The University of Pennsylvania CFP-service as well as Renaissance Lit this morning brought news to my mailbox of an Renaissance Society of America call for papers on Dissecting Renaissance Anatomies, a session on early modern anatomy and performance.
The call reminded me of one of the strangest objects I encountered on my exploration of early modern cabinets of curiosities for yesterday’s Carnivalesque. In a beautifully designed virtual cabinet belonging to the Munich Kunstkammer Georg Laue, I came across this curious anatomical teaching model of a pregnant woman.
The ivory figure of a woman dates from 1680, and was made in the Nuremburg workshop of ivory turner Stephan Zick. Her arms can be moved, and the museum has here displayed her in a dramatic pose that would make interesting material for the RSA panel. Her belly and breasts can be lifted as a whole, to reveal
strange-looking lungs her lungs (which can be removed to see the position of her heart and stomach [?]) and a uterus. The latter can be opened to see a tiny foetus nestled inside. A little red ribbon peeks out from under the baby, suggesting that it too, can be removed.
The woman comes in a wooden coffin, inlaid with ivory, and rendered with attention to detail. Her head rests on a square pillow decorated with lace, and the coffin itself stands on beautifully crafted tiny ivory knobs. The Kunstkammer comments that death is “consistently included in the representation as the precondition for anatomical study.” Well yes. But how did it feel for the early modern student of anatomy to carefully lever this woman from her coffin, tugging at the little loops at her head and feet while she sighed and raised her arm to her head?
Like many early modern anatomical representations, this teaching model combines elements of life and death. The woman is a lifeless but life-like doll that can be played with, whose limbs can be moved to suggest action. Her coffin is the first of a russian-doll-like series of lifeless objects that can be opened. A mise-en-abyme that leads from the end of life – the coffin – to the beginning of life – the baby inside the womb – the model mirrors the work of anatomical science, which cuts open lifeless bodies to discover the secrets of life.