Self-Portrait of the Artist Meditating on Death

A Feminist Technoscience Reading of the Apparatus of Contemporary Neuroscience Experiments 1

Authored by: Jane Prophet

The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture

Print publication date:  September  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138919341
eBook ISBN: 9781315687896
Adobe ISBN: 9781317419518


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The idea for the “Neuro Memento Mori” project discussed here began when I saw a wax vanitas object on loan to the Wellcome Trust Permanent Collection from the Science Museum, London. This life-sized wax head of a woman, entitled “Wax Model of a Female Head Depicting Life and Death,” was produced by an unknown artist between 1700 and 1800. It shows a woman’s head, bisected, the left half apparently a detailed portrait of a living woman. She is open-eyed, with painted lips and eyebrows made with real, carefully embedded hairs. Her blond hair is arranged in ringlets and held back from her forehead with hair combs. Her left hand frames her face and in some photographs holds a small posy of flowers. The right half of her head is shown in a state of post-mortem decay. Resting on her skeletonized hand, her skull crawls with insects, maggots, and worms. A spider and a snake emerge from her empty eye socket. A wax snail apparently slithers along the wooden base that the head is fixed to, making the base an intrinsic part of the overall work. Attached to the base, next to the snail, is a handwritten label, again rendered in wax. The label bears a Latin phrase from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, that reads, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

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