Smiling in the Face of Death: ‘Death, Art and Anatomy’ at the University of Winchester

Trish Skinner and Emily Cock spent a sunny day facing death last week at Death, Art and Anatomy, an interdisciplinary conference that brought together art historians, medical historians, and practicing artists to explore the intersections between these fields. The conference was convened by Dr Christina Welch.

Trish spoke on ‘Unrecognisable Faces: Medieval Disfigurement and the Dead’, looking for medieval cases of postmortem disfigurement (and finding intriguingly few…). She shared her session with Professor Caroline Wilkinson, whom we had the pleasure of hosting as one of the keynotes at our own conference in April. Emily looked at how surgeons managed inflicting pain and fear on dying patients in ‘Unmerciful Medicine or a Merciful Death? Empathy in Seventeenth-Century Surgery’.

The conference featured several artists speaking on their engagements with death and the body. Eleanor Crook was the conference’s own ‘sculptor in residence’, continuing work on a wooden ‘transi‘ (a carved cadaver, which was a style of memorial found in late-medieval Europe), affectionately nicknamed ‘Guy of Gaunt’. You can follow progress on the carving on the Facebook page.

We were also struck by some of the faces on Eleanor’s other displayed carvings, especially this wonderful head of St Edmund (below). ‘Edmund the Martyr’ was a 9thC king of East Anglia, and became England’s first patron saint after his death in AD869 (apparently) at the hands of Vikings. According to Abbo of Fleury’s Passio sancti Eadmundi (late 10thC), Edmund was captured, tied up and shot with arrows, and then beheaded. Antonia Gransden writes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on the saint, “There is no credible information about the fate of Edmund’s body after his death. Abbo’s story of its loss and recovery is a product of a creative imagination inspired by incidents in other hagiographies. Abbo relates that the Danes left the body at the place of martyrdom but threw the head into brambles in the wood at ‘Haeglesdun’. Later, Christians found the body and searched for the head. They made a noise meanwhile by signalling to each other with horns and pipes, but one party went to a silent part of the wood, calling ‘“Where are you?” and marvellous to relate … the head replied in their native tongue, “Here, here, here”’. The head was found guarded between the paws of a wolf ‘of terrible appearance’ (Abbo of Fleury, § 12.41–3). The wolf followed the Christians as they carried the head to the body for burial, before retreating again into the wood. The Christians fitted the head on to the body, buried the whole, and built a simple chapel over the grave.”

Eleanor tells us that her Edmund’s head has indeed been carved as if “knocked about” by some Vikings. The element of the carving that first attracted our attention was Edmund’s clearly flattened nose; Eleanor explained that this was intended to echo a squishing sometimes seen in a dissection room when medical students lean over the body from the head end in order to dissect inside the chest cavity.

Edmund pro photo

Eleanor Crook, Head of St Edmund, 2005. Copyright of the artist. Photo by Matt Austin.




This entry was posted in conferences, Early Modern, medieval, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s