2012 October Frederik Ruysch



His museum or repository of curiosities, contain’d such a rich and magnificent variety, that one would have rather taken it for the collection of a King, than the property of a private man. But not satisfied with the store and variety it afforded, he would beautify the scene, and join an additional lustre to the curious prospect. He mingled groves of plants, and designs of shell-work with skeletons, and dismember’d limbs; and, that nothing be wanting, he animated, if I may so speak, the whole with apposite inscriptions, taken from the best Latin poets. This museum was the admiration of foreigners: generals of armies, embassadors, electors and even princes and kings, were fond to visit it [note 1].


Figure 1.

 The Thesaurus anatomicus (Amsterdam, 1701-26) of Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) is one of nineteen works by Ruysch in the Worth Library. Related works by Ruych in the library are Thesaurus animalium, an account of his natural history collection, the more scientific Observationum anatomico-chirurgicarum centuria bound with the Catalogus rariorum (Amsterdam, 1691), which resembles the Thesaurus anatomicus in content and presentation. Ruysch was an apothecary, doctor and botanist as well as a celebrated anatomist. He studied medicine at Leiden and held the posts of Praelector in Anatomy to the Surgeons’ Guild in Amsterdam, City Surgeon-Obstetrician, forensic physician to the court of justice and Professor of Botany in the Athenaeum Illustre. In his role as City Obstetrician, Ruysch insisted on the medical training of midwives, stipulating that they should attend dissections of female bodies and sit the master’s examination for surgeon-obstetricians. He also held honorific posts in foreign academies; he was a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1720 and elected associé étranger to the Académie des sciences in place of Isaac Newton in 1727.

Ruysch’s chief fame lies in the preservation techniques which he developed for detailed study of specimens and for the baroque display methods he employed. His vast collections were internationally famed and were purchased by Czar Peter the Great in 1717, becoming core collections of the St Petersburg Kunstkamera.  Ruysch injected red and white wax and later a fluid of his own secret recipe, containing cinnabar, into blood vessels and preserved specimens in an alcohol-based “balsamic liquor”. Ruysch was not the first to use injections; methods of wax injections were practised earlier by the anatomists Lodewijk de Bils, Jan Swammerdam and Reinier de Graaf but Ruysch’s “art” brought him riches and international celebrity. Ruysch’s specimens were famed for the life-like freshness they showed, seeming to reveal bodies in state of changeless repose. Beyond such embalming marvels, his art allowed him to demonstrate the occurrence of blood vessels in almost all tissues of the body and the diverse organ-specific patterns of blood vessels. He also demonstrated the role of placenta in childbirth, the structure of the bronchial artery, the valves in the lymphatic vessels and described the circulatory system of the cortex. Ruysch’s claim that injections which follow the course of the vascular structures have a level of veracity beyond the inventions of an artist was however undercut by the fact that injections caused the blood vessels to distend and obscured the existence of glands.

Ruysch boasted that his preserved specimens would endure for centuries and some of them have lasted to this day, principally in the Petersburg Kunstkamera. They show an astonishing state of preservation, appearing as they are depicted in the engravings by Cornelius Huyberts (1669-ca.1712) to Ruysch’s works. The fame of Ruysch’s collections outlived the age of the cabinet of curiosities – the nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi composed a dialogue between Ruysch and his “mummies” (Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e delle sue mummie, Operette morali 14 (1824) where the preserved cadavers come to life and describe the physical and existential experience of death to Ruysch.

The Thesaurus anatomicus, written in Latin and Dutch, is Ruysch’s account of his specimens, illustrated with engravings by Huyberts. It reads as a guide or sales prospectus, with entries, descriptions of displays and illustrations, as Ruysch’s collections were open to the public as well as shown free to physicians. His collections were not solely of human remains, but also included natural history, described in Thesaurus animalium (1710). The above  engraving in the Thesaurus animalium (fig. 1) shows Ruysch’s collections exhibited in a mode usual for a Kunstkammer of the day, with cabinets and cases of specimens topped by decorative display arrangements.

Ruysch’s anatomical collections translated such modes of display into the arrangement of human remains. As City Obstetrician, Ruysch had access to corpses of infants, foetuses and women who died in childbirth. Ruysch not only used these remains as objects of study in themselves but also as a mode of displaying other specimens. Thus he used preserved infants’ limbs, most often arms and hands, to present organs or body parts, or tissue concocted by Ruysch himself from clotted blood. (fig. 2)


Figure 2.

The limbs were swathed in fine cloths and lace to hide the severed joint and appear as disembodied arms proffering an object to the viewer. These limbs were also used to display Ruysch’s natural history collections (fig. 3). The extant specimens show the absolute accuracy of the Huybert’s engravings.


Figure 3.

Ruysch’s other modes of artistic display were still more ingenious. They consisted of rupes (“rocks”), anatomical trophies which imitated the displays of semi-precious stones or corals in contemporary Kunstkammern. Thus human and bovine arteries filled with red wax took the place of coral, as Ruysch notes, and polished stones from the gall bladder and urinary tract provided a rocky base. Sometimes birds enlivened these confections; other props included objects made from the bladder or the intestines of an ovine foetus. The actors in these assemblages were foetal and infant skeletons, artfully posed – reclining, gesturing, brandishing scythes, wearing pearls, plumes or flower garlands, playing musical instruments or fishing. (fig. 4)


Figure 4.

They often adopt the pleurant pose used in anatomical images of skeletons from Vesalius on – but their ‘handkerchiefs’ are made from membranes such as the omentum or fine parts of the peritoneum (fig. 5). As Tomlinson and Roberts note, the anatomical detail in the illustrations of the rupes is poor, with the carpal skeleton shown as a single solid mass [note 2].


Figure 5.

The rupes, preserved remains and other specimens were further adorned with Latin epigraphs, deploring the fragility of life or the cruel fate of the foetus whose tomb is the womb. The epigraphs can be traced to the Bible, Roman epitaphs, emblematic mottoes, an allusion to Harvey’s ex ovo omnia, the proverbs inscribed in the Anatomy Theatre at Leiden and the Latin poets (principally Horace, also Ovid, Lucretius, Seneca, Virgil, Manilius, Ausonius, Maximian, Cicero, Plautus), in several cases as quoted by Montaigne in his essay “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (“To study philosophy is to learn how to die”). Such allusions were to be recognised by the reader who could reflect on their applicability and the tension with the original literary context – which could even be a comedy, as in Ruysch’s use of lines from Plautus’ comedy Pseudolus [note 3]. Such transpositions on occasion show a black humour. In the Catalogus Ruysch describes the remains of a noted prostitute, who had died of syphilis, including her radius consumed by the disease. Ruysch displays these ravaged bones with the motto Imis haeret amor medullis (love cleaves deep in the marrow) [note 4]. The line is surely an allusion to Aeneid I.717-19, where Dido hugs (haeret) Cupid disguised, unaware that this love, described as poison and a wound in her veins, will bring her to ruin and death [note 5]. (Ruysch also describes how the prostitute’s skull was translucent when held up to candlelight – a scene worthy of a Dutch genre painting.)

Such classical allusions could also take the form of quotation and transformation of known iconography. Ruysch concocted specimens which drew directly on classical sculpture, like preserved infants shown with animals, on one occasion with a rare West Indian snake. The specimen alluded to a Hellenistic sculpture type, to the legend of the baby Hercules strangling serpents and to the Laocoön. The epigrams affixed to these specimens lament the fragility of the deceased child, in implicit contrast to the joyous character of the Hellenistic prototypes, the epic grandeur of Laocoön or Hercules who precociously defeats forces of death. Such montages also allowed Ruysch to exhibit his zoological collections. Ruysch described how he posed one pair of infant skeletons to represent the philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus, the first laughing and the second weeping, in expression of their views of human life – a noted Renaissance iconographic type [note 6]. Ruysch’s repeated assertions that the wax-filled arteries resembled coral branches becomes more intelligible if we recall the legendary origin of coral from the blood of the beheaded Medusa – an artistic theme favoured in late Renaissance cabinets of curiosities.

Ruysch’s attitude to human remains is hardly in tune with modern sensibility and the reader is certainly repelled when he describes proudly a gall stone of “prodigious size and admirable form” extracted post mortem from the bladder of his own son [note 7]. Roberts and Tomlinson describe Ruysch’s rupes as “ridiculous and unpleasant…a collection of pseudo-anatomical graffiti…an extravaganza, which has to be considered as the expression of a curious trait in the character of a most knowledgeable and experienced anatomist” [note 8]. However, Ruysch certainly did not regard his exhibits as a ghoulish show to titillate the curious or merely as a sophisticated version of theatres of death in the momento mori tradition. We should not see him as a Baroque precursor of Damien Hirst – nor as a northern European equivalent to the Capuchin ossuaries with their bone mosaics and posed mummies. (Ruysch retains some popularity to this day amongst enthusiasts of the macabre – his rupes feature on tee shirt designs.)

For Ruysch, his displays were a valid means of scientific education and he viewed his artistic preparations as a way of overcoming distaste for the matter. He saw his displays as a way of exhibiting the marvellous complexity and delicacy of the organism – a description of the capillaries displayed in the dissected head of a boy leads him to exclaim with St Paul “O profunditas divitiarum” (“O depth of riches!”, Epistle to the Romans, 11:33) [note 9]. In this sense, Ruysch becomes an interesting case to study the variance in attitudes to death and the body – and how powerfully these shaped exhibition of anatomical matter. This discussion will examine how Ruysch’s presentations drew on artistic and literary conventions – and how the use of anatomy could develop and open these conventions in unique ways.

If we are to understand that Ruysch’s artistry of body parts is not a macabre debasement of human being turned into product, we need to recall the conventions with which he is working. We have seen that Ruysch’s “thesaurus” (encyclopaedia/ treasury) of human remains extends the mode of display appropriate to the cabinets of curiosities or Kunstkammer of the day. Such displays grew out of collections of antiquities, so that the rarities and precious works of nature and of human art could be exhibited together. The   writings of the Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, exemplified such interests, as did the Museo cartaceo (“Paper museum”) of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1583-1657), the Roman polymath and friend of Poussin. Early anatomical illustration – notably Vesalius – uses ancient figural sculpture to display dissections. The wonders of the body – the human microcosm – are exhibited in the context of antiquarian study, which returned the ‘dead’ past to life.

Ruysch’s displays with their Latin verses present a development of this tradition. Rather than juxtaposing the marvels of art and nature, nature is presented in artificial ways. Ruysch boasted – not without reason – that his prodigious skill in preservation made the corruptible body eternal, a thing whose longevity could match the enduring fame of art. His use of red and white wax, like a painter’s use of colours, gave an illusion of vitality to the infant heads he bottled. The overtly artificial methods of display were a theatrical exhibition which drew the spectator’s awareness to the extraordinary art of preservation. The study of nature’s realities is furthered by the artifice which falsifies the appearance of life.

Such artifice was the object of criticism by Ruysch’s rival anatomist, Govard Bidloo, whose Anatomia humani corporis (1685) was illustrated with superb engravings by Gerard Lairesse. The two engaged in a pamphlet war in the 1690s on the merits of illustration versus preparation. Bidloo objected to the fiction of life in Ruysch’s embalming which hid the reality of organic corruption, calling it a crowd-pulling show, a meretricious art which consisted in making up and decking out corpses [note 10]. Bidloo’s deeper criticism lay in the rigidity of Ruysch’s preparations, as cadavers and as artifice; they distorted the variety and movement in the living body with their meretricious fabrication of ‘eternal art’ out of death. For him Ruysch’s guides did not catalogue a museum or thesaurus but a cemetery, the “Ruyschiana coemeteria” [note 11]. Bidloo’s endorsement of variety and change went beyond anatomy to his literary work as satirist and playwright and his criticisms of the conventions of French classicist drama.

The other artistic aspect of Ruysch’s anatomical displays can be termed emblematic. The use of arms and hands to proffer body parts to the reader derives from the emblematic tradition which reached a high point of popularity in seventeenth century Holland. The image of the heart proffered by a disembodied hand appears as a frequent emblematic image, often used to figure a devotional theme, and is surely recalled in Ruysch’s numerous jars of organs held by infant hands. One of the rupes features a heart hanging from a thread as though caught on a fishing line, with the inscription Omnia sunt hominum tenui pendentia filo (“All human things hang by a slender thread”, Ovid, Epistolae ex Ponto IV.3.35),  reminiscent of emblematic figures where putti fish or hunt hearts. Ruysch also exploited the commercial aspects of such emblematic commemoration when he proposed that lovers could purchase the embalmed hearts of their loved ones, nicely boxed, as tributes to the memory of the beloved and “the flourishing of my art” [note 12].The gall stones which formed the rocky base of Ruysch’s rupes  taught a moral lesson, as one of accompanying epigrams declares: Calculus, et vastus lapidum, quem cernis, acervus, Quam sit vita hominum plena dolore, docet (“The gall stone and the vast heap of stones which you see teaches how full of pain is human life”). Ruysch translates such conventions from the figurative into reality – a reality which is made acceptable and intelligible by its artificiality.

The ubiquitous Latin verses are thus central to this emblematic presentation – and indeed otherwise would appear to be superfluous flourishes. The displays, with sententious motto and image, are essentially anatomical emblems. Ruysch underlines this when he calls his Latin epigraphs “symbols” – a term derived from emblematic literature. He uses emblematic mottos, like Vulneror ut sanem (“wounded to cure”), from Pierre Le Moine’s Devises heroique et morales (1649) which he inscribes on a specimen of a foetus holding an equine omentum [note 13]. Ruysch also employs classical verses which were used as emblems, or deployed emblematically in scientific paintings, by artists such as Hoefnagel [note 14]. Such emblematic deployments were established in early anatomy – in particular in the anatomical theatre at Leiden, where Ruysch studied and where skeletons bore ensigns declaring the impermanence of life, some of them re-used by Ruysch.

When Robert James spoke of the inscriptions as “enlivening” the specimens, he uses an emblematic convention which saw the motto as the ‘soul’ of the emblem – a convention made piquant with Ruysch’s death-defying mummies. Ruysch’s quotation or allusion to known literary passages was also in keeping with the emblematic tradition, where the reader is encouraged to derive an insight from a new conjunction of word and image [note 15]. Such insights were not merely a literary game but regarded as a way of discovering unsuspected insights or correspondences in nature. Emblematic literature repeatedly proclaimed the wonders of creation as a series of “conceits” or figures created by divine ingenuity. This attitude is exemplified by Aldrovandi’s Historia monstrorum, where mythical creatures like tritons and satyrs are presented alongside abnormalities and all of nature presented as a series of signs or symbols to be deciphered. Like Ruysch, Aldrovandi is fascinated by birth and foetal development where nature’s laws can be discerned in process.

Both men also present human abnormalities alongside those of animals or plants. Ruysch’s displays also play on the formal similarities between human anatomy and vegetal or mineral creation – arteries filled with red wax are likened to corals, their structure compared to trees, etc. Such analogies are ancient commonplaces in natural philosophy but Ruysch takes them to a new level in his insistently artificial displays. They not only exhibit the shared forms or structures in nature but also the analogies between various forms of natura artificiosa. Thus he boasts that his polished gall stones resemble semi-precious stones and affixes a “pseudo-membrane” fabricated from his own blood to an exotic botanical specimen – a continuation of his practice of using draped infant arms to show body parts (fig. 6). The scientific point of the pseudo-membrane was to exhibit the consistency which can be developed by clotted blood. The ‘handkerchiefs’ made from membranes held by the pleurant infant skeletons are compared by him to delicate embroideries.


Figure 6.

Ruysch’s exhibits were created with assistance of his son Hendrik and his daughter Rachel, a talented still-life artist who specialised in flower painting. The rupes showed the baroque conceit of using objects to represent other objects – or the representations of the object itself, like a mosaic made of shells which represents a shell. Such play is at the heart of Ruysch’s anatomical art, where human remains are preserved to become artificial pictures of themselves. His use of infant remains, deeply distasteful to our sensibility, is incomprehensible without awareness of the role of the putto in Renaissance and Baroque art as an ornamental and emblematic figure which bears attributes or shows agency – a role pertinent to Ruysch’s deictic use of dismembered children’s arms which proffer organs to the viewer.

Ruysch takes the still life (nature morte), the artistic uses of the putto, the ingenious emblematic assemblage and the play of natura artificiosa to unique lengths. Central to his   artistic presentation is the notion of display – of the objects presented so that they cannot escape the viewer’s attention and reflection. Ruysch’s comments on his presentation in his books suggest that he regarded his works as pleasing and instructive, according to the classical formula of delectare-docere. He also gives considerable detail of the location of the exhibits in the thesaurus, suggesting that he is drawing on traditional techniques of the artes memoriae (mnemotechnics or artificial memory), where arguments were imagined figuratively as striking images with captions arranged in rooms. The application of such methods to anatomy raises interesting questions, given the importance of spatial memory in the subject.

Our anatomical illustration insistently points away from itself to what it represents. Ruysch located his displays in an emblematic tradition where the relations between signs, figures and referents were elaborated to tease out the complexity of their interactions. He exploits the polysemy of emblems in the presentation of objects which are meaningful in themselves and figure something else, like a ‘handkerchief’ fabricated from a membrane. The anatomical lesson is constantly interwoven with the emblematic semantics. Anatomy presents the parts of the body as an object and as signs – but these signs are not figures. Ruysch displayed his specimens so as to juxtapose signs in medicine and signs in language. As suggested, this allowed him to take plays between art and nature to unique lengths. It also placed the ethical reflections occasioned by the dead body within the anatomical representation.

Yet it must be said that in turning remains into emblems, Ruysch obliterates the identity that his specimens had in their short lives. The infant and foetal remains are anonymous components, identified by their pathology alone, which become meaningful and individualised only as emblematic anatomies. Both emblematics and anatomy turn people into topics and types, whose uniqueness resides in the special interpretation of signs in a given case. Here the body as sign – pathological and metaphoric – works against the humane dignity which Ruysch’s allegories were supposed to impart. Leopardi’s Dialogo opens with the “mummies” singing, a chorus who lament their confused memory of their own lives and the difficulty of recalling who they were when alive. Ruysch’s artifice ignored such questions in the double transformation of the body into medical specimen and moralising art.



Ruysch detail.


[1] Robert James, Medical Dictionary London 1743, based on Bernard Fontenelle’s Eloge de Ruysch 1731, quoted in The Fabric of the Body, 293. James’ account of Ruysch wasoften attributed to Samuel Johnson.

[2] Tomlinson and Roberts, 298.

[3] The lines are “quasi herba solstitialis paulisper fui, repente exortus sum, repente occidi”, “Like a summer plant, I lived a short time: I sprang up suddenly, and suddenly I fell” Plautus, Pseudolus I.i.36-37, inscribing a rupes described in Thesaurus III, 8.

[4] Catalogus 98.

[5] The motto also recalls Catullus 64, Epithalamium for Peleus and Thetis, ll. 91-93 where Ariadne’s consuming passion for Theseus is described similarly “imis exarsit tota medullis”.

[6] Ruysch, Thesaurus I, 2.

[7] Ruysch, Thesaurus III, 5.

[8] Roberts and Tomlinson, 294; 298.

[9] Ruysch, Thesaurus III, 29.

[10 ]“fucandis, adulterandis minio, cocco, cerussa et quavis arte meretriciaexornandis”, Bidloo, Vindiciae quarundam delineationum anatomicarum contra ineptas animadversiones Fred: Ruyschii, 14-15, quoted in Margócsy, 2011, 192-94.

[11] Bidloo, Vindiciae, 60, quoted in Margócsy, 2011, 203.

[12 ]Ruysch, Thesaurus IV, 45. Ruysch proposes a boxed hearts as an alternative to the English custom of making mourning rings set with the hair of the deceased.

[13] Ruysch, Catalogus rariorum, 107.

[14] The motto Ipsa dies aperit, conficit ipsa dies from Ausonius’ De rosis nascentibus (formerly attributed to Virgil) is used by Hoefnagel in his 1592 engraving of plants and insects, in Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii.

[15] Ruysch’s adaptions make a point; he adorns the remains of 7 year old with “Vixi et quem dederat natura cursum, peregi” (Catalogus 86), an adaptation of Dido’s suicide speech: “Vixi et quem dederat fortuna cursum, peregi” (“I have lived and finished the course that fortune gave me”, Aeneid IV.653).

Selected Bibliography and Further Reading

Francis J. Cole, A History of Comparative Anatomy, London 1949.

Sir Martin Conway, “History of the Anatomical Museum”, in A Miscellany presented to John Macdonald Mackay LL.D., edited by Oliver Elton, Liverpool-London, 1914, 302-318.

Stephen Jay Gould and Rosamond Purcell, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, New York,1992.

Michael Hagner, “Enlightened Monsters”, in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski and Simon Schaffer, Chicago, 1999, 175-217.

Giacomo Leopardi,  Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e delle sue mummie, Operette morali 14, in Prose, 2 vols. Turin, 1948-50.

Dániel Margócsy, “Advertising cadavers in the republic of letters: anatomical publications in the early modern Netherlands”, British Journal for the History of Science, 42, 2, June 2009, 187-210.

Dániel Margócsy, “A Museum of Wonders or a Cemetery of Corpses? The Commercial Exchange of Anatomical Collections in Early Modern Netherlands”, in Silent Messengers. The Circulation of Material Objects of Knowledge in the Early Modern Low Countries, edited by Sven Dupré and Christoph Lüthy, Berlin, 2011, 185-215.

K. B. Roberts and J. D. W. Tomlinson, The Fabric of the Body. European Traditions of Anatomical Illustration,Oxford, 1992.

A detailed website dedicated to Ruysch, “The anatomical preparations of Frederik Ruysch”, with scanned copies of his Thesaurus and photographs of surviving specimens, can be found at http://ruysch.dpc.uba.uva.nl

Text:  Dr Clare E. L. Guest (TCD). 

With thanks to Elizabethanne Boran and Monica Ferrando.

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