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Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God

The Anatomical Venus is a curious relic from 18th century Italy. These wax women were anatomical models of the human body, internal organs and all. But they were also works of art, dedicated to science and blessed by the Catholic Church. They were used by medical students to study the body, and for that they had the advantage of never rotting or smelling. But they were also for laypersons to learn from. In fact, the first such Venus was displayed in a museum for all to see so that they would marvels at the miracle of the human body. Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy Museum and author of The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic tells us how they were constructed.

The process usually started with a team, an artist and an anatomist or a natural philosopher, who would pick a pose from one of their trusted anatomical atlases by Vesalius, Albinus, or another respectable author. Then they’d acquire body parts from a nearby hospital to model each wax organ on actual organs.

A larger figure might have required as many as 200 body parts. Remember, this is before refrigeration or embalming, and is happening in Italy where it’s warm. Eleanor Crook, who’s a wax worker and has restored some of these pieces, believes they were actually hand-modeled rather than cast because when organs are dead they have a different, flatter look. All of the organs in La Specola models look like they’re alive, and that takes some artistic translation.

The stylized exteriors and faces were not necessarily based on real humans. They were meant to be idealized representations of women and typically had real hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic hair, and glass eyes. I’ve also never seen one without a fetus in her womb, even if the body doesn’t look pregnant from the outside.

The many versions of the Anatomical Venus served as education, entertainment, and memento mori as well. Read more about them at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Wellcome Images)

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