Model of a female, half skeletal, half living by Unknown English artist

Unknown English artist

Model of a female, half skeletal, half living, c.1810–30, Wood, metal, wax, Model: 27.3 x 6.4 x 6.2 cm, Science Museum Group Collection, A78828, Courtesy of the Science and Society Picture Library

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Beneath the Skin

Face to face with our own mortality, the absurdity of our vanities is here rendered minutely in wax. One half a wealthy, well-dressed woman, the other half a decaying skeleton: beneath the fine clothes, the silk, the skin, we are all fragile flesh and bones. Was this wax model created as a spur to meditate on our ultimate state? A darkly-comic reminder of the absurdity of worldly trappings? Or even as a teaching aid for students of anatomy?

And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself. (Jeremiah 4:30)

In Jeremiah’s eyes, the figure would no doubt have illustrated the absurdity of worldly vanities, the futility of any attempt to adorn and beautify oneself with external ornaments. But in the context of his apocalyptic imagery, we might also think of the damage that the modern pursuit of wealth and beauty has wreaked on the environment. No longer worshipping false idols in the form of a golden calf, our admiration has transferred simply to gold—to the luxury and comforts money can bring.

The prophet asks, ‘How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?’ The model manifests a kind of living dissection: it presents us with an opportunity to look inside ourselves, a spur to appraise honestly our hearts, our motives, our way of living.

But if we truly regret the damage that humanity’s covetousness has caused in the world, what should we do? In the face of the destruction wrought by the Lord, Jeremiah orders the inhabitants to ‘gird [themselves] with sackcloth’ (v.8), a striking counterpoint to the scarlet and gold-bedecked costume that the covetous sinner dons in verse 30. The instruction implies a kind of stripping down, a rejection of excess and impurity, akin to his other recommendations to ‘circumcise’ the heart and ‘wash your heart from wickedness’ (vv.4, 14). Could those of us with many possessions benefit from a simpler existence?

 

References

Matthews David, Alison. 2015. Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (London: Bloomsbury)

 

 


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