Collector of hearts

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By | The Researcher’s View

Multidisciplinary artist and independent scholar Joanna Ebenstein shares her discoveries from a recent research visit to the Wellcome Library.

I had the great pleasure of spending many hours over the past few weeks exploring the Wellcome Library. I came away astonished by both the depth and breadth of the collection, reflecting the wide-ranging interests of founder Henry Wellcome, whose obsessive drive to collect around ideas of health and medicine led, ultimately, to encompass basically everything the world had to offer.

On my first day in the library, I randomly perused the open stacks, guided from shelf to shelf by such intriguing subject headings as Occult Medicine/Occult Science (BU); Alcoholic Beverages (DFWR); Art and Medicine (CV); and Atomic Disasters (DT). Some of my favorite discoveries along the way included a survey of the work of 18th century anatomical artist Jacques-Fabien Gautier D’Agoty; an exploration of the afterlife by criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso entitled After Death — What? (1873); a catalog for the sale of the Spitzner popular anatomical collection at auction (1979); and the wonderfully titled Mystery and Lore of Apparitions: with some account of Ghosts, Spectres, Phantoms and Boggarts in early times (1930) and Morbid Fears and Compulsions (1921).

Wellcome Library no. 31598i

One of the most surprising and idiosyncratic books that I discovered in this fashion — and the one I probably spent the most time with — was N. Boyadjian’s From Holy Pictures…to the healing saints: Faith and the heart. This lavishly illustrated book showcases a wonderful and vast assortment of ‘holy pictures’, also known as ‘prayer cards’, or small popular pictures used in “individual intimate devotion”, drawn from the private collection of the author. Much of my recent work revolves around the ways in which medicine, death, anatomy, and Catholicism overlap, and these enchanting images provided a perfect window into those messy and fascinating intersections. I was most interested in the chapter dedicated to The Cult of the Sacred Heart. Here we learn about the history of the concept of the sacred heart, tracing back conceptually to the soldier’s lance piercing Christ’s side on the Cavalry, hence “‘the wounded heart of Christ’ from which sprang the church.” We are also introduced to the 17th-century nun Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, who first depicted The Sacred Heart visually in order to train her novices, inadvertently inspiring centuries of popular representation and devotion. We also learn in this chapter a bit behind the author’s personal drive to collect when he quietly outs himself as a cardiologist, and, in his own words “collector of hearts”, which he views as a “universal symbol, both sacred and secular, which betokens divine love, human love, friendship, and courage.”

The idea of the Sacred Heart seemed like the perfect through-line from which to continue to examine the intriguing overlaps between medicine and religion, allegory and science. To that end, I continued my research by looking up hearts both sacred and profane on the Wellcome Library catalog and on Wellcome Images, where I found a dizzying array of curiosities, including exquisite examples of prayer cards of the sort featured in the book (above, here and here);

a gilt-framed votive painting of a woman praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus;

Wellcome Library no. 47495i


a gorgeous anatomical illustration of a dissected heart by J. F. Gautier d’Agoty from 1754:


and, perhaps my favorite, a painting of souls in purgatory looking at the wounds of Christ.

The kind of research that I am drawn to tends to focus on things that reside at tricky intersections, or have fallen though the historical cracks. The incredibly broad and multi-disciplinary collection of the Wellcome Library — one that gives equal primacy to the highbrow contemporary academia, forgotten ephemera, art, artifacts, outdated science, and outsider scholarship — makes this the perfect library for the sort of research I do, and allows for all manner of idiosyncratic research that would simply be impossible to conceive of at more conventional libraries.

About the author

Joanna Ebenstein runs the Morbid Anatomy Blog and the related Morbid Anatomy Library, where her collection of books, art, artifacts, and curiosities are made available by appointment. For the past 3 years, she has produced a series of lectures, workshops and presentations under the rubric “Morbid Anatomy Presents”. She is currently editing the Morbid Anatomy Anthology Volume 1 which will immortalize in book form some of the best of that series. She acted as curatorial consultant for The Wellcome Collection’s Exquisite Bodies exhibition and has also consulted for The Science Museum and The Dittrick Museum. Her work has been shown and published internationally, and she has lectured at museums and conferences around the world.

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