‘Kissing babies’

The first blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, Chapter 6 in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

A broadsheet photograph, front page, shows the politician, jowly, slightly sweaty,  holding up the baby. We cannot tell the sex of the child because only its face is visible, encircled by white fake-fur, but its arms are rigidly extended, and its wide-open eyes are fixed on the politician’s bushy eyebrows. The child’s mouth, frozen by the photographer’s flash, is half-open and perhaps bellowing in fear.

In 1697, Czar Peter the Great kissed a baby in the house of Frederik Ruysch, Praelector in Anatomy of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild. This baby, pink and open-eyed, lay peacefully amongst embroidered cloths, and did not emit a sound.


ruysch baby
Baby with open eyes. Photo by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, in ‘Finders, Keepers‘ (Purcell & Stephen J Gould, 1992)


‘The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find amazing’: a comment in 1996 by a member of the Royal Family. She’s right, of course, and she never aspired to be a People’s Princess. It is amazing. And they probably don’t.

So why do mothers hold out their babies? What is the purpose of the kiss? To test the politician’s humanity, to check that he (for it is usually a ‘he’) has the country’s future at heart even though it may have been presented to him in all its noisome grubbiness?

Peter the Great had different reasons. The baby that he kissed was not just resting in its cradle but was long dead, embalmed and displayed as a specimen in Ruysch’s Wunderkammer. The story was put about by Dr Ruysch’s maid that the Czar of all the Russias believed the baby was alive, because its skin was soft and blooming, as delicate as the plums that Ruysch’s daughters painted in still-life. Another servant disagreed: the Czar had attempted to breathe Life into the not-living.

Peter the Great (photo from NN Dict. Biog.

Peter was Tall — 6 foot 7 inches — as well as Great, but despite his height he could certainly see that the baby was not alive. He had already spent days examining Ruysch’s Cabinets, and talking with the skilful anatomist, embalmer and Konstenaar (artist), a man he still referred to 20 years later as his ‘teacher’.

Peter kissed the child in recognition of Ruysch’s skill, for the child was lifelike, in both its colour and form. Its eyes were open, fringed with lashes, and stared unblinkingly at the Czar. The glass eyes gave the child the appearance and power of life. Perhaps that kiss was also elicited by pity as well as wonder at the baby’s innocence and beauty. Who now can tell? But the story of Peter’s apparent gullibility has been preserved for more than 300 years.

Papin  implies that even Death — who thought he had got his hands on the child — is forced to think otherwise by Ruysch’s artistry:

Mortuus, arte tua, Ruyschi, / Vivit, docet, infans,/ Elinguis loquitur; Mors timet ipsa sibi.

(Through thy art, O Ruysch, a dead infant lives and teaches and, though speechless, still speaks. Even Death itself is afraid.’ (1)

 The recipe for Ruysch’s preservative fluid, his liquor balsamicus, was a closely-guarded secret, but was based on alcohol, probably brandy from Nantes, mixed with herbs and pepper. Balsam or balm, embalming, balsemen, all refer to aromatic substances and their uses, as ointments and unguents. In 1717, Peter the Great came back to Amsterdam for a second visit, and bought Ruysch’s entire collection and had it transported to his own Kunstkammer in St Petersburg. A rumour was put about that the sailors drank the brandy from half the vials, but this surely wasn’t true for the Czar would certainly have had the sailors put to death. One might say it was a missed opportunity for the Czar, for what delightful retribution it would have been to display their skeletons and pickled body parts: ‘Hand of a light-fingered thief’, ‘Liver of a man who drank embalming fluid’, ‘Sea-legs of a sailor’.

Nevertheless the alcoholic preparations continued to present a temptation for a couple of centuries to come for even in the twentieth century a janitor in the Anatomy Department at Leiden was caught drinking from a preparation made by Ruysch’s contemporary, Albinus.

The embraced baby looked good, it even smelt good (oil of lavender was included in the liquor), but it was the pinkness of its flesh, the inference of warmth, that made it seem alive. And there, literally, lay another secret recipe.

For Ruysch was not merely an expert embalmer, he was the most successful of the 17th-century anatomists who were learning the topography of the body’s multiple, ramifying vessels through the art of injecting them with colourful preservatives. Swammerdam injected mercury into blood vessels, using a special syringe invented by Reinier de Graaf; by 1667 he and van Hoorne were able to fill the blood vessels of the uterus with a mixture of warmed red wax and tallow. Ruysch studied Swammerdam’s technique and refined the recipe, probably including resin and coloured essential oils (only Peter the Great’s court physician was let into the secret). Anastomosing blood vessels and lymphatics were revealed like delicate coloured lace.

Rachel Ruysch, creator of exquisite paintings of flowers and insects, the painted texture so detailed as to be almost tactile, sat lace-making — not knitting — while her father severed the heads or arms or legs of injected and embalmed babies.  She made lace-trimmed batiste sleeves and lacy collars, which were wrapped (‘prettily and naturally’, according to her father) around sewn-up stumps and wounds; a tiny pink arm holds out a thread from which dangles a preserved eye; another arm, clothed in a pretty sleeve, reaches down to clasp an enlarged bladder. Babies in tiny coffins were dressed in lace garments and adorned with flowers and beads. In the Boerhaave Museum, Leiden, and amongst the remnants of Czar Peter’s collection in St Petersburg (photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell) are the jars that contain embalmed foetuses, naked except for their beads.

Beads adorn their necks, their waists, ankles, elbows, wrists or knees, in single, doubled or tripled strands of blue and white and sometimes green. Did Rachel thread these too? What is their significance? We may never know, but they are un-Dutch, primitive.

Did Rachel, in her teens, help her father as he fixed a foetus’ sitting posture and tied the necklace around its neck? Did she want to kiss and hug the sweetly adorned, reanimated form?

allegory whole
Allegorical portrait of an artist; van Musschen. From National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1685, when Rachel is 22 years old, Michiel van Musschen paints her, the subject of An Allegorical portrait of an Artist. He is twice her age, and arranges the thick rope of her hair across her bare shoulder. She is beautiful and serene, her skin is clear and soft. Van Musschen compares her to Minerva, the patroness of Art, and a baby-faced cherub flies down to place a laurel wreath upon her dark curls. Rachel would like to play with the black-and-white spaniel that scampers around the table, but she must sit still for she is dignified, intelligent, an object to be desired.

van neck & ruysch
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch; Jan van Neck 1683

Not so her brother, Hendrik. His portrait is that of a young boy, a still embryonic doctor and anatomist. In 1683 Jan van Neck paints The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch, showing members of the Surgeons’ Guild. They examine the placenta of the well-preserved body of an over-large but newborn baby. The baby is pink, apparently merely sleeping although Ruysch has opened up his abdomen. The tracery of placental blood mimics the lace cravats of the surgeons, and the umbilical cord is a gilded rope. Hendrik, at that time aged twenty, is shown as a boy and holds a baby’s skeleton.

So many babies! ‘Where do they all come from? Where do they all belong?’

Rachel and her husband, the portrait painter and lace-merchant Juriaen Pool, were to have ten children. We do not know if any of their babies died. But would she and Juriaen have asked her father to embalm them, so they might live forever? We would like to think it was unlikely, but we cannot tell.

Ruysch’s babies were not for entertainment or even to be used as specimens for teaching anatomy, they were artworks — and moralistic in tone. They were symbols of Vanitas mundi, the pointlessness of pleasure: ‘we’re doomed, we’re going to die!’ (Ruysch himself died in 1731, at the great age of 93, but it isn’t recorded whether his longevity was due to inhalation of liquor balsamicus fumes.)  They were not regarded at that time with horror or disgust. Death was everywhere, a daily occurrence, it was God’s Will (a Calvinistic God, at that) so we would do well to remember the transience of our lives on earth, and the ultimate irrelevance of earthly objects. Ruysch’s babies were all perfect, and perfectly virtuous and innocent.

The ceiling of the Surgeons’ Guild, Der Waag. Ruysch’s shield is in the centre

(Image by Paul Keller: credit – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5733195)

 Ruysch certainly had access to large numbers of both normal, and teratologically abnormal, foetuses. In 1668 he was entrusted with the training of Amsterdam’s midwives. Ten years later he was appointed as ‘doctor to the court’, which allowed him to take possession of all the dead babies found in the harbour.  It was a period of history when birth rates and mortality rates were high, for many reasons. Today we are scarcely replacing ourselves, the rate of reproduction is 2.1 in Britain, even less in Italy, that country of babies and extended families; unwanted babies need no longer be conceived.

But unwanted babies will always find their way into the world, and be abandoned. A thin wail, a choking cry, comes from a telephone kiosk, a doorstep, a handbag on Paddington  station. In Hamburg there is a ‘postbox’ where a desperate mother can lift the flap and leave her baby on a warm and comfortable bed, no questions asked, no identification necessary. (Is there a warning, as on Low Bridges – ‘Max width, max height’ – to prevent over-large parcels being posted?) The newly-delivered baby is lifted from the bed, kind hands stroke her silky hair and touch the pulsing fontanelle. Does she understand that comforting kiss, that it signifies Life?

Ruysch’s babies mock the frailty of their parents, who gave them brief life. A foetal hand, its severed wrist hidden by a lacy cuff, plays ball with a ‘segmentum humani testiculi’; in another jar, the lace-capped leg of a baby rudely kicks a prostitute’s syphilitic skull.


(1) From Death Enlightened (1970) A M Luyendijk-Elshout. JAMA 212, 121-126