On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637), p.1John Connolly
Also by John Connolly
Every Dead Thing
The Killing Kind
The White Road
The Black Angel
The Book of Lost Things
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Copyright © 2010 by John Connolly
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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On The Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier
The painting titled The Anatomization of an Unknown Man is one of the more obscure works by the minor Dutch painter Frans Mier. It is an unusual piece, although its subject matter may be said to be typical of our time: the opening up of a body by what is, one initially assumes, a surgeon or anatomist, the light from a suspended lamp falling over the naked body of the anonymous man, his scalp peeled back to reveal his skull, his innards exposed as the anatomist’s blade hangs suspended above him, ready to explore further the intricacies of his workings, the central physical component of the universe’s rich complexity.
I was not long ago in England, and witnessed there the hanging of one Elizabeth Evans–Canberry Bess, they called her–a notorious murderer and cutpurse, who was taken with her partner, one Thomas Shearwood. Counterey Tom was hanged and then gibbeted at Gray’s Inn fields, but it was the fate of Elizabeth Evans to be dissected after her death at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall, for the body of a woman is of more interest to the surgeons than the body of a man, and harder to come by. She wept and screamed as she was brought to the gallows, and cried out for a Christian burial, for the terror of the hall was greater to her than that of the noose itself. Eventually the hangman silenced her with a rag, for she was disturbing the crowd.
Something of her fear had communicated itself to the onlookers, though, for there was a commotion at the gallows, as I recall. Although the surgeons wore the guise of commoners, yet the crowd knew them for what they were, and a shout arose that the woman had suffered enough under the law, and that she should have no further barbarities visited upon her, although I fear their concern was less for the dignity of her repose than the knowledge that the mob was to be deprived of the display of her carcass in chains at St. Pancras and the slow exposure of her bones at King’s Cross. Still, the surgeons had their way, for when the hangman was done with her, she was cut down and stripped of her apparel, then laid naked in a chest and thrown into a cart. From there, she was carried to the hall near unto Cripplegate. For a penny, I was permitted, with others, to watch as the surgeons went about their work, and a revelation it was to me.
But I digress. I speak of it merely to stress that Mier’s painting cannot be understood in isolation. It is a record of our time and should be seen in the context of the work of Valverde and Estienne, of Spigelius and Berrettini and Berengarius, those other great illustrators of the inner mysteries of our corporeal form.
Yet look closer and it becomes clear that the subject of Mier’s painting is not as it first appears. The unknown man’s face is contorted in its final agony, but there is no visible sign of strangulation, and his neck is unmarked. If he is a malefactor taken from the gallows, then by what means was his life ended? Although the light is dim, it is clear that his hands have been tied to the anatomist’s table by means of stout rope. Only the right hand is visible, admittedly, but one would hardly secure one and not the other. On his wrist are gashes where he has struggled against his bonds, and blood pours from the table to the floor in great quantities. The dead do not bleed in this way.
And if this is truly a surgeon, then why does he not wear the attire of a learned man? Why does he labor alone in some dank place, and not in a hall or theater? Where are his peers? Why are there no other men of science, no assistants, no curious onlookers enjoying their penny’s worth? This, it would appear, is secret work.
Look: there, in the corner, behind the anatomist, head tilted to stare down at the dissected man. Is that not the head and upper body of a woman? Her left hand is raised to her mouth, and her eyes are wide with grief and horror, but here, too, a rope is visible. She is also restrained, although not so firmly as the anatomist’s victim. Yes, perhaps “victim” is the word, for the only conclusion to be drawn is that the man on the table has suffered under the knife. This is no corpse from the gallows, and this is not a dissection.
This is something much worse.
The question of attribution is always difficult in such circumstances. It resembles, one supposes, the investigation into the commission of a crime. There are clues left behind by the murderer, and it is the work of an astute and careful observer to connect such evidence to the man responsible. The use of a single source of light, shining from right to left, is typical of Mier. So, too, is the elongation of the faces, so that they resemble wraiths more than people, as though their journey into the next life has already begun. The hands, by contrast, are clumsily rendered, those of the anatomist excepted. It may be that they are the efforts of others, for Mier would not be alone among artists in allowing his students to complete his paintings. But then it could also be that it is Mier’s intention to draw our gaze to the anatomist’s hands. There is a grace, a subtlety to the scientist’s calling, and Mier is perhaps suggesting that these are skilled fingers holding the blade.
To Mier, this is an artist at work.
I admit that I have never seen the painting in question. I have only a vision of it in my mind based upon my knowledge of such matters. But why should that concern us? Is imagining not the first step toward bringing something into being? One must envisage it, and then one can begin to make it a reality. All great art commences with a vision, and perhaps it may be that the vision is closer to God than that which is ultimately created by the artist’s brush. There will always be human flaws in the execution. Only in the mind can the artist achieve true perfection.
It is possible that the painting called The Anatomization of an Unknown Man may not exist.
What is the identity of the woman? Why would someone force her to watch as a man is torn apart, compel her to listen to his screams as the blade takes him slowly, exquisitely apart? Surgeons and scientists do not torture in this way.
Thus, if we are not gazing upon a surgeon at work, then, for want of another word, we are looking at a murderer. He is older than the others in the picture, althou
Yes, perhaps he has the look of a Spaniard about him.
I admit that Frans Mier may not exist.
With this knowledge, gleaned from close examination of the work in question, let us now construct a narrative. The man with the knife is not a surgeon, although he might wish to be, but he has a curiosity about the nature of the human body that has led him to observe closely the attentions of the anatomists. The woman? Let us say: his wife, lovely yet unfaithful, fickle in her affections, weary of the aging body that shares her bed and hungry for firmer flesh.
And the man on the table, then, is or was her lover. What if we were to suppose that the husband has discovered his wife’s infidelity. Perhaps the young man is his apprentice, one whom he has trusted and loved as a substitute for the child who has never graced his marriage. Realizing the nature of his betrayal, the master lures his apprentice to the cellar, where the table is waiting. No, wait: he drugs him with tainted wine, for the apprentice is younger and stronger than he is, and the master is unsure of his ability to overpower him. When the apprentice regains consciousness, woken by the screams of the woman trapped with him, he is powerless to move. He adds his voice to hers, but the walls are thick, and the cellar deep. There is no one to hear.
A figure advances, and the lamp catches the sharp blade, and the grim work begins.
So: this is our version of the truth, our answer to the question of attribution. I, Nicolaes Deyman, did kill my apprentice Mantegna. I anatomized him in my cellar, slowly taking him apart as though, like the physicians of old, I might be able to find some as yet unsuspected fifth humor within him, some black and malignant thing responsible for his betrayal. I did force my wife, my beloved Judith, to watch as I removed skin from flesh and flesh from bone. When her lover was dead, I strangled her with a rope, and I wept as I did so.
I accept the justice and wisdom of the court’s verdict: that my name should be struck from all titles and records and never uttered again; that I should be taken from this place and hanged in secret and then, while still breathing, that I should be handed over to the anatomists and carried to their great temple of learning, there to be taken apart while my heart beats so that the slow manner of my dying might contribute to the greater sum of human knowledge and thereby make some recompense for my crimes.
I ask only this: that an artist, a man of some small talent, might be permitted to observe and record all that transpires so the painting called The Anatomization of an Unknown Man might at last come into existence. After all, I have begun the work for him. I have imagined it. I have described it. I have given him his subject and willed it into being.
For I, too, am an artist, in my way.
John Connolly, On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637)
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