There is one week of the year where it is fitting to talk about crucifixion and so as we enter Holy Week, I want to talk about the weirdest anatomical argument ever.
The year is 1801 and three member of the Royal Academy in London are arguing about the anatomical correctness of works of art. In particular the sculptor Thomas Banks and painters Benjamin West and Richard Cosway think that such greats as Michaelangelo had not accurately depicted the body of Christ on the cross.
There seemed only one way to settle this argument – they planned to crucify someone and see what it looked like! The three of them approached the surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue to see about obtaining a body. This was in 1801 and the regulations about the use of human remains came into being in 1832. It was quite common to get casts made of human bodies that had been flayed to expose the first layer of muscles. These écorchés were considered important for artistic education. People look on these models now and wonder at the detailed work of the sculptors, not realising it is the cast of a dead person.
As it transpired, Carpue had a suitable subject.
In October, Carpue had been called to the Chelsea Hospital where an old Irish captain called James Legg had argued with another pensioner called Lamb. Legg had subsequently burst into Lamb’s room and challenged him to a duel. Lamb had thrown down the gun refusing to fight and Legg had shot him in the chest. Legg was clearly suffering from what we would now class as dementia but an insanity plea was not successful and he was to be executed for murder in November.
A building was erected close to the place of execution and as soon as the execution had taken place the still warm body was nailed to a cross and a cast made. It was important to the artists that the body was still warm and would sag as they felt some of Michaelangelo’s inaccuracies had come in from recreating crucifixions with stiff corpses.
Once cool the body was removed to the surgeon’s rooms where the body was flayed and another cast made so that the positions of the muscles were visible.
The two casts were displayed in Thomas Bank’s studio before moving to the Royal Academy. In 1822 they were moved to Carpue’s anatomical museum and then to another sculptors studio. By 1917 the écorché cast had been returned to the Royal Academy. The location of the first cast is unknown.
I’m not sure what comments to make about this story other than to wonder that that was ever considered a suitable way to settle that argument. Does it matter if art is anatomically correct? I don’t recall anyone picking holes in a Picasso because it didn’t look like a face, or Dali because watches don’t actually melt.
Is it because some art is close enough to reality that the assumption is the artist was trying to be accurate and failed.
Does it matter? Does it matter enough to start crucifying people?