Visceral Journeys:  Art and Anatomy in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture

This session seeks to explore the mobility of the visceral image in medieval and early modern Europe. It understands visceral as relating to bodily organs, to the inside of the body, but also as embodied emotion – as visceral response provoked by visual culture. Mobility is similarly multifaceted. Dead bodies of kings and queens were eviscerated, transported and sometimes paraded before burial. Monuments might be erected where the body stopped on its route, serving as visceral markers on the landscape. Later anatomists displayed the organs of dissected corpses to an audience, sometimes even passing them around; provoking strong sensory and emotional responses. Surgeons’ need to remove viscera in order to avoid putrefaction echoes the preservation supposedly ingrained in the creation of an image. Yet, far from merely stabilizing the visceral image, the process of removal and recording also facilitates circulation, transportation and transformation – especially following the advent of new printing technologies in the fifteenth century. Moreover, the body itself along with its emotions was increasingly seen as terra incognita to be mapped by anatomists, paralleling violent European expansion and subsequent colonization of the so-called ‘New World’.  

How did the transportation and display of bodily remains – whether royal, saintly, criminal, or otherwise – provoke embodied responses amongst publics? To what extent did the movement of people, images and knowledge reshape understandings of the human body and its organs? How was the notion of body as landscape represented in diverse forms of medieval and early modern imagery, from manuscript illumination, to painting and print? 

Session Convenors:

Rosemary Moore, University College London, Department of History of Art 

Lauren Rozenberg, University College London, Department of History of Art 

Response and Q&A: Dr Jack Hartnell


Petra Sikic, PhD Candidate, University College London 

Fragmentation and Unification: The Material Basis of Movement in Vesalius 

The ability of Vesalius’s famous muscle men to move deteriorates as they are dissected and their flesh is removed. His skeleton men, however, are able to move around freely, despite a total lack of flesh covering their bones. This paper proposes that this difference has to do with how Vesalius sees the two materials, bone and muscle, and their role in movement. Movement for Vesalius is a constant interplay between fragmentation and unification. For movement to be possible, some materials, like bone, must fragment, while others must be seen as a unified system, like muscle. However, these two processes are always taking place simultaneously, meaning that the difference is not in the lack or presence of a certain process, but rather in the emphasis based on the material. For Vesalius, the question of where this emphasis should be placed, in the direction of fragmentation or unification, has to do with the material’s connection to the centres of movement and sensation in the brain and spinal column, or lack thereof. Those softer materials more connected to these centres are prone to unification, while harder, less connected materials, are prone to fragmentation. Finally, returning to this paper’s starting point, this understanding of how movement happens in Vesalius has implications for the gestures of the skeletons and muscle men, in that their gestures can no longer be considered just a language of the body, but rather a result of internal processes happening in the body.   

Danijela Zutic, PhD Candidate, McGill University  

Blood(less) affairs: visualizing parturition sans horror of birth in later Middle Ages   

On folio 48 verso, in the Vaticanus manuscript 6435, Opicinus de Canistris pictures the life cycles of a pauper and an aristocrat side by side. They both start from birth and end as carcasses, signalling a similar life passage despite the social condition. What stands out in this unorthodox scene is the veracity of birth, a rather unusual occurrence in medieval images. In the bath of blood, the most visceral of all impressions on the page, come out two babies as fully recognizable humans. Though blood might solicit gore and disgust, as female blood often did in medical and theological writing, the state of mothers stands in overt opposition. They are both as calm as they can be while their “worms,” as Opicinus writes, swim in the abject of mothers’ bodies. In this paper, I will investigate the visualization of parturitions and how they contrast the textual descriptions of birthing. I will also speculate that taming the visceral impressions serves corporeal control and procreation. 

Benjamin W. Allsopp, Ph.D. Candidate, Johns Hopkins University  

Knowing and Viewing the Secrets of Women: An Illumination of The Dissection of Agrippina in John the Fearless’ De cas des nobles hommes et femmes  

A fascinating set of images from late medieval French manuscripts portray the horrendously intimate act of forced incision into the maternal body: depictions of the insane Roman Emperor Nero having his mother Agrippina dissected in order to examine the place of his conception. On folio 290v in a manuscript of Laurent de Premierfait’s Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes (MS5193, Bibliothèque d’Arsenal, Paris), produced for the Burgundian Duke John the Fearless in 1411, there is a vivid portrayal of the disturbing scene. Yet it is distinct to the usual iconography: while in most representations Nero and his accomplices gaze longingly at the opened body of Agrippina, in this illumination the male figures are not interested in the corpse. Instead, Agrippina’s body offers itself up for the viewer’s examination. Despite the apparent passivity of the female corpse, the body is emphatically not at rest at it unnervingly addresses the viewer. I would argue that the illuminator mobilized the dissected body in order to confront the French Duke. Focusing on the medical context of medieval anatomy and gynecology, this paper posits that the image challenged its patron to be transgressive, offering the violent Duke the potential to place himself in a position of masculine control over the intimacies of the female body. Significantly, such a dynamic was at play in an illumination produced by Guido da Vigevano, in his anatomical treatise produced for John the Fearless’ great-grandfather, King Philip VI of France. 

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