Toward the end of the 18th century, in a wax workshop in Florence, a life-sized, anatomically correct, dissectible goddess of colored wax was created. Artist Clemente Susini took the idealized feminine beauty for which Italian artists had long been renowned in an ambitious new direction, and to hyper-realistic lengths. The result—an Anatomical Venus—is the perfect object: one whose luxuriously bizarre existence challenges belief. It—or better, she—was conceived as a means of teaching human anatomy without the need for constant dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught, and reliant on scarce cadavers. The Anatomical Venus also tacitly communicated the relationship between the human body and a divinely created cosmos, between art and science, and between nature and mankind, as it was then understood.
Often referred to as the “Medici Venus,” this life-sized, dissectible wax woman with gleaming glass eyes and human hair can still be viewed in her original Venetian glass and rosewood case. She can be disassembled into seven anatomically correct layers, revealing at the final remove a tranquil fetus curled in her womb. She and her sisters, wax women in fixed states of anatomical undress sometimes referred to as Slashed Beauties or Dissected Graces, can still be found in a handful of European museums. Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a gentle smile or an ecstatic downcast gaze. One idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten satin cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection; another is crowned with a golden tiara, while one further wears a silk ribbon tied in a bow around a dangling entrail.
Since their creation in late-18th-century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. In the 21st century, they also confound, flickering on the edges of medicine and myth, votive and vernacular, fetish and fine art. How can we understand today an object that is at once a seductive representation of ideal female beauty and an explicit demonstration of the inner workings of the body? How can we make sense of an artifact that was once equally at home in the fairground and the medical museum? How can we comprehend a creature memorably described by Holly Myers in the Los Angeles Times as “an Enlightenment-era St. Teresa ravished by communion with the invisible forces of science”?
To the modern eye, the Medici Venus is a perplexing object‚ one that challenges conventions of scientific visualization and explodes neat, categorical divides between art and science, entertainment and education. In her own day, she was considered the ideal tool to teach anatomy to a general public, and she was so highly regarded by anatomists that copies were commissioned for a variety of museums and teaching collections around Europe. The Medici Venus was a perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment values of her time, in which human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge, and in which to know the human body was to know the mind of God. Although she was neither the first nor the last of her kind, she was the most accomplished Anatomical Venus ever made, setting the standard by which all others are judged.
The Medici Venus’s enigmatic expression and swooning posture are suggestive of ecstasy, which today is understood as sexual. We can infer that at the time of her creation she was not regarded as particularly indecent from the fact that, upon opening to the general public, including women and children, the wax models were the most popular exhibits, eliciting neither criticism nor public outcry. There are scores of comments by visitors to the museum who spoke highly of the collection, and we know that copies were commissioned by a variety of other museums. Clearly, something has changed since the time of Venus’s creation in such a way as to render her strange and sexually charged. It is likely that a different understanding of the ecstatic than our own influenced Venus’s reception. The ecstatic was understood at that time not merely as a profane, sensual experience, but as an expression of the sacred: a mystical experience. Depictions of saints and martyrs in attitudes of ecstatic release fill the churches of Italy and other Catholic countries.
But how are we to understand such ecstatic representations today? Perhaps the heart of the confusion lies in the notion of the ecstatic as either religious or sexual, sacred or profane, where once it was understood to be both. In Georges Bataille’s 1957 Eroticism, he argues that sexuality itself was a part of religious expression until Christianity banished it from that domain. The very etymology of the word ecstasy lies in the Greek ek, meaning “out of,” and stasis, meaning “standing.” This escape from isolated consciousness is experienced as a sort of transcendent bliss beyond the powers of language or description. It is, in Bataille’s words, “divine life sought through death of the self” that is at the heart of the ecstatic experience. It is our way of returning to the state of grace that existed before we were banished from the Garden of Eden; before we were divided from the universe by our self-awareness, our language and propensity for abstraction, our sense of shame, and the foreknowledge of our own death—arguably the very thing that separates us from other animals. This is the enlightened epiphany described by mystics of all religious backgrounds. It is no wonder that sexuality retains a touch of the supernatural, if rendered strange by our attempts to focus it squarely in the world of the body and the senses, and to separate it from more mysterious domains.
Adapted from http://nautil.us/issue/40/learning/the-brief-mystical-reign-of-the-wax-cadaver