It’s November 8, 1895, late at night, and Wilhelm Röntgen, Professor of Physics in Worzburg, Bavaria sits in a dark room. He’s enclosed a discharge tube in a sealed, thick, black carton. He lifts a paper plate covered on one side with barium platinocyanide in front of the discharge tube and the plate turns fluorescent. Two weeks later he places his wife’s hand over a photographic plate in the path of the rays and reveals the shadowed bones of her hand and ring, surrounded by a penumbra of flesh. The first x-ray. Now, without surgery, the inner structure of a human body can be viewed. When Anna Röntgen looks at the ghostly image, she whispers, I have seen my death.
To see death has been an obsession of Western Art for centuries, one of the most evocative representations being the Danse Macabre. The above “Dance” from the Abbey at La Chaise-Dieu features skeletons gavotting with men and women. The living and the dead weave together emphasizing each inextricably attaches to the other. We view a more contemporary version of this to and fro in Danse Macabre a short film by Pedro Pires, which offers an intimate view of the body after death.
Fate underscores the danse macabre, this jig cannot be denied and one never knows when the music will begin. We cannot avoid looking at what fascinates us, the beauty of our last moment revealing how in decay and dissolution a grace still remains. Often religion and art combine to create a methodical meditation on our place in this world. A rosary or garland of roses allows the believer to engage with each step of light and dark.
Each bead of this early sixteenth-century German rosary made of ivory and silver represents the bust of a well-fed burgher or maiden on one side, and a skeleton on the other.
The ends show the head of a deceased man, with half the image eaten away from decay. Such images serve as reminders life is fleeting and there is an art and philosophy to how one shapes a life. A memento mori, to pray reminds the penitent what awaits them. Bones in the Renaissance serve as a philosophical cue to musings on life and death. Consider the famous “Yorick” scene from Hamlet.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, the Dominican friar Luis de Granada takes up a similar theme in his Of Prayer and Meditation: And the fine dappered gentleman who whiles he lived might in no wise abide the wind to blow upon him, here they lay and hurl upon him a dunghill of filthiness and dirt. And that sweet minion gentleman also that was wont forsooth to go perfumed with amber must be contented here to lie covered all over with earth, and foul crawling worms, and maggots.Yet, a bone is also our beginning.
And yet, besides death, bones also figure our beginning. High above in the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Eve centers Michelangelo’s view of Heaven, Hell and Earth. A scene fashioned from the second creation story in Genesis.
And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken form the man into a woman; and he brought her to the man. Then the man said, This one at last / Is bone of my bones / And flesh of my flesh. (2.20-23)
In more modern times, the view of bones, the appearance of a skeleton still takes our breath away, still seems like seeing a secret, our own death. Consider these passages from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain set in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps a decade before the beginning of World War I.
“Hello there,” he said. Why, it’s our Dioscuri boys—Castor and Pollux. Please, keep all screams of pain to a minimum. Be careful now, we’re going to look right through you both. I believe you’re afraid to reveal your insides to us, aren’t you? Castorp? You may set your mind at ease—our procedures are quite aesthetic. Look here—have you seen my private gallery?” And grabbing Hans Castorp by the arm, he pulled him over to the rows of dark glass plates; he flipped a switch. Illuminated now, the plates revealed pictures. Hans Castorp saw body parts: hands, feet, knees, thighs, calves, arms, pelvises. But the rounded living contours of these fragments of the human body were phantomlike and hazy; like a fog or a pale, uncertain aura, they enclosed a clear, detailed, and carefully defined core: the skeleton. (212)
The reference to Castor and Pollux underscores the assistance that Hans Castorp and Joachim Ziemssen offer Director Behrens because of their disease, their tuberculosis– wrecked human bodies as gifts to science. Castor and Pollux protect travelers also figuring the journey of being ill, a passage aided by the latest technology: the x-ray. And yet, aesthetics appears as an anatomization of the human body–here is an x-rayed hand to admire, an ex-rayed pelvis. Is it science? Is it pleasure? Why does the perception of beauty want to cut us apart? There is a blur. Then the spectator becomes the actor.
Once again the director peered though the milky pane, but this time into Hans Castorp’s interior, and from his mutterings–ragtag curses and phrases–it appeared his findings corresponded to his expectations. In response to much begging, he was kind enough to allow his patient to view his own hand through the fluoroscope. And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. (215)
As with Anna Röntgen, the revealing of the skeleton transform a human being into their grave. Here is also where art, science and justice meet. Forensic Anthropology allows those who have “disappeared,” those who lie in mass unmarked graves to find a voice.
And all along, the bones feature prominently in matters of health. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes about good bone health.
Good bone health results from a proper balance between the two organizing processes of bone deconstruction and reconstruction. These processes depend not only on calcium levels in the body, but also on physical activity that stimulates bone-building; hormones and other controlling signals; trace nutrients (including vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and zinc); and other as yet unidentified substances. There appears to be factors in tea and in onions and parsley that slow bone deconstruction significantly. Vitamin D is essential for the efficient absorption of calcium from our foods, and also influences bone building. It’s added to milk, and other sources include eggs, fish and shellfish, and our own skin, where ultraviolet light form the sun activates a precursor molecule. (15)
The bone itself performs as material for its own reconstruction, through a painful transplantation or by harvesting stem cells from bone and using them elsewhere in the body.
Now we may also take bone marrow through our mouths, which certainly makes for a most delicious experience. I heartily recommend Fergus Henderson’s Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad from Nose to Tail Eating. I love Henderson’s approach and recipes from his restaurant St. John, and I’m steadily cooking all his recipes.
Put the bone marrow in an ovenproof frying pain and place in a hot oven. The roasting process should take about 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the bone. Your are looking for the marrow to be loose and giving, but not melted away, which it will do if left too long (traditionally the ends would be covered to prevent any seepage, but I like the colouring and crispness at the end.) Meanwhile lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it, mix it with the shallots and capers, and at the last moment dress (lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt and pepper). (38)
So we’ve reached a chosen but not necessary conclusion to our theatrical labyrinth of bones. Next up on the stage or menu, skin and flesh. Until then, I’ll leave you with a little bone machine. Bon appétit!