One of the most bizarre relics from bygone days of anatomical understanding is the Anatomical Venus. Endowed with a startlingly lifelike appearance, full-size, and lovingly detailed, these wax models, popular through the 18th and 19th centuries, represented idealized beauties with body parts and organs that could be revealed and removed in a layer-by-layer dissection. Made with real hair, sometimes real eyelashes, glass eyes, bedecked with pearls, they were meant to enlighten the public on the anatomy of the animal “made in God’s image,” in a way that would be accessible and aesthetically pleasing.
With her strange, alluring, languid beauty, the Venus exudes a morbid eroticism that is simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, and so disturbing to the modern eye. Her far-off gaze seems to bespeak religious ecstasy, perhaps bordering on martyrdom (I imagine it as her sacrifice to our viewing/invasion of her interior spaces), as much as death and sensuality. I look at her, and I can’t help but to feel sorry for her, so exposed and vulnerable in her display case, her glass coffin lined with silk and velvet, eternally disassembled for our education and delectation. I feel as though as I am looking at her last thoughts as she’s dying upon her sumptuous bed, and there is an inherent, latent cruelty or brutality in the voyeuristic quality of this gaze. I can never know the nature of what she is thinking, I can only witness her dissected and intruded-upon body, transfixed in an unwitting, helpless macabre striptease. There is something both obscene and divine about this exquisite lost art form that was as much aesthetic marvel as scientific aid.