Printed Bodies and the Materiality of Early Modern Prints

Figs 1, 2, 3. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici (Visio Prima, Visio Secunda, Visio Tertia) (1613), three anatomy broadsides composed of engraving and etching on ivory laid paper, discolored to cream, cut and joined with paper components, laid down on letterpress printed ivory laid paper, and mounted on cream wove paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Dr. Ira Frank, 1944.461, 1944.462 and 1944.521.

Figs 1, 2, 3. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici (Visio Prima, Visio Secunda, Visio Tertia) (1613), three anatomy broadsides composed of engraving and etching on ivory laid paper, discolored to cream, cut and joined with paper components, laid down on letterpress printed ivory laid paper, and mounted on cream wove paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Dr. Ira Frank, 1944.461, 1944.462 and 1944.521.

In 1613, the Augsburg engraver Lucas Kilian produced a set of three broadsheets of human anatomy that are some of the most intricate early examples of interactive prints extant. Composed of several layers of engraving, letterpress and etching that were cut, stacked, and glued together as liftable flaps, these prints allowed the viewer to dissect male and female corpses as a didactic exercise. Though primarily intended for medical students, the sheets also served curious general audiences, as they teemed with decorative and moralizing addenda. Works such as these have largely been ignored or dismissed as novelties by an art history that has seen prints primarily as fuel for connoisseurship or as a locus of hidden narratives rather than as material objects in the world.1 But objects they were and very much remain.

Fig. 2b. Visio Secunda, detail of flaps and organs.

Fig. 2b. Visio Secunda, detail of flaps and organs.

Currently, however, there is a burgeoning interest in the materiality of printed images from the first two centuries of European printmaking, roughly 15th century to 18th century. (Historians refer to this period as “Early Modern,” which creates a good deal of confusion when for most of the art world ‘Modern’ means 20th century. In this article, ‘early modern’ means circa 1460 to circa 1760.) At the 2010 College Art Association conference, the author co-chaired a double session of lectures with Lia Markey of the University of Pennsylvania on the material presence of early modern prints. The works discussed included prints pasted down onto (or into) small boxes for personal belongings; prints that were cut up, rearranged, and pasted in albums; images that were printed on luxurious materials like vellum or satin, and engravings pulled from precious metal plates. (Tellingly, most of the speakers had museum affiliations, guaranteeing hands-on access to actual objects.) Over the last few years exhibitions such as Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color; Grand Scale: Monumental Woodcuts in the Age of Dürer and Titian; and The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver have tackled the specific physical attributes of early prints.2 The current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life, (April 30-July 10, 2011) explores the myriad ways in which prints were active participants in the daily life of the Renaissance.

To understand the role of prints such as the Kilian anatomy engravings, it is important to recognize that early modern prints were not made to be matted and framed behind glass; they were active participants in the world, serving a wide variety of decorative, educational, and devotional purposes. Many were printed as surfaces to be cut out and applied to other things: Hans Sebald Beham’s porthole-like woodcut of the Women’s Bath might have been intended as decoration for a wall or for a box. Massive multi-sheet prints like Titian’s twelve-part woodcut of Pharaoh’s Army Drowning in the Red Sea, on the other hand, were too large for display anywhere except on walls, where they would have been pasted directly to the surface to mimic the appearance of painting, fresco or tapestry. The 1466 Large Madonna of Einsiedeln engraving by Master E.S is believed to be the earliest dated print relating to a specific religious site and is evidence of devotional practices of the time, though a later, anonymous eighteenth century woodcut of the same cult figure is even more revealing of attitudes and behaviors: outfitted in printed fabric and colorful metal inserts, it is adorned in much the way the Madonna sculpture itself would have been on festive occasions. But the most ‘interactive’ of early prints were those produced with movable parts—flaps, dials and other components that were made to be cut out and constructed by the buyer or the buyer’s bookbinder (even printed books of the time were sold as stacks of loose sheets to be bound to taste). Such creative uses of print began almost as soon as printmaking itself became viable.3 Flaps worked well for before-and-after views of comic or erotic situations—including a popular late sixteenth-century genre of Venetian Courtesans with liftable skirts—but they were more often employed for proto-scientific purposes. Numerous dial-based calendars survive, such as those meant to enable a lay person to calculate the date of the next Easter. Scientific instruments were made with printed veneers pasted onto pasteboard or wooden cores. Sundials especially came in all portable shapes and sizes, including an octahedral prism that told time on seven of its faces. (This application preceded by at least 475 years the woven paper octahedron by Seon Chung and the disposable wristwatches by Patrick Killoran in The Paper Sculpture Book published by Cabinet Magazine).4 Finally, there were the anatomy flap prints—roughly 65 known male and female pairs designed and pirated throughout Europe from the mid fifteenth into the seventeenth century. (Animated demonstrations of several of the early works can be seen on the Wellcome Library site.

Fig. 1a. Visio Prima, detail of scepter and shovel.

Fig. 1a. Visio Prima, detail of scepter and shovel.

Fig. 2a. Visio Secunda, detail of skull.

Fig. 2a. Visio Secunda, detail of skull.

Fig. 3a. Visio Tertia, detail of skull (flap open) and phoenix.

Fig. 3a. Visio Tertia, detail of skull (flap open) and phoenix.

Kilian’s trio of anatomical broadsheets is the showiest, largest, and likely most expensive of these prints to have survived, and the Art Institute of Chicago is happily in possession of a rare first-state impression (Figs 1, 2, 3). They boast over a hundred superimposed organ flaps (and thus were so complicated that they had to be sold pre-assembled by the publisher). They offered their audience a heady mix of allegorical iconography and anatomy made more potent by their removable organs and naked flesh. The skulls under Adam and Eve’s feet (Figs 2a, 3a), the tiny king’s scepter paired with a grave-digger’s shovel (Fig. 1a), and the resurrected phoenix between Eve’s legs (Fig. 3a), emphasize the ephemerality of the life that bodies provide.

While most anatomy flap prints went through several reprintings, it usually happened within a century of their creation. The success of Kilian’s work is clear from its longevity: originally published in 1613 as three separate broadsheets (the version owned by the AIC), it inspired two explanatory pamphlets appearing in 1615 to identify the parts of the body marked with letters on the prints.5 The plates reappeared in book form in 1619, augmented with additional images of organs and other engraved details, and then went through six subsequent unchanged reprintings accompanied by German and Latin text. A second set of plates was copied from the 1613 edition for the Netherlandish and English markets. Finally, a century and half after their creation, eight surviving plates were reprinted as uncut sheets in a 1754 Italian work on anatomy spuriously attributed to the sixteenth-century Archangelo Piccolomini.6 The fascination these works exerted seems to have long outlived the accuracy of their anatomical content.

The first of the three sheets, titled Visio Prima (First Vision) shows a male and a female figure, modeled after Albrecht Dürer’s 1504 Adam and Eve, standing on plinths that flank a large truncated (and impregnated) female torso. The torso is covered by a Medusa-head flap (lacking in the AIC impression), beneath a cloud of angels in glory that surround a flap roundel labeled “Yahweh” in Hebrew letters. A schematic eye and ear appear to the upper left and right and a heart in the center. Each of these figures contains as many as seven flaps that open out of the main sheet. The second and third Visions show larger-scale images of Adam and Eve respectively, each standing on a skull with its own flaps. (Figs 2a, 3a) Adam demonstrates the workings of the heart on the left-hand side; Eve offers a diagram of the lungs. Each of the main figures sports flaps of billowing cloth to protect the prudish or squeamish viewer, and to keep the anatomical bits in place. To make the broadsheets, the main engravings, entitled Catoptri Microcosmici, or Mirrors of the Microcosm, were pasted down onto a second sheet with letterpress titles and filigreed woodcut borders.

Fig. 3b. Visio Tertia, detail of open chest and smudge on genitals.

Fig. 3b. Visio Tertia, detail of open chest and smudge on genitals.

The idea of using printed flaps to explore anatomy was not new. In 1538, almost a century earlier, Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder had produced an extremely popular (and much pirated) male and female pair of woodcut flap broadsides in Strasbourg, but his anatomy bore little resemblance to reality, and was almost immediately superseded by the teachings of Andreas Vesalius. Vesalius’ influential de Humani Corporus Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body, 1543) revolutionized the understanding of human anatomy. Like Vogtherr, Vesalius employed superimposed flaps in the student version of the Fabrica, and his summary of this text, the Epitome of 1543, recommended animal skin or vellum strips to reinforce the flaps.

While Kilian was the engraver of the broadsheets, the designer of the anatomical content appears to have been a medical doctor named Johannes Remmelin, though Remmelin coyly denied responsibility until it was clear that the prints were selling. By 1618, we know, they were in the collection of the anatomy theater at Leiden.7 In a preface to the 1619 book edition, Remmelin wrote that he ‘condescended to correct’ the earlier edition, but in fact the anatomical details of the main plates (as seen in the 1754 restrikes) are all but unchanged (Figs 1, 4). The layers are slightly reduced for clarification, and the allegories have been slightly elaborated (a tiny king’s head and skull were squeezed in beside the scepter and shovel to remind the viewer, “King Today, Dead Tomorrow,”) but it is on the whole the same set of flap prints. Remmelin’s remarks suggest an attempt to intensify interest in the new edition:

I never contemplated publication of the work, but fashioned it only for my own use …. but it happened that the general talk of it among my friends caused this Catoptrum to be wrested away from me for inspection and circulation, until, through their persuasion and at their expense, it began to be published, without my knowledge, and to be enjoyed like an unripe fruit.8

In fact the original edition displays Remmelin’s portrait on the plinth at the bottom left of the first sheet, Visio Prima, with his initials below: “I.R. Inventor.” For the 1619 edition, the portrait was enlarged, and accompanied by the doctor’s coat of arms on the right hand plinth. Remmelin is given equal billing to the publisher, Stephan Michelspacher, whose full name appears below the right plinth. Lucas Kilian also appears on Remmelin’s plinth, as “L.K. sculptor.”

Intriguingly, the eighteenth-century restrikes of the 1619 plates show exactly how Kilian imposed many of the interior flaps for printing,9 though they do not provide instructions sufficient for building the complete manikins from their astonishingly tightly-organized components (Figs 4-6). It is clear that the top sheet of each of the three broadsides would be sliced open to furnish the upper level of the flaps, most of which show the skin. (Watermark evidence confirms that the main engravings of the AIC impressions are all printed from the same paper type.) These prints were then partially cut out to reveal the cavity below, leaving hinges on one side to secure the external flaps. The interior flaps had been etched onto their plates wherever they fit, and printed on different, slightly thicker paper. These internal organs were cut apart, glued together in bundles and then affixed to the verso of the main sheet. This layering allowed the viewer to burrow ever deeper into the recesses of the human form and to lift the flaps up and out in every direction. Earlier flap prints had clumsily attached the flaps to lift vertically from the neck, limiting the suggestion of interior space. The 1619 book specifies that not all of the organs were meant to be glued down—in fact, the heart and lungs were to be located in a cavity for easy removal, guaranteeing a close encounter with these important body parts. Thus it is all the more remarkable that the AIC sheet still has them. Eve’s removable lungs are printed on both sides and open like a triptych to reveal even deeper parts. Many of the flaps open horizontally. Others, including the Yahweh roundel at the top of the Visio Prima, lift upward, as does the phoenix’s smoke cloud, which obscures Eve’s genitals in the third print, and a large flower that hides Adam’s in the second. One of the surviving plates includes the inside of Eve’s ribcage etched at the lower right. This would have been cut out and pasted onto the back of the frontal flap; once the breastbone was cut, it became free to lift upward, while her breasts spread wide to either side, as if the viewer were ripping open her ribcage in three dimensions on the operating table.

Fig. 4. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici plate (reprinted 1619), uncut, from 1754 pseudo-Piccolomino text. Special Collections, Northwestern University Galter Health Sciences Library.

Fig. 4. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici plate (reprinted 1619), uncut, from 1754 pseudo-Piccolomino text. Special Collections, Northwestern University Galter Health Sciences Library.

Though the printed flaps are unsigned, the 1754 uncut restrikes from the flap plates help confirm that the same artist produced both the flaps and the main prints. While the surface of the three Visions was engraved, the interior layers appear to be almost exclusively etched, a medium in which Kilian worked less frequently. In the five uncut organ plate restrikes, the innards appear to be arranged purely by fit rather than by order of construction and, curiously, tiny doodles fill the space around the organs in a sort of macabre horror vacui. Although they do not appear as visible flaps in any impression known to the author, two variations on Remmelin’s coat of arms appear etched on separate plates, perhaps to suggest his involvement in the design of those illustrations as well. (Figs. 5, 6) In some constructed impressions of the 1619 state, the edges of smaller doodles and engraved lines of alphabet can be seen under and around the pasted-in flaps: because there was too little empty space to cut cleanly around them, they were used as makeshift tabs to secure the flaps. These creative doodles tie the underlying flaps back to Kilian. Though nearly invisible in the finished product, images like the tiny beer stein, dancing bears and floral swags have their parallels in his 1627 Alphabet book, as well as in a series of ornament prints Kilian produced around 1607. Stephan Michelspacher, the publisher of the 1613 anatomy, must have approached Kilian to carry out the changes to the original plates. The frontispiece to the 1615 handbook includes anatomical vein-men similar in stance, style and lettering to the Visio Prima flaps. Remmelin also continued publishing with Michelspacher after 1619, so his supposed displeasure with the early printing does not appear to have complicated their business relationship.

The wear and tear on the AIC impressions of the Kilian prints suggests the set was, in fact, used for study. The prints have even been patched in places to keep the flaps attached. A continuous wormhole serves as proof that the set has been together for quite some time, if not since its initial printing. As is common among flap prints, a few organs are missing, though surprisingly not the loose ones hidden in the interior of the Adam and Eve bodies. Those loose organs, however, have migrated slightly, leaving Adam literally in possession of Eve’s heart. (Fig. 2b) Additionally, in the Visio Tertia, Eve appears to have attracted the attention of a censorious individual. Despite the large plume of smoke and the fluttering cloth flap that once covered her (but is now missing) there is a large, thumb-print-sized smudge of darkened brown material coating her genitals. (Fig. 3b) If this was done out of religious conviction, the gesture failed: it draws even more attention to the area. The untouched restrike shows the objectionable details, including pubic hair, as well as the banderole where the flap of smoke was meant to be attached to the surface of the engraving, and so to extend even more tantalizingly into the viewer’s space. (Fig. 3c)

Fig. 3c. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici plates (reprinted 1619), uncut, from 1754 pseudo-Piccolomino text. Special Collections, Northwestern University Galter Health Sciences Library.

Fig. 3c. Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici plates (reprinted 1619), uncut, from 1754 pseudo-Piccolomino text. Special Collections, Northwestern University Galter Health Sciences Library.

Kilian and Remmelin’s Catoptri Microcosmici represents one of the last great interactive, even sculptural, print series of the early modern era, and studying it can tell us much about the way people have related to printed images. It also suggests how much is to be gained through careful observation of material particulars. Differences in the paper, ink and other colorants, as well as accidental or intentional variations in the quality of the printing, are important aspects of the work’s inherent materiality, while inscriptions, movable parts, and subsequent damage highlight residual evidence of use and owner interaction. Not only do prints have versos to consider, the shape of images and printing matrices are equally important. This material approach to researching prints takes into consideration the physical production and the afterlife of the print, interpreting it as an object rather than as two-dimensional image or abstracted iconographical construct.

Prints of the early modern era have too long been assessed purely in terms of connoisseurship and their logical place in Adam von Bartsch’s peintre-graveur universe. Scholars consulting multiple impressions of the same print have done so primarily to establish the differences and relative quality of each state of the image rather than to confront the materiality of the objects. The current boom in exhaustive online databases of works on paper such as those included in the British Museum’s searchable online collection or the Virtual Print Room at Wolfenbüttel and Brunswick greatly streamlines this type of comparative looking, but at the risk of further deracinating the image from the print as a whole. There are compelling reasons to consider multiple impressions not just as examples of a type, but as objects with specific histories. Handling early prints in person remains key to researching and understanding them, their initial context and their continuing resonance. William Ivins famously defined the importance the print in terms of its role as an “exactly repeatable pictorial statement,” but it is vital to remember that a print’s physical history can only be revealed impression by impression, page by page, flap by flap.

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  1. In David Hillman and Carla Mazzio, eds., The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. xv-xvii., the Kilian prints were discussed, if cursorily, for their allegorical motifs and the inherent violence suggested by cutting up printed bodies into so many pieces. []
  2. See: Susan Dackerman. Painted Prints: the Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings & Woodcuts. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002; Larry Silver, Elizabeth Wyckoff, and Lilian Armstrong. Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Dürer and Titian. Wellesley: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 2008; Emily J. Peters, Evelyn Lincoln, and Andrew Raftery. The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480-1650. Providence: Museum Of Art, Rhode Island School Of Design, 2009. []
  3. The author’s doctoral dissertation, Art—A User’s Guide: Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance (Yale University 2006,) examined numerous impressions of these exceedingly rare prints and reconstructed the early days of paper engineering (http://www.interactive-prints.org/index.html). []
  4. The Paper Sculpture Book: a complete exhibition in a book with 29 buildable sculptures. New York: Cabinet Magazine and Independent Curators Incorporated, 2003. []
  5. The two manuals are always found bound together, suggesting both were published in 1615, by Stephan Michelspacher: Elucidarius, Tabulis Synopticis, Microcosmici Laminis Incisi Aeneis, Admirandam Partium Hominis Creaturarum Divinarum Praestantissimi Universarum Fabricam repraesentantis, Augsburg, 1614; Pinax Microcosmographicus, hoc est, Admirandae Partium Hominis Creaturarum Divinarum praestantissimi Universarum Fabricae, Augsburg, 1615. []
  6. Archangeli Piccolomini. Anatome integra, revisa, tabulis explanata et iconibus mirificam humani corporis fabricam, ad ipsum naturae archetypum exprimentibus. Veronae, sumptib. Gabrielis Julii de Ferrariis, 1754. []
  7. Tim Huisman. The Finger of God: Anatomical Practice in 17th-Century Leiden. Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2009, pp. 38 and 50. Otto Heurnius acquired in August 12, 1618 a group of prints and books from Govert Basson for the anatomy theater that included a set of the 1613 Remmelin/Kilian broadsheets and the 1614 manual. []
  8. Kenneth F. Russell. A Bibliography of Johann Remmelin the Anatomist. East St. Kilds, Vic. 3183, Australia: J.F. Russell, 1991, p. 3. []
  9. See Andrea Carlino, “Paper Bodies: A Catalogue of Anatomical Fugitive Sheets 1538-1687,” trans. Noga Arikha, Medical History, Supplement No. 19, 1999. []