Thursday, April 28, 2016

Public Dissections, Frederik Ruysch and the Theatrum Anatomicum: Touring the Waag at Amsterdam Anatomy Weekend

As part of our recent Amsterdam Anatomy Weekend, The Vrolik Museum's Lisa Kuiper gave a fascinating tour of The Waag (above), which is not only the oldest building in Amsterdam (dating back to 1488) but also housed the anatomical theatre where public dissections were performed under the hand of Frederik Ruysch and others from 1691 until the early 19th century. The content of the following post is primarily sourced from Lisa's excellent tour.

The Waag, Kuiper explained, began its life as a city gate; called St Anthony’s Port, it was locked each evening at 10 pm. It went on to become a weighing house (Waag in Dutch) where goods would be weighed before entering the city to evaluate the appropriate taxes before they went to market. From 1588 on, it also served as the home to the city's guilds, including that of the Surgeons; they were given the top space, a testament to thier importance. The Surgeons' Guild built a "Theatrum Anatomicum," or Anatomical Theatre, which could be entered through this door:

Here, they conducted dissections, usually on the bodies of executed criminals; in this way their location was convenient, because criminals were also executed here, as seen in this artwork from 1812:

Guillotine on the Nieuwmarkt, Gerrit Lamberts , 1812.
Via Amsterdam Municipal Archives.
In 1690, neighbors of the Waag sent a letter to the Surgeon's Guild, requesting that the dissections be opened to the curious public; they did so the following year, under the persuasion of famed embalmer, anatomist and so called "artist of death" Frederik Ruysch who also conducted the first dissections. Below you can see him dissecting a child attached to the placenta; more on the man and his work below.

Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch, 1683.
Amsterdams Historisch Museum
Dissections could take as long as seven days to complete, with admission prices varying based on proximity to the body and the day you wished to attend, with earlier dates being more expensive and smelling less vile. The Waag also functioned--as did the Leiden anatomical theatre--as sort of museum, open on Christmas and special fair and market days. Here, one could see a cat with four hind legs, a skeleton of a child playing violin along with other skeletons, the preserved skins of dissected criminals, a taxidermied lion and lioness, and more. At least some of the preparations were made by Frederik Ruysch himself.

Until the 1820's, as explained in a lecture by Vrolik Director Laurens de Rooy, anatomists would dress skeletons and put them in the windows during the the annual market fair, presumably to advertise the contents of the museum; he kindly sent me a copy of the image so I could include it here:

Illustration from Marja Keyser's Komt dat zien!
De Amsterdamse kermis in de 19e eeuw
(‘Come and see! The Amsterdam fair in the 19th century)
Courtesy of Laurens de Rooy
Rembrandt's famous 1632 painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts a dissection which took place at The Waag's Theatrum Anatomicum:

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
As with all guild portraits, each doctor would have paid for their own portrait. Dr Tulp is one of very many anatomy guild paintings; we also were lucky enough to see a few more at the Amsterdam Hermitage as part of the exhibition Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age:

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Jan Deyman, 1656;
fragment; the rest destroyed in a fire.
Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of
Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619.
Adriaen Backer, Anatomy lesson of Frederik Ruysch, 1670
Amsterdam Museum
The exhibit also housed an image of the Theatrum Anatomicum in the Waag from the 18th century seemingly rendered in gold and silver:

The Theatrum Anatomicum in the Waag, Jonas Zeuner
after Adolf van der Laan, Second half of 18th Century
And a memento mori themed plaque originally on display at an orphanage; it was made during a year when the city of Amsterdam was wracked by plague, with 10% of the population decimated and the orphanages overrun.

Albert Jansz Vinckenbrinck (1604-1664), Death, 1663
Wealthy surgeons might opt for inclusion in a guild portrait, but another and less expensive way surgeons could be immortalized would be to have their family crest painted on the ceiling of the Waag's Theatrum Anatomicum; they can still be seen today

Ruysch's crest is in the very center, reflecting his fame and his importance to the space.

Around the building, in gold letters, reads a memento-mori themed exhortation in Old Dutch. said to have been written by Ruysch himself:

Here is what is says, in a impromptu translation by The Waag's Helen Fermante:
Those who have done bad in life
Will be of use after our death

Health has been taken back from death itself
The dead body gives to the pupil even though its dumb and its tongue already dead, advises you not to do as criminals
Head, finger, kidney, tongue, head, lung, brain, bones, and hands

Give you the living a warning example

So you hear and take to heart

that when you go along the different paths of life

you'll be convened that even in the small details God is still hidden there
In this way, one could see the Theatrum Anatomicum as an extension of the aims of Ruysch's home cabinet, where he displayed his unique preparations that were equal part science and memento mori, such as the allegorically themed fetal skeleton tableau in the illustration below. The skeleton at the bottom is holding a mayfly which, as it only lives a single day, is a symbol of mortality. The top skeleton plays a violin atop a mountain of gall and bladder stones, surrounded by foliage crafted from other preserved human remains. You can find out more about the remarkable Frederik Ruysch--who we call our patron saint--here.

To see more photos from our Amsterdam Anatomy Weekend, click here. The next iteration will take place on April 21-23 2007. If you sign our mailing list by clicking here, you will be alerted when the event is announced.

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