Aesthesis & the Leiden Anatomical Collections


A review of Aesthesis in Anatomy: Materiality and Elegance in the Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections, by Marieke Maria Anna Hendriksen

Begin with objects: an infant’s heart injected with red wax and mercury, scintillating lines beading on the surface; a preserved child’s rosy arm and short lacy sleeve, holding a delicate choroid membrane from an eye; an ear with a smallpox scar; a tiny dog with a cleft palate, preserved in jar; two fetuses, decked in beads and one with a coin pendant, floating in glass containers; preserved bones wet, dry, and illustrated. Now with these objects from the Leiden anatomical collections, unpack their origins and embodied meanings to restore life to eighteenth-century Dutch anatomy.

Marieke Hendriksen’s dissertation displays these objects for us, and articulates rich and confident portraits of their scenes of creation and meanings. More than this, she offers a new term for a novel epistemic cultural form to characterize much of Dutch anatomy in the long eighteenth century: aesthesis. This concept avoids the pitfalls of glib talk of “aesthetics” and anatomy for objects from the primordial age of our post-Kantian lexicon. It also unifies the startling variety of collections, explaining many of their material features and the anatomists’ drive to create them. Anatomical aesthesis comprised the emphasis on the senses as the source of knowledge, the constant but often tacit quest for beauty and perfection, concomitant strategies for dealing with human disgust when faced with cut or monstrous bodies, and the commodification and objectification of bodies and body parts necessary for trade and commerce. This gives us a new and harmonious structure for the epistemic norms of Dutch anatomy and brings together many important, recent themes in the literature. Here displayed are additions to the institutional and social histories of the collections pioneered by A. M. Luyendijk-Elshout (née Elshout), especially in the careful reconstructions of the objects’ origins. Hendriksen ably uses approaches from material culture studies and art history to engage the materiality of the preparations, giving voice where the written record is reticent.

Chapter 1 unfolds “aesthesis.” The following five chapters mine small sets of objects to illuminate different facets of the construct. A return to the definition of “aesthetics” as “the science of sensory cognition” from Alexander Baumgarten’s Aesthetica of 1750-8 (p. 21) and an alliance with recent work on thing-knowledge and epistemic cultures provides the distinguishing dyad of sensory knowledge and the search for beauty (cf. Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2007). Analyzing the treatment of disgust requires an alliance with philosophical aesthetics and anthropology, especially Caroline Korsmeyer’s recent work, which provides a distinction between the more historically stable “core disgust” of viewing cut or deformed bodies, and culturally-malleable “moral disgust” (Caroline Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Later chapters fill out the commodification aspects of aesthesis, and complement recent important work on Dutch medical science and commerce (Harold Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007 and several articles and a forthcoming monograph by Dániel Margócsy).

Chapter 2 examines mercury-injections from preserved hearts and lymphatic vessels, tracing striking lines of flow through the tiniest vessel. Lines of transmission also moved from Anton Nuck, who used mercury since it insinuated itself into all channels and swept away obstructions, to Eduard Sandifort a century later, who also used it to display once again the otherwise invisible lymphatic vessels. Practical considerations were important in the choice of technique. Nuck’s more immediate successors, Frederik Ruysch and B. S. Albinus, mostly avoided mercury and preferred more lifelike colored wax injections. Their interest in different anatomical structures also urged a different method, and anatomists did not often use mercury to reveal other vessels. The decline of mercury injections, Hendriksen suggests, may also have paralleled the public rejection of transmutational alchemy, in which mercury often played a leading role.

Chapter 3 aims to link similar preparations of Ruysch and Albinus by reading their material pigments and wax, and then illuminating their meanings and reception. Here we have the infant’s arm with a lacy sleeve, lightly holding the red tracery of vessels in the choroid membrane. Lace sleeves clearly express a desire for elegance and covered the more disgusting severed portions of a limb. Just as with limbs still connected to living bodies, the dress of anatomical preparations followed the changing fashions of lace from lacy men, to women, to more sober dress. As Hendriksen shows, reading off contextual meanings from anatomical preparations can be richly rewarding and an enjoyable hunt. The use of a small twig from an African plant reveals connections to the Linnean name, Senecio elegans and exotic Africa, and embodies the pursuit of beauty in aesthesis.

Chapter 4 turns to the better-known denizens of these collections: monsters. Here we have “aesthesis ex negative,” in which the strength and contours of the search for beauty and perfection are revealed in the treatment of outliers. Another anatomist from the second half of the century, W. Van Doeveren, endeavored to understand the origin of developmental deformities. They were relatively rare in his collection, especially since interest in classifying monsters grew in the eighteenth century and such chance pieces were snatched up sooner. Monsters, for Van Doeveren, were either accidents of external forces or genuine “primigene” monsters (p. 119). The symmetry of a two-headed lamb displayed nature’s unsettling power and beauty. Kin to Van Doeveren’s musings on nature’s power so displayed is Korsmeyer’s concept of the sublate, the sublime’s “little sister,” which combines admiration and revulsion to secure truths in the memory (p. 133). The ear with the smallpox scar provides the starting point for an erudite tour of the Leiden controversy over smallpox inoculation. Such scars were too common to be considered collectible, but a sensitive analysis of the polemical poetry allows Hendriksen to reveal the elegant learning and good taste of Van Doeveren and his supporters.

Chapter 5 unravels the material evidence of the preserved beaded fetuses, purportedly from Africa and Asia, in an impressive display of historical research and inference. Beads replicated customs of the indigenous peoples, and served to commodify the fetuses, marking them as exotic imports embodying scientific knowledge of race and Africa. Beads on the specimens purportedly from Africa appear in arrangements and materials characteristic of the ere ibeji or twin statuettes of the Yoruba people of West Africa. A coin from the East India Company, adorning one fetus, and a nutmeg twig-and-berry “rattle” speak to the wealth and power of the colonial enterprise. In a striking piece of sleuthing, Hendriksen suggests very plausibly that the African preparations are the work of a Leiden-trained physician who worked for the West India Company, Cornelis Terne. Preparing and shipping these specimens made them mobile objects, and tokens of the colonial power at their central destination.

Chapter 6 uses bone preparations and illustrations to sketch the gradual end of anatomical aesthesis around the close of the eighteenth century. Out of the 8,000 preparations in the Leiden collections, 2,500 are of bones (p. 167). Hendriksen selects two case studies for close reading: illustrations of a prepared, whole skeleton by Albinus; and the wet-preparations of bones by Albinus and his student and successor, Van Doeveren. Albinus painstakingly prepared and preserved the skeleton — as close to the ideal of a medium, masculine, beautiful man as possible — for the three months his draughtsman Jan Wandelaar needed to finish the drawings. A very skinny live model also helped, but required a good fire against the cold. With the drawings complete, Albinus threw this difficult dry preparation out. But he kept the “perfect” illustrations, altered beyond verisimilitude to fit his ideals. Van Doeveren followed Albinus in seeking the nature of osteogenesis, explaining the wet-preparations of fetal spinal columns and other bones in the collections. Making such wet preparations took considerable skill, and they preserved embodied testaments to the elegant facility of the anatomist. By the close of the century and into the next, however, preparation techniques grew more explicit and commonplace, making individual craftsmanship less valuable. Pathology, too, gained ascendancy over the search for perfection as the new discipline of experimental physiology emerged.

Hendriksen concludes with a confident summary of the power of aesthesis to characterize the commodification, treatment of disgust, quest for beauty, and bodily, sensory work of eighteenth-century Dutch anatomy. Her plea for further investigation and careful preservation of these collections is a sobering reminder of their cultural, experiential richness and their eventual ephemerality. An appendix relates her own replications of injection preparations with sheep hearts, a liver, and colored wax, based on Pole’s late-eighteenth-century instructions. The mess, tacit skill, resistance of objects, and the wonder of discovery dapple the recounting.

Marieke Hendriksen deftly blends an art scholar’s sensitivity to the materiality and meanings of objects with contextual history of science and a philosopher’s care for definitions and big topics such as the diachronic transformations of epistemic cultures and norms. Her synthesis is often a delight to read and ponder. What is more, in the core theoretical construct of aesthesis it offers just the sort of middle-level historiographic tool we need to surmount the tangle of microstudies and better tie down broad histories to the depth and variability of the local.

Evan R. Ragland
Department of History
University of Alabama in Huntsville

Primary Sources

Anatomical preparations from:
Collection Anatomical Museum LUMC, Leiden

Manuscript materials from:
Amsterdam University Library Special Collections
Leiden University Library Special Collections
Nationaal Archief, The Hague
Zeeuws Archief, Middelburg

Dissertation Information

Leiden University. 2012. 256 pp. + illustrations. Primary Advisors: Robert Zwijnenberg, Rina Knoeff.


Image: Anatomical preparation by B.S. Albinus (1692-1770) – Child’s arm with lace-rimmed sleeve, holding a choroid membrane. Injected with red wax. Photograph by Marieke Hendriksen, courtesy of Museum Boerhaave.

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