Embalming has been carried out for thousands of years by different cultures all over the world. An array of techniques concerning the practice have been described by scholars and doctors from each of these time periods, but selection of artists have depicted this practice as well. Embalming cannot be called a common subject matter in the field of art history- but nevertheless there are still examples that survive today. As part of this blog post I will discuss five works of art that depict the practice of embalming, a topic I do not believe is widely discussed through the examination of such materials. I will attempt to cover different embalming techniques as well as different time periods and locations in their examination.
Papyrus of Hunefer, Egypt- c.1275BC. and New Kingdom Tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt- c.1250BC.
Numerous depictions of funerary rites and embalming are depicted in Egyptian papyri, on sarcophagi and other objects. I have chosen the Papyrus of Hunefer from the British Museum which shows the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The embalmer is depicted wearing a mask of Anubis (the god of embalming) and the mummy is being reanimated by the priest so the deceased could speak in the afterlife. We also see an embalmer depicted during the mummification process wearing a jackal head in the New Kingdom tomb of Sennedjem. The deceased in the papyrus is depicted as already ‘mummified’ by the embalmer before the final step of the ceremony takes place and the deceased can be laid to rest. The embalming process would have been subject to expense- with the most elaborate process costing the most money. Organs were removed and placed in canopic jars, the body cleaned and sewn up and dehydrated with natron. The process took around 70 days.
Embalming of the Body of Christ triptych, Rotterdam, Unknown Master- c.1410.
This 15th century triptych shows the embalming of Christ- a very rarely depicted scene in religious art. In the image we see Mary embracing her son as she is supported by John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome in her mourning. The jars of oils, resins and spices used in the embalming process can be seen around the feet of Christ, with men (presumably the embalmers) handling equipment to assist in the preservation. The Bible mentions the embalming of Christ. His body was washed and perfumed with substances such as myrrh and aloe before his resurrection. However, there is no mention of organ removal and it is likely the body was perfumed for pomp and display. It is strange that the topic of the embalming of Christ is not depicted more often, as it links so closely with resurrection and preservation of the body.
The Embalming Jars of Friedrich Ruysch, Thesarus animalium primus, 1710.
The Dutch anatomist Ruysch is remembered for his development of anatomical specimen preservation and use of the arterial method of embalming. He acquired a very large specimen collection and created carefully arranged scenes incorporating human body parts and preserved animals. The scenes were intended to be an art display as well as a scientific preservation. Images of his artistic ‘embalming jars’ were featured in his Thesarus animalium primus in 1710. His collection of ‘curiosities’ notably contained infant and fetal remains posed among botanical landscapes.
Embalmed Body of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois, Engraving, 1865.
The American Civil War saw with it the popularisation of embalming methods so deceased soldiers could be brought home to loved ones. Lincoln was a huge advocate of the practice and had his 11-year-old son Willie embalmed upon his death in 1862. The same embalmer would go on to embalm Lincoln himself after his assassination. At the time, embalming was carried out using alcohol, mercury or arsenic via the arterial method, and makeshift embalming tents were often put up at battlefield sites. After Lincoln was embalmed his body went of a ‘tour’ for public display in different cities in America. This engraved illustration shows the embalmed body on display in Springfield, Illinois. The book the image came from was entitled ‘Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States : with a portrait of President Lincoln, and other illustrative engravings of the scene of the assassination, etc’ by D. Williamson and G. Bancroft, 1865.
Embalming is seen in a lot of artistic mediums but is not a popular subject matter. Interestingly, funeral processions and anatomical dissections were quite popular related subject matters for artists- both have themes strongly relevant to death and the human body. However, this snapshot of art pieces has shown mediums in painting, illustration, and sculpture over numerous time periods in different parts of the world. Preservation of the human body is still preserved in the art and archaeological material that we can still examine today.
Gannal, J. (Jean-Nicolas)., Harlan, R. (1840). History of embalming: and of preparations in anatomy, pathology, and natural history; including an account of a new process for embalming. Philadelphia: J. Dobson.