Antique and Medical Vanitas

This wax vanitas from the 18th century was recently on display in England along with a host of other bizarre antique medical curiosities.  The Wax Vanitas was an educational work of art designed to remind us that human life is perilously short. This example shows a decaying human head, with a skull and worms feeding off the flesh. The other side shows the face during life. The idea was to hammer home the message that death comes all too soon to each and every one of us. This is similar to memento mori gravestones of the era depicting skulls, hourglasses and scythes.

Many similar devices were used in 18th century medical education as well.  The following wax vanitas belongs to the Museum of Anatomical Waxes “Luigi Cattezneo” in Bologna, Italy, and was intended to show the structure and placement of the eye apparatus in the head.

This anatomical wax model shows the internal organs in a female torso and head, including the lungs, liver, stomach, kidneys and intestines. Complete with the veins and arteries, the heart is entirely removable. The figure was made by Francesco Calenzuoli (1796-1821), an Italian model maker renowned for his attention to detail. Wax models were used for teaching anatomy to medical students because they made it possible to pick out and emphasise specific features of the body, making their structure and function easier to understand. This made them especially useful at a time when few bodies were available for dissection. The model was donated by the Department of Human Anatomy at the University of Oxford.


This next piece is an ivory bust of General Wallenstein, from the Science Museum London.  It dates from around 1634.  General Wallenstein was originally from Bohemia, in the modern day Czech Republic, and is depicted here surrounded by objects illustrating the transience of life. These include sand timers, skulls and books. Half of his face has been stripped away to reveal the skull. The stand is studded with a semi-precious jewel reputedly taken from his tomb. Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583-1634) was a general of the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This was mainly a religious war between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. However, it was also about political supremacy. Wallenstein was assassinated in 1634 after being accused of high treason.


This next object is from the Science Museum’s Brought to Life web collection, most of which come from the Wellcome collection.  It is a plaster model of the head of an executed Chinese Yangstze river pirate. The long ponytail is real human hair. It is particularly gruesome because it depicts the head in great anatomical detail. Arteries, veins and spinal cord are accurately modelled across the severed neck. The head also has its own bloodstained carrying box. The origins and purpose of the model are uncertain. It was possibly used in an exhibition because it was made in England early in the last century.


From an abbey in the Champagne region of France, this carved wooden piece shows a Christian martyr who was beheaded. The head is unusual in that it is shown in accurate anatomical detail. The spinal cord, oesophagus (food pipe) and vertebrae are intricately carved and clearly visible. The teeth are made from ivory.


And last, carved from wood, this statue shows a woman with half of her head intact and the other half with a bare skull. This type of figure is known as a memento mori – literally a reminder of death, used to prompt people about the shortness of life and the inevitability of death. A skull was used to represent death from the 1500s onwards, replacing the older image of a skeleton leading a living person to their fate.

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