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17th-Century Dioramas Made from Real Human Body Parts

Born in Netherlands in 1638, Frederik Ruysch studied plants and trained as an apothecary. He also studied animals, and then humans, which led him to study anatomy and become a renowned authority on the subject. He was responsible for several breakthroughs in the art of embalming and otherwise preserving dead tissue. And the reason Ruysch was so keen on preserving dead things that were once alive was because of his art. Ruysch wanted to share the inner structure of the body with the public, and to do that, he made dioramas out of skeletons and body parts, to appeal to the public's sense of aesthetics. He opened a museum to house his collection and works.

Among jars of embalmed specimens, there were several startling dioramas containing skeletons of infants adorned with delicate and morbid decor. In one of the pieces, depicted below, five skeletons are carefully positioned on a vase foundation made of inflated tissues from human testes. There was a feather headdress, a girdle of sheep intestines, and a spear made of the hardened vas deferens of an adult man.

The skeleton standing at the top of the pile of preserved human remains holds a piece of bone like a violin and a dried artery for a bow. Its head tilted towards the heavens is coupled with the inscription, “Ah Fate, ah Bitter Fate!”

The dioramas were a combination of science display and memento mori. Read more about Ruysch and his dioramas at Atlas Obscura. While the illustrations of his works are drawn instead of photographed, they might still be disturbing to some readers.

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