Vegder's Blog

November 3, 2009

Skeletons, skulls and bones in Japanese Art and elsewhere – Part Two

When East met West – anatomically speaking

In 1771 a nameless, female criminal was executed. She earned, the hard way, the dubious honor of benefitting the exchange of ideas between the West and Japan and changing perceptions forever. Her contribution was not voluntary. Three men interested in the elements of Dutch medicine bribed the executioner to let them view her dissection. One of them was Sugita Gempaku (杉田玄白: 1733-1817) who happened to have access to a Dutch translation (1734) of an original German publication called the Anatomische Tabellen (人体解剖図表: 1722) by Johann Adam Kulmus (ヨハン. アダム.クルムス: 1689-1745). Gempaku was so impressed by the books accuracy that the next day he and his colleagues set about translating this work into Japanese. The result was the Kaitai Shinsho (解体新書: 1774) or ‘New Book of Anatomy’ sparked a whole new look at the European scientific method and an entirely new look at traditional Japanese medicine. The illustration below is from that translated copy.


Gempaku warned his readers that they would have to change their way of looking at things they thought they already knew. He called it “changing one’s outlook” (memboku o aratemeru). His revelations that day started a revolution in medicine and respect for Western scholarship. Of course, there had been dissections in the past but Gempaku believed that earlier Chinese and Japanese physicians had seen what they wanted to see to confirm their beliefs and not the true nature of things. He referred to his predecessors as being “hardened by chronic misconceptions”. According to Shigehisa Kuriyama in his essay “Between Mind and Eye: Japanese Anatomy in the Eighteenth Century” Gempaku felt that a physicians inability to see the truth was not just foggy thinking based on centuries of misconceptions, but that it was downright delusional and pathological in its resistance. There had been accounts of dissections from as early as the Han dynasty in China (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), but there wasn’t a printed graphic to work from until the Sung dynasty almost a thousand years later. However, it wasn’t until the mid-14th century that such diagrams began to appear in Japan due to the work of the monk-physician Kajiwara Shōzen (梶原性全: 1266-1337). It took another four centuries before Japanese scholars began to seriously question the work handed down since the time of the Sung.

Cats have skulls and sometimes skulls have cats – at least in Japan

Kuniyoshi is undeniably a genius. I have said this elsewhere: If artistic ideas were tantamount to words Kuniyoshi would have the largest vocabulary of any artist I have ever known of – anywhere – anywhere in the world. Does that make him the best artist ever? No. But considering his remarkable skills he must be counted among the greatest. Besides, ‘best’ is a subjective word and from my perspective there is no ‘best,’ but many qualify.

Below is a prime example of Kuniyoshi’s fertile imagination. I have isolated one element of a print by him which shows skulls composed of the bodies of cats. Below that is the my adulterated version of the original print so you can better focus on the skulls themselves. But also, below that, are two other details from another robe which he is wearing and it too is decorated with skulls. Only this time the skulls are made up of lotus plants.





And then there is the sandal skull… Recently someone sent me a link to a web site that purported to show a face of Christ in a woodgrain product being sold by a major retailer. However, I thought the image had been doctored to make it look like Jesus and wasn’t very convincing. But I digress… as usual. Below is an enlargement of the sandal in the Kuniyoshi print I have been discussing and there is no mistaking the artist’s intent or that he meant to use a woodgrain to show it.


Then there is Kuniyoshi’s cats of cats



Kuniyoshi and his skull of gourds

I suppose that Kuniyoshi’s images shown below could give new meaning to the phrase ‘out of one’s gourd.’ But, of course, that is a Western phrase and odds are that there is no Japanese 19th century equivalent. On the other hand, after thinking about this some more, there probably is/was an appropriate Japanese phrase to fit such moments. If, and only if, the term ‘out of one’s gourd’ or ‘off one’s gourd’ has anything to do with drinking to excess an alcoholic beverage out of a gourd and becoming falling-down-slobbering-stupid-drunk how could the Japanese not have an expression to suit that condition?



Hirosada and his ginko leaf skulls

The picture of ginko leaves on the right above was posted at commons.wikimedia by Friedrich Böhringer.

The danse macabre

There is a wonderful description of a storm by Thomas Hardy’s (トマス・ハーディ: 1840-1928) in his novel Far From the Madding Crowd (遥か群衆を離れて): “Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its for its inexpressably dangerous nature to be at once realized, and they could only comprehend the magnificance of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south. It was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones – dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalled confusion.” Hardy continues by describing a bolt of lightning striking Gabriel who is holding Bathsheba’s arm: “In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel’s rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain and into the earth. Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba’s warm arm tremble in his hand – a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.”

Woodcut from the ‘Dance of Death’ series by Hans
Holbein (ハンス.ホルバイン: 1497-1543) the Younger .

In the 18th century Pierre Maupertuis (モーペルチュイ: 1698-1759), one of history’s great polymaths, on a visit to the ossuary at Toulouse was asked why the skeletons seemed to be laughing. His response, in French of course, was that they were laughing at us, the living. The skeleton drummer shown above is clearly enjoying himself. Not only does he have a smile on his face, a wicked grin you might say, but he’s got ears too. Hmmm? Odd isn’t it. Near his bony left foot is death’s hourglass with its inexorable sands or as Pink Floyd so succintly put it: “Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.”

By the mid-15th century the Dance of Death was ubiquitous in Europe. Why not? One hundred years ealier the Black Death (黒死病) had ravaged the populations from the sweltering, southern tip of Italy to the frigid Scandanavian region. No one was immune. In The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature the author, Karl Guthke, states that within the Christian world bracketed from the Fall to Last Judgement “…Death is a terrifying presence. Inexorably he approaches representatives of all estates and classes, hauling them out of life after a brief dialogue or dispute, without ever granting a reprieve.” Guthke also notes that “Gender specific attributes such as a drum often confirm [that Death] is a male image.”


Nathanile Hawthorne (ナサニエル・ホーソーン: 1804-64) in his Twice Told Tales (二度語られた物語) relates the story of a woman who has been widowed three times and is determined to try again. One of her deceased husband’s had actually been a lot younger. But the woman was undaunted and determined to stay young although she clearly was losing that battle. Hawthorne noted that “The young have less charity for aged follies than the old for those of youth.” As the bride approached the Episcopalian church with her youthful entourage the mood soon began to sour. The chuch bell began a mournful, death knell. Everyone noticed, but the bride in particular. It was as if the “…stroke of the bell had  fallen directly on her heart…” Soon the groom’s company was seen approaching, but so too was that of a funeral. Others began to join the crowd already in the church. The bride thought she recognized old friends long deceased. “Many a merry night she had danced with them in her youth; and now, in joyless age, she felt that some withered partner should request her hand, and all unite in a dance of death, to the music of the funeral bell.”

When the groom appered he was wearing his shroud. “The corpse stood motionless, but addressed the widow in accents that seemed to melt into the clang of the bell. Which fell heavily on the air while he spoke. ‘Come my bride!’ said those pale lips. ‘The hearse is ready. The sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be married; and then to our coffins!’ ”


All human beauty is ended by death – omnem in homine venustatem mors abolet (with an erotic subtext)

The image shown below is a detail from a print by Hans Sebald Beham (ハンス・ゼーバルト・ベーハム: 1500-50). While Death is not quite a skeleton yet – note the muscular arms and legs – he is well on his way to becoming one. His head is the only obvious give away – other than the inscription, of course – but how many of us can easily translate from the Latin? But what is particularly bothering here is the obvious erotic nature of the couple: the seduction of death. The tilt of his head/skull as he whispers into her ear while holding firmly onto her wrists.


W. H. Auden (オーデン: 1907-73) once wrote:

Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral…

What’s worse than a going on a blind date?



If you have any suggestions please get in touch.

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

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

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: