The exhibition Death and the Doctor: Dying, Burying the Afterlife in the Seventeenth Century curated by Dr Lucy Gwynn is now is display in the Tower Gallery until 1st November 2019.
This exhibition looks at the experience and ideas of death, the corpse and posthumous life in seventeenth–century England. Its starting point is the writing of Norwich physician and author Sir Thomas Browne, whose extraordinary essay Urne-Buriall is an extended meditation on death, and particularly on what is left of us after we are gone: decaying remains, scraps of memories, and the possibility of eternal life. The exhibition looks at deaths, funerals, and resurrections as described in the sonorous language of the Book of Common Prayer, and in the works of Browne, Shakespeare and Donne.
Alongside these, it presents the seventeenth-century fascination with the funerary customs of other cultures, from pyramids to catacombs to funeral pyres. Through contemporary illustrations, it explores the use of the dead body in the rapidly developing science of anatomy and it introduces Browne’s remarkable writings through Eton College Library’s fine collection of editions of his works.
Displayed in the exhibition are the following four visually exciting works which we hope will entice you to book a visit…
Lachrymae lachrimarum, or, the spirit of tears by Joshua Sylvester et al. (London 1612)
A compilation of poems mourning the death of Prince Henry that includes verse by John Donne. This volume was designed to emphasise the shock and grief provoked by Henry’s sudden death. Each right-hand page is bordered with grinning skeletons, and each left-hand page printed entirely in black except for Henry’s crest.
© Sir Thomas Browne Library, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
Wax cast of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, on loan from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
‘To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking bowls, and our bones made into pipes…’
Browne’s coffin was discovered in the 19th century in the church where he was buried. The sexton took the skull and sold it, fulfilling Browne’s fear of his remains being exposed to undignified display. The skull was reinterred in the 1920s, after several casts, including this one, were made.
Detail from Cerebri anatome by Thomas Willis (London 1664)
Willis’s study of the brain is one of a genre of meticulously detailed anatomical studies produced in England in the late 17th century. In focussing on single elements or organs of the body, Willis and his colleagues continued the trend begun by Vesalius, finding marvels in anatomical details rather than treating the whole as an indivisible microcosm of God’s creation.
Omnia opera anatomico-medico-chirurgici by Frederik Ruysch (Amsterdam, 1737)
Ruysch was a doctor in 17th-century Amsterdam who specialised in the wax preservation of soft tissue for medical study, crucial in an age when specimens were rare and refrigeration non-existent. He arranged his specimens in artful tableaux which were, he claimed, meant to persuade people to overcome their natural revulsion towards the dead body. Like the display of Browne’s skull in a pathological museum, Rusch’s tableaux occupy an uncomfortable – even distressing – territory where scientific investigation and morbid exploitation overlap.
Death and the Doctor: Open until 1st November 2019. To book a free appointment to visit Monday-Friday, 10-4pm, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01753 370590.
Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian and Deputy Director of Collections
Lucy Cordingley, Exhibitions and Access Co-Ordinator