Though its shape is intimately familiar, we’ll never see our own, and rarely catch a glimpse of anyone else’s. The skeleton, the form of the human body stripped of all flesh and organs, is the subject of our latest Explore topic. It lasts long after the rest of our remains have gone: you might recall these Roman-era, medieval and 19th-century skeletons from our Skeletons exhibition in 2008; but the skeleton also has a rich life in health and medical imagery.
The idea that the skeleton stands for death couldn’t be clearer than in this Indian poster warning of the fatal risk of AIDS; but morality also has its connections with mortality, as shown in this rather misogynistic 17th-century portrait of death in the guise of a seductress. Skeletons are also used to warn of the perils of vanity in life, the inevitable end that awaits this English nobleman, or this pair of beautiful silver skeletons that are themselves a warning of the transience of luxury.
Not all skeletons are forbidding, however. This small paper mache skeleton is from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, a time when sweets and toys in the shape of skulls and skeletons are made to honour and remember the dead. We might also think that we know how a skeleton should look, but that depends on how you see it, as this Persian illustration of the skeletal system from Mansur’s Anatomy shows.
While understanding the skeleton is a key part of an education in anatomy, even anatomists producing images of the skeleton for educational purposes often can’t resist imbuing the skeleton with personality: this leaning skeleton by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius seems almost wistful; and William Cheselden’s skeleton in the act of prayer imparts a deep religious sensibility to the rendering of the flexed forearms. Even stripped of our flesh, it seems, we are not free of all the hopes and fears of life.