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Painted Skins & Butterfly Wings

By Gemma Angel, on 1 April 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

When I first began my doctoral research into tattoo preservation three and a half years ago, I assumed that tattoo collections such as those held by the Science Museum in London were rare. Whilst collections of inked human skin are most definitely unusual, I was soon surprised and intrigued to discover that such objects exist in almost every museum archive, university anatomy department, or pathology collection that I have visited over the course of my research. The largest collections, of which the Wellcome Collection is the major exemplar, are dry-preserved and date from the 19th century – similar collections can be found across Europe, and the MNHN in Paris has a collection of 56 tattoos which are very similar to those in the Wellcome collection. Historically, these collections may be medical, anthropological, or criminological in origin.

In anatomy and pathology collections, tattoo specimens tend to be wet-preserved and date more recently, usually from the early part of the 20th century anywhere up to around the 1980s. But why are these objects preserved in anatomy and pathology departments at all? There is of course nothing pathological about tattooed skin in itself – so it seems strange that specimens like the one pictured below are displayed alongside other pathological skin specimens such as cutaneous anthrax, fibromas, keloids and glanders. What, if anything, can be learned from these tattoos in medical terms? Or are these striking collections of decorated human skin merely objects of curiosity? Often, the simple answer is that they are a little bit of both…

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

The collection of tattoos pictured here are a case in point. These particular tattoos belonged to one individual, whose very brief case notes have been recorded and retained along with the specimen in UCL Pathology Collections. The notes provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the individual to whom the tattoos belonged, as well as revealing something of the clinical interests and collecting practices of the doctor who preserved them:

From a man aged 79 years who had earned his living for many years as the Tattooed Man in a circus. His entire body, except for the head and neck, hands and soles of his feet, was covered with elaborate tattoo designs. He died of peritonitis due to a perforation of an anastomatic ulcer … In tattooing, fine particles of pigment are introduced through the skin, taken up by histiocytes and become lodged in the tissue spaces of the dermis. Pigment also passes to the regional lymph glands via the lymphatics. In this case, all the superficial lymph nodes were heavily pigmented.

It is clear from these brief comments that the nature and extent of this man’s tattoos were indeed of anatomical interest to the medical practitioner: The tattooed man had been so extensively tattooed that gradual migration of ink particles resulted in the collection of pigment in the lymph glands. This demonstrates that although tattoo ink is trapped permanently under the skin following healing, it does actually travel within the body over time, filtering into the body’s tissue drainage system, and collecting in the lymph glands. Whilst this is certainly an interesting anatomical observation, it is not the pigmented lymph glands that the doctor has chosen to preserve, but rather the tattooed skin itself. Without these accompanying case notes, we would never have known that this man’s tattoos had exerted any effect on another of the body’s organs and systems at all.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin specimen Z6,  showing tattoos of a butterfly and a flying fish.UCL Pathology Collections.Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin
specimen Z6, showing tattoos of a
butterfly and a flying fish.
UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

It would be equally impossible to know whether or not these were the only tattoos he possessed – or indeed, if they all necessarily belonged to the same person. There are strong stylistic similarities between the butterfly motifs, suggesting the work of a single tattooist, or perhaps that the individual motifs were part of a larger design. But just how large or complex the design may have been, we certainly cannot tell just by looking at these 5 small tattoos. We know that they belonged to a 79-year-old man, who made his living as a Tattooed Man, only because the doctor tells us so. He or she also tells us that his body was covered in tattoos – yet only 5 small pieces have been preserved. Five carefully selected motifs, chosen by the doctor from an already complete collection, which provided the livelihood and told the life story of one unnamed man. What selection criteria did the pathologist adopt when deciding which tattoos to preserve, and which to consign to the grave? The manner in which the specimens have been excised and mounted are strikingly reminiscent of a lepidopterist‘s collection of butterflies – could this reflect the personal collecting interests of the pathologist, or perhaps even the Tattooed Man himself? Both the pathologist and Tattooed Man alike chose these butterflies – did they also share a passion for lepidoptery?

Many people will be familiar with the kind of insect specimen displays that are a staple of natural history collections – the old 19th century museum cases containing neat rows of pinned and mounted moths and butterflies, neatly organised according to subspecies and morphological characteristics. The tattooed butterflies share some remarkable similarities with these entomology collections; they are arranged one above another, and “pinned” to a support with small surgical stitches. Unusually for specimens found in pathology collections, this support is a slightly translucent black. This appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the pathologist – the black perspex provides a contrasting ground for the display of tattoos on opposite sides of the vitrine, such that they do not visually detract from one another. These aesthetic choices suggest a nuanced interest in the collection and display of these specimens, which goes far beyond a straightforward medical interest in the anatomy of the tattoo. From the limited case notes and analysis of the specimen itself, we can learn something about the pathologist’s interest in the tattoo, but we are still no closer to being able to answer the fundamental question – why collect tattoos at all?

Butterfly display at UCL's Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

Lepidoptera display at UCL’s Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

There is no part of the body able to register the history of a life lived so much as the skin: wrinkles, scars and lines all map out our lives on the surface of our bodies as we age. The tattoo reinforces this unique capacity of the skin to record the traces of our experience, in the conscious act of permanently inscribing memory in skin. The pathologist, uniquely acquainted with death by virtue of their specialism, is perhaps best positioned amongst medical professionals to appreciate the peculiar relationship of the tattoo with mortality. It is a trace of the subjectivity of the deceased that is capable of outliving them, akin to a photograph or written memoir. From this point of view, it no longer seems surprising that tattoos are so often found in pathology collections; perhaps the pathologist who collected the Tattooed Man’s butterflies simply wished to preserve a small part of a colourful and remarkable life.

 

Doctors, Dissection & UCL

By Gemma Angel, on 21 January 2013

  by Sarah Chaney

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to the current Museum of London exhibition, Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men (on until 14 April 2013), brought to mind the recent Buried on Campus exhibition in the Grant Museum. Several of us have previously blogged about reinstating the stories of the forgotten dead, as well as the issues around the display and interpretation of human remains in a museum context. As I myself wrote, the disinterrment of human remains is not unusual during building work: the Museum of London exhibition focuses on the excavation of the former Royal London Hospital burial site, during recent improvement works. The bones found showed traces of a variety of practices, including dissection for autopsy, as well as marks made during surgical practice and articulation for the creation of teaching specimens.

Dissection, particularly in the case of medical teaching, was often linked to artistic practice. Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men opens with the grisly plaster cast of James Legg, hanged for murder in 1801. Legg was subsequently flayed and posed as if crucified: a collaborative project between artists Benjamin West and Richard Crossway, and sculptor Thomas Banks, who believed that most depictions of Christ’s crucifixion were anatomically incorrect (for more on the Anatomical Crucifixion see Gemma Angel’s post). Rather less theatrically, anatomical drawings and textbooks were also created directly from dissection practice. During a recent session in the Art Museum, I discussed with visitors the way in which anatomy textbooks create stylised images, removing certain body parts in order to emphasise others. Students re-created these images for themselves: first with the corpse, then in their own sketches, re-interpreting the body in a way that made sense for their practice.

Joseph Lister – Side of the Neck and Floor of the Mouth (1850), UCL Art Museum #4801

Amongst the UCL Art Collections are a number of student sketches of the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912), well-known for his introduction of antiseptic techniques into surgical practice. Born in Essex, Lister came to UCL in 1844, initially as a student of the arts. After graduating, however, he subsequently turned his attention to medical studies, continuing at UCL until he gained his M.B. in 1852. The sketches in the collection mainly date from 1849-50, produced as part of Lister’s studies. The techniques used indicate some of the interesting artistic choices available to anatomical illustrators: perhaps also the influence of Lister’s varied education and interests. The sketch above, for example, was made on tinted paper, which enabled the young Lister to highlight structures using white chalk. This emphasis, along with the effective use of colour (in this instance, major blood vessels are depicted in red, standing out clearly in an otherwise monochrome drawing), enables quick and easy recognition of bodily structures, adding depth to the sketch. For an un-trained eye, the mass of tissues within the human body could not be read in such a manner. The ability to render the three-dimensional body in a series of recognisable images – and then understand the physical body through such images – was as important as surgical skill.

Box Viewer from the UCL
Physiology Collections (080:RFH)

The huge variety of techniques for anatomically representing the human body is also evident elsewhere in the UCL Collections. The Physiology Collection includes a volume of the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy, published in 1905. Stereoscopy became a popular technique of representing three-dimensional structures from its inception in the 1840s. Two offset photographs or other images are presented to the viewer which, when viewed through the stereoscope, are seen separately by the left and right eye. As occurs in ordinary vision, the brain combines the images perceived by both eyes; in the case of stereoscopy, giving the illusion of three-dimensional depth. The Edinburgh Atlas aimed to use this technique to represent photographs of dissections in a manner closer to that seen in the three-dimensional human body than simple sketches. Bulky and expensive, the success of the Atlas was relatively limited. It still serves, however, as an unusual reminder of the way in which the human body has continued to require anatomical translation.

Fascinus & the Winged Phallus Tattoo

By Gemma Angel, on 7 January 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

During a recent visit to the UCL Archaeology collections, I came across a very interesting object: a small bronze pendant in the form of an erect penis with a pair of wings, outstretched as though in flight (pictured below right). I was intrigued by this unusual item of Roman jewellery, partly because I was struck by the absurdity of a disembodied flying penis – but partly because the iconography of this motif was familiar to me.

Winged phallus pendant in bronze, measuring
6.5cm in length. From the Gayer-Anderson
classical collection (Graeco-Roman),
UCL Institute of Archaeology.

I had previously seen graphic representations of this design in the course of my own research, as tattoos on human skin. My doctoral work focuses upon the collection and preservation of tattooed human skins during the 19th and 20th centuries. The core collection that I work with at the Science Museum dates from the latter part of the 19th century in France, and much of the iconography of these tattoos is of European origin. During a research trip to Paris in 2010, I had the opportunity to see a similar collection of dry-preserved tattoos stored at the anthropology department of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN). Amongst the 54 tattoos in their collection, there was one skin fragment tattooed with a winged phallus (pictured below). Although the tattoo is very faded, the characteristic outstretched wings and erect penis are clearly discernible; in this case red ink has been used to emphasize the virility of the phallus. Whilst tattoo motifs such as this one may seem amusing, puerile or even obscene to us today, this particular image actually has a long iconographic history embedded in religious practice and ritual, going at least as far back as Ancient Rome.

Phallic charms were commonplace in Roman culture, both in the form of jewellery and other decorative household items, such as lamps and wind chimes. In ancient Roman religion and magic, representations of the winged phallus are usually referred to as fascinum, and symbolise the divine phallus or the embodiment of the Roman deity of fertility, Fascinus. The words can be used to refer to both phallus effigies and amulets, and spells used to invoke his divine protection. Fascinum are frequently associated with Liber Pater, an ancient Roman god of fertility and cultivation, often identified with Bacchus and his Greek counterpart, Dionysus. In rural areas of Italy, the festival of Liberalia celebrated the coming of age of young boys on the 17th of March, and traditionally involved processions, sacrificial offerings and song. Processions featured a large phallus which was carried through the countryside by devotees, in order to protect crops from evil and bring fertility blessings to the land and the people. At the end of the procession a wreath was placed on the phallus by a respected older female member of the community.

St. Augustine (354AD-430AD) a bishop of Hippo Regis (present-day Algeria), recounts these pagan celebrations from Varro [1], describing the ancient fertility processions with a strongly disapproving Christian bias:

Varro says that certain rites of Liber were celebrated in Italy which were of such unrestrained wickedness that the shameful parts of the male were worshipped at crossroads in his honour. […] For, during the days of the festival of Liber, this obscene member, placed on a little trolley, was first exhibited with great honour at the crossroads in the countryside, and then conveyed into the city itself. […] In this way, it seems, the god Liber was to be propitiated, in order to secure the growth of seeds and to repel enchantment (fascinatio) from the fields. [2]

Although considered obscene by the Christian clergy, fascinum were used to ward off evil, and were worn as protection charms, particularly by male children and soldiers.

Winged phallus tattoo on preserved human skin, dated 1904-5. From the collection of
the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN), Paris. Image © MNHN, Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But what is the significance of the fascinum in the modern era? The rather extraordinary image below is one of a series of late 19th century tourist cards entitled “Postcards from Pompeii”, and features a number of winged phalli. As a 19th century representation of classical sexuality, which is contemporary with the preserved tattoo fragment pictured above, this image is of particular interest. The postcard depicts an old woman with a basket of winged phalli, which she offers to a young woman in the centre of the sketch. Two ‘living’ phalli can be seen straining eagerly out of the basket towards the young woman, whilst 3 others, apparently spent, sit limply in the foreground. The old woman holds a phallus in each hand, and a sign advertising her wares is visible behind the basket. Around this central scene, a number of other young women are engaged in orgiastic sexual activity with the winged phalli, whilst 3 others carrying empty urns look on, as though scandalized (background right). Although the young women depicted in the scene are drawn in classical style, the old woman has the typical appearance of a crone, more consistent with medieval pictorial conventions, suggesting an association with European concepts of witchcraft (for more on witchcraft and the winged phallus, see my previous post on lifeand6months).

The only recognisably male figure in the drawing appears on the far left, as a bust in profile atop a pillar; lower down the pillar a fount in the form of a phallus pours forth life-giving fluid into an urn. The wreath of fruits and grain crowning his head suggest that this figure is Liber Pater or Bacchus. Whilst there is a certain pornographic quality to this image, it also sheds light on European interpretations of the winged phallus: On the one hand it is associated with classical religion as a symbol of fertility, abundance and orgiastic excess, which celebrated masculine generative power; and on the other with late medieval conceptions of witchcraft, emasculating female sexuality and magical ‘penis theft’.

Women with flying phalli, illustration from Pompeii tourist album, c. 1880. Image courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Click to enlarge.

 

It is difficult to know for certain how the tattooed 19th century European man regarded the winged phallus – it may be that it was worn by soldiers as a talisman against harm, according to contemporary interpretations of ancient practices. Or it may simply be that the image of a virile, flying penis was associated with sexual prowess, and appealed to a bawdy sense of humour. It is clear, however, that the motif retained its popularity long into the 20th century. Writing on the Chicago and Oakland tattoo scene during the 1950s and 60s, tattooist Samuel Steward mentions this tattoo in his quite disparaging discussion of superstitions and folklore in modern tattooing, including the belief that, the winged phallus tattoo will assure the wearer great sexual powers’. [3] Though the magical or religious symbolism of the winged phallus may no longer have significance in contemporary European culture, the image still has its appeal. Perhaps considered more comic, playful or absurd in our present context, it still appears as a popular tattoo design, as the colourful example below demonstrates.

Contemporary example of the winged phallus tattoo, by tattooist Rachael Davies of
Five Star Tattoo, Louisville Kentucky, USA. Photograph courtesy of Rachael Davies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


References:

[1] Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) was an ancient Roman scholar and writer.

[2] English translation by R.W. Dyson: Augustine: The City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge University Press, 1998, 2002), p. 292. Available online.

[3] Samuel Steward: Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs, Sailors and Street-Corner Punks (1950-1965), (1990) p.82.

Tattooing in Ancient Egypt Part 2: The Mummy of Amunet

By Gemma Angel, on 10 December 2012

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In my previous post, I wrote about the possible connection between objects in the Petrie Museum, and ancient Egyptian tattooing practices. One of the greatest challenges in reconstructing the body modification practices of ancient peoples is in interpreting the fragmentary remains of material culture found at excavation sites. As archaeologist Geoffrey Tassie writes:

The use of many artefacts can only be inferred from their context and association, and tattoo needles are no different, although, if sufficiently well-preserved, scientific analysis of their tips may identify traces of blood or the pigment used to create the tattoo.[1]

In the absence of any such scientific testing, uncertainty remains as to whether the 7 prick points in the Petrie collection were used for tattooing. However, the decorative markings on a collection of blue faience figurines are less ambiguous. Although ancient Egyptian textual records make no mention of tattooing, there is nevertheless a considerable amount of iconographic evidence for the practice, which includes the engraved markings on faience figurines such as those on display in the Petrie Museum. Interestingly, these “tattooed” figures are invariably female, suggesting that tattooing was practiced exclusively by women.[2]

Blue faience figurine fragment,
showing tattoo markings on the
abdomen and thighs.
Image © UCL Museums & Collections

Faience figurines dating from the Middle Kingdom traditionally known as “Brides of the Dead”[3], frequently display a series of dotted geometric tattoo patterns, running in horizontal bands across the lower abdomen. Occasionally, the thighs are also decorated, as can be seen in the example shown (left). There are many examples of footless faience figurines such as these in museum collections around the world. According to Robert Bianchi, dependent upon their context, these figurines maybe interpreted ‘as guarantors of the deceased’s procreative abilities on analogy with those of the goddess Hathor’, who both represented fertility, childbirth and love, and welcomed the dead into the next life. Faience figurines are often found in tombs, interred with the dead in order to ensure resurrection.[4]

Tattooing practice in ancient Egypt is further supported by the discovery of a number of tattooed mummies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most famous of these was discovered in Deir el-Bahari by French Egyptologist Eugène Grébaut in 1891. Dating from Dynasty XI (c.2134-1991 BC), a female mummy identified as Amunet, a Priestess of the goddess Hathor at Thebes, was found to have a number of tattooed markings on her body, which show striking correspondence with the patterns depicted on Middle Kingdom faience figurines. A design consisting of multiple diamond shapes composed of dots, are tattooed on the middle of her right thigh, similar to those engraved on the faience figure pictured above. As well as tattoos on her left shoulder and breast, and on her right arm below the elbow, Amunet also bore extensive tattooing over her abdomen: A series of dots and dashes forming an elliptical pattern of rows covers almost the entire abdominal wall in the suprapubic region (see sketch below right).

Drawing showing tattoo markings attributed
to the mummified remains of Amunet.
From Fouquet (1898), p.278

A further 2 female mummies, described as ‘Hathoric dancers in the court of King Mentuhotep,’ were excavated from pits located very near to the tomb of Amunet in 1923.[5] These women both bore similar body-markings to those of Amunet, in particular over the abdomen, which may suggest that these tattoos served fertility purposes:

Tattoos on the abdominal part of the female body would have become particularly notable when the woman became pregnant – the patterns would expand, forming an even more symbolically interesting pattern, like a web or netting design.[6]

The mummy of Amunet was unearthed at the height of the “Golden Age” of Egyptology, when the discovery of mass burials of mummified royalty and clergy became a source of popular fascination. As “Egyptomania” swept across Europe, some artists sought to commemorate the “great discoveries” of European explorers and scientists. For instance, the painting below, by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, depicts an historical event: The unwrapping of a mummy discovered at Deir el-Bahari, the same site where Amunet was buried. Although the mummy pictured dates from Dynasty XXI (c.970 BC) in the Third Intermediate Period, many of the men present in this scene were also involved in the excavation of Amunet. The eminent Dr. Daniel Fouquet takes centre stage, demonstrating to his learned audience of colleagues and lady spectators, as he unveils the mummified body of the “Priestess”, known as Ta-usa-ra. Mr. Grébaut, the leader of the expedition, also appears in the painting, second from left and wearing a fez.[7]

“Examination of a Mummy – The Priestess of Ammon” (1891)
Oil on canvas, by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux.
Photo credit: Peter Nahum at The Leicester Gallery, London.

In 1898, Fouquet wrote an article on “medical tattooing” practices in Ancient Egypt and the contemporary era, in which he describes the tattooed markings on the female mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site. He speculated that the tattoos and other scarifications observed on the bodies may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose:

The examination of these scars, some white, others blue, leaves in no doubt that they are not, in essence, ornament, but an established treatment for a condition of the pelvis, very probably chronic pelvic peritonitis.[8]

Photograph showing the
tattooed abdomen of one of
female mummies found at
the Deir el-Bahari site,
possibly Amunet.

Whilst it is clear that the white scars Fouquet refers to are likely scarifications, the blue marks must be interpreted as tattoos – but whether or not they were primarily medicinal markings, or served a more ritual and symbolic function is uncertain. Based on the iconographic and material evidence of human remains, it certainly seems that some women in Ancient Egypt marked themselves as sexual beings; as Robert Bianchi writes:

The priestess Amunet and the figurines…have an undeniably carnal overtone. The eroticism that is undoubtedly associated with Egyptian tattoo of the Middle Kingdom correlates with the prevailing religious attitude that linked physical procreation with the loftier aspirations of resurrection in the Hereafter.[9]

Amunet’s mummified remains now lie in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo.

 

Did tattooing really have a medicinal purpose in the Ancient world? Check back for my next post on the history of tattooing as a therapeutic practice – and the health risks involved in becoming tattooed prior to modern antisepsis.

 


References:

[1] Geoffrey Tassie, ‘Identifying the Practice of Tattooing in Ancient Egypt and Nubia’, in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol.14 (2003), p86.

[2] According to Tassie, there is only one exception in the archaeological record – a Dynasty XII stele (a standing stone tablet) from Abydos:  ‘This depicts a figure, which is said to be male, with marks coming down over the chest. As the stele is extremely worn it is hard to distinguish whether the marks indeed represent tattoos.’ (Ibid, p.88).

[3] Robert Bianchi, ‘Tattooing and Skin Painting in the Ancient Nile Valley’, in Celenko, T. (ed.) Egypt in Africa, (1996), Indianapolis University Press, p.81.

[4] Ibid, pp.82-82.

[5] Tassie (2003), p.90.

[6] Ibid, p.91.

[7] Philippoteaux’s painting includes a plaque inscribed (in French) with the names of the sitters, as well as an historical description of the scene. From left to right: Marquis de Reverseaux (Ministre de France au Caire); Mr. Eugène Grébaut (Directeur Génerale du Service des Antiquities); Dr. Daniel Fouquet (Médecin au Caire); E. Brugshe Pacha (Conservateur du Musée); Mr. Georges Daressy (Conservateur adjoint du Musée) – pictured taking notes; Mr. H. Bazil (Secrétaire complable du Musée); Mr. J. Barois (Secrétaire Génerale du Ministére du Travaux Publies); Mr. U. Bouriant (Directeur de la Misien Archéologique française au Caire).

[8] Daniel Fouquet, ‘Le Tatouage Medicale en Egypte dans l’Antiquite et a l’Epoque Actuelle’, in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, Tome 13 (1898), p.271.  Available online at Criminocorpus. Translated from the French: L’examen de ces cicatrices, les unes blanches, les autres bleues, ne laisse aucun doute dans l’espirit, il s’agit la non d’un ornement, mais bien d’un traitement institué pour une affection du petit bassin, très probablement une pelvi-péritonite chronique.

[9] Bianchi (1996), p.82.

[10] See also: Carolyn Graves-Brown, Dancing for Hathor. Women in Ancient Egypt, (2010), London  New York: Continuum Books.

Japanese Performing Monkeys: Apes in Art & Culture

By Gemma Angel, on 8 October 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Apes in Art

For anyone interested in images of primates in the visual arts, Solly Zuckerman’s seminal book The Ape in Myth and Art is a must-read. Hidden in the back pages amidst the postscript is Ohara Koson’s print, Trained Monkey Looking at an Insect, somewhat inaccurately described as a “Chinese water colour of a monkey sniffing a flower, unknown artist.”  It is in fact a woodblock print of a trained Japanese macaque (a species better known for its preference for bathing in hot springs) looking at a bee, and can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.  Koson is one of the best known artists of the Japanese Shin Hanga or ‘new prints’ movement, and 257 of his prints are listed by the Hanga Gallery. But what of the ape subject who appears in this portrait?

Whilst the pink face is natural, the pink waistcoat certainly is not. As he is described as trained, it seems likely that Koson’s monkey is part of the tradition of Sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, which has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years. The concept is so ingrained in society that there exists a single noun, 猿回し, meaning ‘showman who trains performing monkeys’.

Apes in Museums

Whilst these performing monkeys were trained to mimic human behaviours on stage, Koson’s print depicts a tethered, costumed animal following its urge to be inquisitive – a natural, rather than trained, ‘human’ quality. Do we need to train monkeys to demonstrate human-like traits? As various primate species have been shown to use such complex behaviours as deceit and manipulation, as well as the ability to learn, play and communicate, I would say no. Yet, when exploring the representations of primates in UCL museums and collections, anthropomorphism arises as a clear theme. There are of course many examples of primate specimens, including baboons and macaques, mounted to reflect their natural behaviour in the Grant Museum of Zoology, but the presence of primates in UCL museums isn’t limited to the zoological collections. As well as the Art Museum’s trained macaque, at the Petrie Museum, there are figurines of baboons playing harps, drinking beer and even performing gymnastics.

From images of performing monkeys, to figurines depicting physical feats monkeys could never achieve, each museum contains objects invaluable to researchers interested in social attitudes towards primates. These objects provoke unexpected and interesting questions: for instance, why might Ancient Egyptians have decorated their homes with beer-drinking baboons? Look out for my next post to find out why…

 

Where The Wild Things Are: 15th Century Christian Art…?

By Alicia Thornton, on 3 September 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

As a Biological Anthropologist, I study the social behaviour of baboons in Nigeria, treating these animals as a model for the evolution of early hominids. But while primatology is now an established discipline, and approaching primate behaviour from a scientific perspective is common, this was not always the case. Working across all three UCL Museums has provided an unusual opportunity to study the changing attitudes to primates throughout time and across cultures. In this quest to discover all things primate among the UCL collections, the most unexpected finding so far has been Albrecht Dürer’s The Virgin with a Monkey which can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.

This is one of the most popular of Dürer’s engravings, with 14 copies made. It is interesting not only because it features a monkey, and not only because such images were rare in the 15thcentury, but because of the symbolism of its image in a piece of Christian iconography.  In researching such a piece, and as resident primatologist at the Art Museum, my first task was to identify the species. A simple task with a simple answer: none. It is similar to a green monkey, but both the colouring extravagant facial hair suggest that this is not a perfect fit.  This type of hair does exist in other primate species, but none of this size or overall appearance.

 

 

 

As the artist was known for the accuracy of his engravings, and here it is not possible to determine the species, it seems unlikely that he had a live model. It may be that Dürer’s monkey is in fact a generic old world monkey that could originate from anywhere in Africa; a combination of species Dürer may have seen on his travels around Europe with its many menageries. So, if this engraving was not intended to be scientifically accurate, then what was its purpose? It is possible that the use of an exotic animal functioned to demonstrate the artist’s talent; the contrast between traditional Bavarian scenery, religious images and an exotic animal showing a wide range of Durer’s abilities within this one engraving. But is there any significance to the artist’s decision to depict a monkey to showcase his talent?

Monkeys and Christianity

In Christian iconography, monkeys represent base instincts such as lust, greed and malice, and can even represent the devil. So, if we approach this from a theological angle, why is this monkey at the feet of the Virgin? One theory is that he is subdued by her purity and can no longer display his usual ignoble behaviour.  It is certainly true that much of his natural behavioural repertoire, though similar to that of most humans, would not befit an image of holiness and purity as portrayed here. An alternative explanation is that the monkey’s position represents the dominion of the Madonna over all other creatures, and the fact that he is tied up could support this theory.

In a time before zoos existed, private menageries were seen as an attempt to bring together God’s creations, and to recreate the Garden of Eden. Pope Leo X had one of the largest menageries of Dürer’s time, and later asked the artist to create an engraving of his rhinoceros one of the most famous of all Dürer’s works. While now firmly in the realm of speculation since Dürer’s visits to Italy were not entirely documented, it is possible that he might have seen some of the Pope’s exotic creatures on his first visit, before creating The Virgin and the Monkey. In 1515, after a second visit to Rome, Dürer produced The Triumphal Arch which, (along with Rhinoceros) is currently on display at the British Museum and includes one of the earliest representations of a South American primate, a marmoset. Incidentally, marmosets are known for their extravagant facial hair, which is similar to that of Dürer’s monkey.

Discussing the role of this monkey with museum visitors has been fascinating, and has shown that while many had heard of Dürer, and some of The Virgin with a Monkey, none had previously considered the potential significance of this exotic animal. So, whether Dürer’s monkey is a real or composite species, an embodiment of human sin, an example of God’s dominion, or a demonstration of artistic talent, so far he has proven to be a welcome surprise to museum visitors and staff alike.