Anatomical Practice – Skeleton on Show AA&ADA Fair Melbourne

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Quirky antique objects are always popular at any antiques show and this year it will be no exception at the Melbourne Antiques Fair 24 – 28 April when dealer Derek Greengrass, of Greengrass Antiques from the Sydney Antique Centre, who is a member of the Australian Antiques & Art Dealers Association (AA&ADA), offers a small and rare, museum quality, articulated and carved oak skeleton for sale.

Made c1680 it was believed to have been used by academics and/or apothecary’s in the medical profession, or perhaps a ship’s surgeon, to illustrate the various bones of the human body.

The development of anatomy as a science extends from antiquity to modernity.

The ancient Egyptians had acquired some medical knowledge 1600 years before the Christ event. Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC), an ancient Greek physician who lent his name to the oath Dr’s take to serve their patients, began the work that demonstrated a basic understanding of the musculoskeletal structure. He is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of western medicine.

In the 2nd century Galen, whose work was known to doctors of the Renaissance period in Europe through the study of Arabic medicine, had extended knowledge of the organs by animal dissection.

Using human cadavers for anatomical research began in the 4th century BCE when live dissections were carried out in Alexandria under the auspices of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  After the fall of Rome this realm of knowledge disappeared from off the radar of learning for a thousand years.

Polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) undertook his own dissections, often in the dark of night by candlelight for fear of discovery as such an activity was still under church prohibition in his day. He was infused with the spirit of scientific inquiry, a visionary way ahead of his time and for him knowing how to see became a focus. Sight he believed was a man’s highest sense, as it alone allowed him to enjoy an experience immediately.

He applied his own creativity to every realm, his unusual powers of observation and mastery of the art of drawing allowing his dual passionate pursuits of science and art to flourish.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) produced his opus, the monumental De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) in 1543. It is considered the first comprehensive and illustrated textbook of anatomy. He believed the skeleton to be the framework of the human body.

This major work, published at Basle by Johannes Oporinus a noted humanist, is a landmark in scientific investigation. It was one of the first works to display a thorough ongoing commitment to empirical observation, combined with accurate descriptive illustrations.

To provide the illustrations images were cut onto blocks of pearwood (woodcuts) from drawings, which may have emanated from the atelier of Titian, Tiziano Vecelli (c.1485-1576) whose influence dominated Venice during the time of Vesalius’ stay there. No one really knows.

A Professor at Padua university, Andreas Vesalius’s contribution to the growth of knowledge of anatomy is considered profound. As many of his contemporaries, he still believed the purpose of the body was thought to enable the fulfillment of the soul, and in reality demonstrated God’s divine design.

The whole idea of the structure of the human body was for a long time also solidly rooted in religion; reminding people of the beauty of creation and the fragility of life.

It remained surrounded by superstitious awe for centuries after the Middle Ages and associated with the spirit of the departed soul and as such created disquieting uncertainty among the populace.

Lack of knowledge always creates fear.

The study of the anatomy of the human body became a legal practice during the mid sixteenth century, and then flourished during the 17th and 18th century, generating a need for such an object as a skeleton to be manufactured out of other materials.

Fact and fiction with a little bit of fancy thrown in for good measure brought about a desire for more people to really ‘know thyself’.

Many other famous artists studied anatomy to improve their art form and from Michelangelo to Rembrandt, drawings assisted universities to transmit the new knowledge to students of medicine visually.

Italy became a leading centre for study and students travelled to wherever a ‘fresh’ body was available, often after a hanging.

At the time the ‘oak’ skeleton was made investigating the various parts, aspects and organs of the body was the job of the anatomist, who also believed the organs were the instruments by which the soul carried out its actions in the body.

This applied to both animals and humans.

The most famous anatomical theatre of the day was at Leiden University, established in 1663 in the Netherlands, where a hands-on approach was unique. It served as an example for the teaching courses of many early modern centres of medical education.

Instructing students meant buying skeletons to aid the process.

As these were very difficult to obtain it’s perhaps no surprise that enterprising cabinetmakers turned their hand to creating copies in wood, which was no mean feat and expensive because of the amount of labour involved.

The 17th-century anatomical theatre gradually became a centre of excellence not only because of its dissection activities, but also for the Doctors as a way of growing interest in the medical curriculum and medicine as a profession.

It was a place for public disputes, and an important tourist attraction. Knowledge and objects in an anatomical theatre became the subject of curiosity, the idea of looking inside the human body, of growing and great interest.

The development of the printing press enabled an exchange of ideas and illustrations, by way of engravings, allowing knowledge of the skeleton and muscle areas of the body to disseminate spread far and wide.

Surgical instruments on display certainly added a distinct ‘horror’ element, visualizing biblical stories and reinforcing moral lessons.

It was the stories attached to all of these ideas that were the attraction for so long and in the end the whole idea became confusing…was it a theatre for instruction in reality, or an extension of a cabinet of curiosities, a museum of sorts.?

Separating the theatre of wonder from the theatre of learning became a centre of controversy. Dividing the medical from the philosophical, an activity in itself.

Understanding the human body became big business, however it would have to wait until the spread of humanism throughout Europe gradually gave way to enlightenment and a period when anatomists by and large finalized and systemized knowledge about our human anatomy.

This was aided by ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ (not the TV Show), an English language human anatomy textbook originally written by one Henry Gray (1827-1861), which was regarded as an extremely influential work on the subject.

The skeleton at the AA&ADA Fair should generate a lot of interest.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

*Spiritual Song – Dem Bones


The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The hip bone’s connected to the back bone
The back bone’s connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone’s connected to the head bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The finger bone’s connected to the hand bone,
The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone,
The arm bone’s connected to the shoulder bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

Chorus after every Verse
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

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