'Bodies' exhibit is no masterpiece

Colleen Carroll Campbell | This piece first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 1, 2010 and is posted with the author's permission.


Five centuries after Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, speculation still abounds about the meaning of his masterpieces. The latest surfaced last month in Neurosurgery, a medical journal, in which two Johns Hopkins University professors claimed to have discerned the outlines of the underside of the human brain and the brainstem hidden in the artist's depiction of God's neck.

Noting that Michelangelo was "a deeply religious man and an accomplished anatomist" known for dissecting cadavers, medical illustrator Ian Suk and neurosurgeon Dr. Rafael J. Tamargo argued that he added an extra layer of significance to his work by concealing a 'sophisticated neuroanatomic rendering within the image of God."

Whether Michelangelo intended to hide parts of the temporal lobe, medulla and pons in a portrait of the Almighty is debatable. But there is little debate about the underlying premise of the professors' claim: that Michelangelo, like many of history's greatest artists, was a serious student of human anatomy who saw a reflection of the divine in the human body.

One wonders what Michelangelo would think of "Bodies … The Exhibition," a controversial display of lacquered human remains scheduled to arrive at the St. Louis Galleria in October. With everyone from Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin to Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster raising red flags about the source of the cadavers involved, Atlanta-based owner Premier Exhibitions is scrambling to present its exhibit of plastinated and provocatively posed corpses as something other than a crude circus sideshow.

Premier's public relations tack: Cast the exhibit as an aesthetically sophisticated, field-trip-worthy "celebration of … the human form" and "milestone achievement for anatomy education." To that end, the "Bodies" website features a page on "the history of anatomy" that equates the exhibit with such breakthroughs as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and the Human Genome Project.

It's not an easy sell for an exhibit marketed to casinos and shopping malls by a for-profit company that charges gawkers $22 a pop to see dead bodies of dubious origins. Critics have good reason to believe the bodies are those of dead Chinese dissidents. Even if they are not, there is cause for concern over the use of corpses as tourist attractions, educational or otherwise.

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used dissection as a means of gaining anatomical knowledge not otherwise available, knowledge they put to use in producing works that celebrated and elevated human dignity. However riveting one may find exhibits like "Bodies" and its ostensibly more respectable counterpart, "Body Worlds," neither fits that bill. Both treat the human body as a mere commodity or curiosity, a shell empty of intrinsic significance aside from its utility as a teaching tool or entertainment object.

For all their vaunted educational value, these exhibits resemble "Survivor" reruns more than the Sistine Chapel in their appeal to our voyeuristic instincts. It's no coincidence that China, a nation with one of the worst human rights records on earth, is the source of the cadavers in the "Bodies" exhibit. The way we treat bodies reflects the way we think about human dignity. And respect for human rights necessarily begins with respect for the most outward expression of our humanity: our bodies.

Parents and teachers seeking to introduce children to the mysteries of human anatomy can find less sensationalistic ways to do so, ways that reinforce respect for the human body. As for those who want to see a genuinely beautiful celebration of the human form, the Vatican Splendors exhibit now at the Missouri History Museum features impressive replicas of Michelangelo's Pieta and Sistine Chapel, among other treasures. The only human remains there are a few tiny bone fragments of venerated saints, ensconced in bejeweled reliquaries treasured by the faithful for centuries precisely because of their belief in the dignity of the embodied human person.

Renaissance sculptures and saints' relics are not as sexy as cadavers playing hoops, but gazing at the Pieta surely is a more ennobling experience than ogling corpses at the mall. And one need not share Michelangelo's faith in a God-become-flesh to believe that the human body deserves reverence, in death as well as life.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of "Faith & Culture" on EWTN. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.