That's the whole idea of the macrocosm and the microcosm—you can see the whole world in a grain of sand. She's my grain of sand, and in her I can see everything that interests me about the world.

Science at that time wasn't science as we know it now, it was also metaphysics. In this idea of natural philosophy, to understand the body of man was to understand the mind of God. So, what you're seeing in these objects, and part of why they're so confusing, is because they flicker on the edges of all of these things that we now think of as irreconcilable: art and medicine, body and soul, living and not living, religious and scientific. Everything that we think can't exist together is still existing together in this object.

By Kim Kelly