From Oil to Flesh: Crucifixion and recycling


Throughout the ages, there have been many interpretations of the crucifix, from more traditional representations of the Stations of the Cross to abstract artwork, film and literature. From Michelangelo and Raphael to Salvidor Dali and Marcus Reichert to Damien Hirst and even comic strips like “the coyote gospel”, images have become more and more abstract. But how many of these incorporate our modern ideas of recycling? It’s not probably two things you might put together, but thanks to the work of Gunther Von Hagen, it’s all I can think about today.

In March 2012, on Easter Sunday, Channel 4 showed a documentary about the Crucifixion of Christ, but it wasn’t your usual religious anecdote. The documentary was about a new piece of artwork by the anatomist Gunther Von Hagen, featuring Christ on the cross. It was a significant difference: the art would be made out of human corpses.

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Abigail Teller argues that ‘Von Hagens’ attempt at divine likeness is more literal. His process is more destructive than creative. To build his crucifixion, he ruptured and drained the blood vessels of his body donors, injected and clotted their emptied vessels with congealing plastic, burned away their flesh, fat, and bone in acid, and combined what remained of them into a more perfect human form’ (Teller 2014). I think this negative view of Von Hagen’s work is popular due to the shock value of his work, but not necessarily warranted. In fact, I would suggest as well as being innovative, his work is a fantastic example of how we can recycle the human body in new and interesting ways. Ordinarily, the expiration of the body leads to waste, comparable to the waste we find piled up in landfill. There are becoming new ways in which this type of waste is avoided, through organ donation to ecoburials – but in combining art and medicine, Von Hagens is doing something particularly inspirational.

His technique is called plastination, which involves injecting plastic into the blood vessels of his donated bodies. They solidify to form a cast. The body used is therefore not real flesh, but the perfect replica of the human body. In this documentary on the crucifix, the body is mounted on a wooden cross and displayed as art.

The documentary is something that has stayed with me, a young inspiring academic and researcher, for the last 5 years. It has inspired me to visit Gunther Von Hagens other exhibitions, such as Body Works in Amsterdam. His work pushes the boundary of what can be done with the human body and human remains. It allows people the chance of immortality in the form of artwork, a realm for art to be produced in a new way and a means of helping to solve the increasing waste problem. Who says your work is done when you die?

Teller , A. (2014). Shapers of Men. Fashion(37).


by Layla Hendow

PhD researcher at University of Hull


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