De anatomische preparaten van Frederik Ruysch

Decorations in Frederik Ruysch's collection

Ruysch decorated for reflection and amazement

Ruysch, Landscape with kidney, urinary and gallstones. Thes. III. TAB. 3. Print: Cornelis Huyberts.

Was Frederik Ruysch predominantly a scientist or an artist? This is a question that might arise when looking at his specimens. The anatomist showed his visitors a spectacle, both amusing and instructive.

He combined different specimens playfully in order to make engaging scenes, such as the head of a baby resting peacefully on a placenta as a pillow, or a dissected hand with a passionflower between its fingers. He embellished many baby heads and children's arms with collarets, caps, and cuffs of the finest lace and damask. Renowned are the scenic landscapes he created out of urinary stones, foetal skeletons and prepared vessels as trees.

Ruysch, Arm of a child holding parts of a placenta and a testicle. Thes. IX. TAB. III. Fig. 1. Print: Jan Mulder.

Scientist or Artist?

From an historical point of view the question whether Ruysch was a scientist or an artist is not relevant. It would never have crossed Ruysch's mind, nor to one of his visitors. The decorations would have been considered remarkable, but not strange, bizarre or unscientific. In Ruysch's age people did not make a clear-cut distinction between the artistic and the scientific aspects of a collection as we do nowadays. In those days it was common to combine instruction with amusement. A collector was obliged to present his audience a pleasing vista, and Ruysch acquit himself of this task like no other.

Ruysch brought death back to life

Ruysch often wrote about his 'art', but this word always referred to his preparation technique. With his new method he was able to inject the smallest capillaries and bring them back to their natural form. In this way he not only protected his specimens from decay, but also gave them a lively appearance; the blood still seemed to be coursing through the vessels. Ruysch was able to restore a radiant blush to the cheeks of baby heads, and for the anatomist it was a logical step to embellish the specimens even more. Later in the 18th century these practices were qualified 'unscientific', and the remarkable creations of Ruysch were then considered bizarre.

Decorations were eye-catchers

The quantity of embellished specimens should not be exaggerated. Only twelve percent of the preparations had been provided with additional decorations, the rest could have easily fit in a modern anatomical collection. This does not take away the fact that these decorations were important eye catchers. They commented on the collection as a whole and directed the visitor's gaze. They summoned two sorts of contemplative thoughts.

Scythe and handkerchief

The scenes with small skeletons invited visitors to contemplate the finiteness of human life. The foetuses on the rocks held objects that referred to the transience of life, the scythe referring to death, and the handkerchief referring to grief. Appropriate inscriptions were provided: 'Oh fate, oh bitter fate!' or 'Like a summer flower I lived briefly, quickly I emerged, quickly I died'. Visitors recognized these symbols, since they were also used in paintings.

Ruysch, Skeleton, handkerchief made from human peritoneum. Thes. VIII. TAB. 1. Detail. Print: Cornelis Huijberts.

'Divine embroidery'

The decorations also stimulated the wonder that visitors felt when they stood face to face with the fascinating structure of the human body. In Ruysch's cabinet the smallest details of the human body could be admired. The amazement inspired by the preparations, subsequently inspired awe for the Creator. Ruysch expressed this thought in a striking manner when addressing the handkerchief used by one of the foetuses to dry its tears. He had artfully prepared this cloth using a very fine part of the peritoneum. Very delicate red blood vessels run through this membrane 'looking very much like a true piece of embroidery'. The cloth reminded Ruysch of psalm 139, which describes how the omnipotent Creator had made the human body as a piece of divine embroidery.

Ruysch's embellishments stimulated such contemplations. In his cabinet anatomical knowledge, religious thoughts, and a beautiful spectacle merged effortlessly. This harmony is a distinctive quality of the early modern collections. Ruysch's cabinet was an ode to the human body in all its aspects, the masterpiece of Creation.

G.M. (Bert) van de Roemer, art historian, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands