The Anatomy of Late-Medieval Carved Cadavers


Read more about the anatomy of carved cadavers

The Anatomy of Late-Medieval Carved Cadavers

Many of the British carved cadavers are sculpted to accurately show a naked body. They are carved with the correct number of ribs (12 pairs) along with the xiphoid process; a small cartilaginous extension at the base of the sternum (the breastbone). Most also show the muscles, bones, and cartilage around the neck, and a few even have veins carved on the arms and legs. The carved cadaver of Sir John Fitzalan (d.1434) at Arundel Castle is very life-like for nearly 600 years old.

However, a number of them have inaccurate anatomy. This suggests that the sculptors may not have had access to live models from which to craft their work. Several do not have enough ribs, and a couple have a barrel-like body.

This sculpture of Sir Roger Rockley ( in St Mary’s Church, Worsborough, shows him with an open chest but his internal organs have been carved the wrong way round. Also his skull-like head has a male lower jaw and a female cranium.

Another unusual sculpture shows an eviscerated cadaver. The wooden sculpture of a priest in St. John the Baptist Church, Keyston shows us that the sculptor would have seen the procedure where the soft internal organs (viscera) were removed as a form of body preservation; you can clearly see the man’s backbone in his chest cavity.

Sadly some cadaver sculptures have been deliberately badly damaged. On the whole they escaped the iconoclasm of the Reformation and the Civil War, but this now anonymous sculpture of a cleric in Paignton has been had half his face cut away. The damage is clean and therefore fairly recent.