Detail from Jan van Neck’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1683), showing Ruysch in the centre with an infant cadaver.
When visiting Frederik Ruysch in Amsterdam in 1697, Tsar Peter the Great kissed one of the specimens from his anatomical museum, and afterwards bought the entire collection.
Three hundred years later, the Dutch crown prince, Willem Alexander, when visiting St Petersburg, was withheld from seeing Ruysch’s work. Diplomats had decided the prince had to be spared the sight of the ‘macabre, deformed foetuses’ that Ruysch had preserved.
If he had heard this, Frederik Ruysch would have turned in his grave.
Not that he would have been surprised to hear that his preparations had survived three centuries, for he would have expected nothing less. Nor would he have been astonished to find a prince taking an interest in his work.
But he would have been dismayed to hear his specimens described as macabre, since it was precisely the beauty of his preparations that earned Ruysch long-lasting fame. For centuries, friend and foe alike have agreed that he should be credited, above all, with making anatomy an acceptable pursuit.
A depiction of one of Ruysch’s displays, featuring infant skeleton’s weeping into handkerchiefs, as featured in Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken…van Fredrik Ruysch.