Alaska News

Art and anatomy share a gory history

On May 12, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler was publicly beheaded for crimes committed in Basel, Switzerland. His corpse was turned over to a brilliant young Flemish doctor, Andreas Vesalius, who conducted a detailed dissection of the body, also in public.

Vesalius used the session to debunk much of the medical misinformation of the day and to produce one of the most important -- and beautifully illustrated -- scientific texts ever published, "De humani corporis fabrica" ("On the fabric of the human body") with stunning drawings by Jan Stephen van Calcar, said to have been a student of Titian.

He also drew derision from the medical establishment. Moralists decried turning human mortality into a spectacle and equated gawking at innards with the Roman circuses of barbaric antiquity. He was summoned to inquests by church officials.

"Body Worlds Vital," the exhibition of human bodies on display at the Anchorage Museum, has also had its share of criticism and controversy. Issues of consent, confidentiality, good taste and respect for the deceased have been raised.

The entanglement between art, anatomy and social mores has not always been harmonious, said Maine artist Sarah Yakawonis, who comes to Anchorage this week. On Thursday she'll give a public lecture on the history of anatomical illustration. On Friday, she'll lead an all-ages workshop in creating such illustrations from common craft supplies.

Yakawonis uses quilling paper -- thin strips of colored paper that can be curled and shaped -- to create anatomical images.

"I discovered quilling paper in a local art store and fell in love with it," she told the Daily News. "I did the anatomy pieces because I wanted to find a project that would take some time and keep my interest."


She called the technique "really tedious." One takes the long strips, coils them, positions them, uses dabs of glue to hold them in place.

Quilling is often used to create floral designs. But to Yakawonis, the paper ribbons suggested the stringiness of muscle tissue, which led to what she calls her "Anatomical Series."


There's a long-running dichotomy regarding anatomical illustration, Yakawonis said. "One track is its use for medical instruction. The other is using anatomy to teach artists the internal structure of the human form and, hopefully, making them better artists."

The most ancient examples of medical art come from the Middle East, she said, and are "pretty crude and basic."

Vesalius was born at the right time. A blossoming of science concurred with technical advances in painting and perspective that let artists depict visual reality with startling precision.

"The Renaissance was the big catalyst," Yakawonis said. "Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of anatomical drawings at this time," Yakawonis said. "He did them to illustrate his medical experiments."

There emerged a genre of paintings with medical dissections as their subject; Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" is perhaps the most famous.

The fascination with what lies under the skin also propelled developments in printing. "The first four-part color print job was developed to re-create anatomical illustrations," Yakawonis said.

But -- and here the critics have a point -- the paying public seemed less interested in fine art than in seeing a gory show.

"Between the 15th and 17th centuries, there was something called 'anatomical theater,' " Yakawonis said. "They built huge theaters especially for these events. They were open to the public and well attended. They were gigantic celebrations. The anatomists were celebrities."

And the celebrations always started with the execution of the specimen -- a condemned felon like von Gebweiler.


Setting aside discussion about how far entertainment has come -- or not -- since 1543, the "Body Worlds Vital" exhibit makes a palpable effort at presenting science in an aesthetic format. Like the exhibit of plastinated corpses at the Alaska State Fair this summer, "Body Worlds Vital" displays bodies in various poses. But the two shows are qualitatively different.

For one thing, the museum show is much better lit. The glass-enclosed displays are easy to view from all angles. The signs can be read quickly and contain a lot of information in very few words. Large video screens supply animated microscopic views. The samples seem to have been prepared with greater care and with some thought concerning how they can clearly and intuitively convey facts of arthritis or smoking.

Thought has also gone into the layout of the show. One enters through a series of what appear to be fiberglass casts made of torsos ranging from very fit to very flabby. This has the feel of a contemporary art show composed of neutral, non-human media.

Then you come to the first former person, a formally mounted skeleton. For most museum-goers, there's nothing terribly startling about seeing real human bones standing exactly as one might see them in a classroom. It's not particularly different from familiar displays seen in natural history or medical museums.


The next body is also a skeleton, mostly, but with the ligaments added. Subsequent bodies add muscles, nerves, blood vessels and so forth. The progression raises the question: If viewing a bare skeleton is normal, what is abnormal about looking at a more complete corpse? Looking at bones with ligature? Bones and lungs? Bones and muscle? Each viewer will have to answer that independently.

The more intact bodies have names. There's "The Runner," his muscle tissue flying away from the bone like flags. "The Singer," his big chest opened to reveal vocal chords. "The Swordsman," "The Lassoer," one posed with a sword, the other with a rope, backs open to show how spine and bones shift with different activities.

"The Body of Open Doors" is an almost Dali-like arrangement of a person sliced vertically, the slices fanning out like the pages of a book. It shows precise biological information, but it has the design elements of sculpture.


A video at the end of the several rooms holding the "Body Worlds Vital" exhibit demonstrates the process of preserving tissue by permeating it with plastic. The narrator says that all samples in this show came from people who donated their bodies to the cause (an assertion that I have not been able to either confirm or find any cause to dispute). And it makes the connection between "Body Worlds" and the historic study of anatomy.

Renaissance artists were more accustomed to death, says the narrator. It was all around them. Modern people, however, strive to distance themselves from it.

Indeed, our ancestors would probably have been less shocked by a corpse in the town square than they would by the extreme violence depicted in today's best-attended movies and how many of their descendents will dress as ghouls and zombies for Halloween and find it funny.

"Everybody's interested in blood and guts, even if they don't admit it," is how Yakawonis put it.


The Inquisition acknowledged that Vesalius' interest had scientific merit and dismissed charges against him. Universities fought over his services. Ongoing research proved him right and his detractors wrong. He rose to the pampered post of beloved court physician to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Philip II of Spain. If your current medical care goes beyond leeches and cauterizing, it probably owes something to Vesalius' investigations.

But he died far from home, shipwrecked while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. No one knows where his body is buried.

Not so for Jakob Karrer von Gebweilerm, the criminal. After the famous dissection, Vesalius scraped and reassembled his bones. Von Gebweiler's well-preserved skeleton, head restored, is said to be the world's oldest anatomical preparation.

It remains on display at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Basel.

Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.