You Won’t Find These Arrangements at the Florist

Frederick Ruysch tiny skeletons

These infant skeletons are blowing their noses with the durable smoothness of cranial meninges

Frederick Ruysch playful skeleton

Embryo puppets and I’m not sure what those are on the bottom, anyone?

Frederick Ruysch anatomy as display art

A mountain of kidney stones and a forest of vessels and capillaries

The imaginative Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), part botanist, part anatomist, was the first to develop a form of anatomical preservation. He preserved his specimens in a secret liquor balsamicum and injected preserving chemicals into vessels to show their pathways (Ruysch failed to record his ‘recipies’ and so most of his secrets are now lost). This allowed him to create these morbid scenes, which he showcased to the public around Amsterdam. According to the British Library,

“He thought of these exhibits as highly educational, but also felt that they should be decorated ‘prettily and naturally…Small skeletons were positioned in ‘geological’ landscapes, crying into handkerchiefs, wearing strings of pearls, or playing the violin. The ‘botanical’ landscapes were also made up of body parts: kidney stones or tissue from the lungs would become bushes, grass or rocks.”

His flare for the dramatic also carried over into his dissections.

“His public dissections would be held by candlelight and accompanied by music and refreshments.”

If only my gross human anatomy lab had that.

Unfortunately the preserved specimens are no longer around, but thankfully the engraver Cornelius Huyberts meticulously detailed the arrangements. Ruysch was among the first anatomists to use anatomy as art, something that has been carried on throughout the centuries. Even today we have the eccentric and highly successful Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds.


7 thoughts on “You Won’t Find These Arrangements at the Florist”

  1. Ruysch didn’t fail to record his liquor balsamicum formula, he deliberately kept it a secret until he sold it to Peter the Great along with his collection. The ingredients are generally known, but not the exact formula.

    There is a video documentary about him in 3 parts on the
    GhostWatching channel on You Tube. It’s worth watching!

  2. Whoa, you beat me to it! I was just going to blog about these! The arterial “trees” are grotesque and disturbing. I really love the mayfly the bottommost fetus is clutching – nice “life is short” touch there.

    I don’t know for certain what the two spherical things are, but the upper one on the left is I think a kidney or bladder stone, so I agree trichinobezoars make a lot of sense, being conceptually related. But they also resemble some objects I’ve found inside the cat uterus (degenerated kittens, mostly hair). Sorry to be gross.

  3. Ilex, you might be right it does look like a trichobezoar (hair ball). Seems like Ruysch displayed a few of these in his various dioramas.

  4. With the embryo puppet, could the things down the bottom be examples of trichinobezoars?

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