Sunday, April 20, 2014

Light and Dust: A Reading of Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer's 'Homo ex Humo': A Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy Scholar in Residence Richard Barnett

This April, we have been delighted to host Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow and medical historian Richard Barnett as Morbid Anatomy Library Scholar in Residence. This is the first of what we hope will be many posts wherein Richard responds to objects, ideas and artifacts in our collection. Here, he draws out the intricate tangle of ideas in the the illustrations of Scheuchzer's 1731 Physica Sacra (top image) and the fetal skeleton tableaux of Frederik Ruysch (bottom image). Copies of both books now reside in the Morbid Anatomy Museum Collection.
Light and Dust: A Reading of Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer's 'Homo ex Humo'
By Richard Barnett

Homo ex Humo: man from the dust. Scheuchzer’s intriguing trompe l’oie presents a picture within a picture, and a meditation on some of the oppositions at the heart of Christianity – eternity and time, grace and sin, flesh and word, light and dust.

Everything within the frame is graceful, in the most literal sense. Scheuchzer shows us the Garden of Eden on the evening of the sixth day of creation, as set out in the Book of Genesis 1:26-27 (King James Version):
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
A landscape which to modern eyes bears such clear traces of deep time and evolution served Scheuchzer and his readers well as a symbol of creation. The first dew is hardly dry on the ground, and even the dust, the abject and impermanent dust, is fresh and new. A gentle, sylvan river valley is busy with life: trees, flowers, fruits, grasses, and most of all animals, paired off two by two like the figures in a Victorian Noah’s Ark (though not in the Biblical version – see Genesis 7:1-3). Rabbits and horses, muskrats and storks have been made whole through union with a mate, and their lives are as complete as the paradise they inhabit.

Only one creature lacks a partner. Adam, the first man, seems startled to have been vaulted so suddenly into existence, and the curious position of his hands indicates an absence in his life, even in the moment of his creation. He appears to be trying to pray, but each hand cannot find its natural counterpart. If he is to praise his creator, if he is to live as contentedly the animals over which he has been granted dominion, he needs a companion. The voluptuous shapes of roots and tree-trunks beside him foreshadow what is on God’s mind, but the fulfilment of Adam’s lack will destroy the paradise we see.

Everything outside the frame is imperfect, and this imperfection is a consequence of the story unfolding within the frame. God creates Adam, then Eve, causing Adam to fall into a deep sleep and making the first woman from his rib (Genesis 1:18-25). Eve is tempted by the serpent and tempts Adam; both taste fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and fall from their original state of grace. Dissected specimens around the frame contrast the messy, fleshly reality of human reproduction, in sin and without grace, with the purity of God’s original creation in the picture – a shaft of light and a word.

On the right side of the frame is one of the strangest figures in Western art, borrowed from the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch’s 'Tableau With Three Skeletons.' Ruysch combines two near-universal representations of birth and death – an infant and a skeleton – into a single figure expressing the sublime tragedy of creation and fall. The largest figure in the engraving, it seems to have stepped out of the picture and on to the frame, and this movement from perfection to imperfection may help to explain why it is drying its empty eye-sockets with a caul.

Inverting the natural order of things, this skeleton has died before it could be born, and it weeps for what is to come. If it is a child of Adam and Eve, is it Cain, the first murderer, or Abel, the first victim of murder? Leaving Eden, carrying the burden of original sin, it enacts the fall and banishment of its parents, taking the first reluctant steps on a long and hard road to salvation. No wonder it weeps, then; what can dry bones weep but dust?

1 comment:

Bert van de Roemer said...

Thank you for this article and the interesting interpretation. I discuss the same print in my article in the Journal of the History of Collections. Here I try to give a more differentiated view on the collection of Ruysch and come to a slightly different interpretation of the print. The tone of the comments on the collection changed significantly between 1691 and 1728. The sorrowful vanitas element gradually made way for statements about the magnificence of the human body and its Creator. This corresponded with the current fysico-theological discourse, which became more popular among Dutch collectors at the beginning of the 18th century. I think the images outside the frame do not so much represent imperfection, but show the magnificence of natural creation that is juxtaposed to the godly creation in the frame:

"The inscription ‘Homo ex Humo’ stresses the creative act of God, who moulded Adam’s body from the soil. The biblical story is framed by preparations by Ruysch, juxtaposing the natural process of generation from egg to foetus to the Divine act of will. On the console to the right stands one of Ruysch’s crying foetuses, detached from its original vanitas setting. His significance in this print is two-fold: his gesture prefigures the future Fall of Man, but in this constellation the reference made by Ruysch himself seems more applicable – the body ‘wrought as embroidery in the depths of the earth’. In the centre is shown the moment of the formation of men, while in the border the cloth gives proof of the wondrous result of this act of Creation. Scheuchzer’s print visualizes one of the connotations that came easily to mind when beholding the creations in Ruysch’s cabinet and shows the ambiguity with which the objects communicated with the spectator."

The full article is on line on the site of the Journal of the History of Collections. Let's keep the debate about this fascinating Dutch cultural heritage alive. Thanks for the good work you do with this site and your museum.

G.M. van de Roemer, 'From vanitas to veneration. The embellishments in the anatomical cabinet of Frederik Ruysch' in: Journal of the History of Collections 22 (2010), nr. 2, p. 169-186 ( )