In A Nutshell
There have been countless depictions of Christ on the cross, but members of the Royal Academy of Arts had noticed something—none of them seemed anatomically accurate. So they decided to figure out how to get a good look at just what a crucified body would become. They approached a London physician for his help and procured the body of James Legg, a convicted murderer. His body still warm, they nailed him to a cross and let the body settle, flaying it and taking a plaster cast for their anatomically correct crucifixion.
The Whole Bushel
One of the most iconic symbols and images from Christianity is that of Christ on the cross. It’s been featured in art for centuries, but Royal Academy of Arts alumnus Thomas Banks, Benjamin West, and Richard Cosway weren’t thrilled with the artistic depiction of Christ’s crucified body. In 1801, they had an artistic debate about what a human body would actually look like after it had been crucified, arguing that most depictions of one of the most important moments in Christianity were absolutely wrong.
And, because nothing should get in the way of art, they decided to find out just what it should look like.
The bodies of executed criminals (and the unlucky victims of the body snatchers and resurrection men) were often used as research and teaching materials for medical students. From the mid-1700s onward, corpses were the best way to not just find out what was going on inside the human body and to determine what illness looked like from the inside, but to teach young doctors just what they were looking at.
But they weren’t the only ones interested in the details of the human body, and corpses were also occasionally used to teach art students the finer points of creating lifelike depictions of human subjects. So the arts alumnus had a contact: They got in touch with a surgeon named Joseph Constantine Carpue and asked for his help in finding a body for them.
That body was the body of James Legg. Carpue found their subject after a confrontation at Chelsea Hospital. Eighty-year-old Legg had been involved in an argument with another man, and he’d demanded a duel. When the other man refused the pistol Legg brandished at him, Legg shot him once in the chest, killing him. It was determined that Legg was fully capable of standing trial and fully aware of his actions, and he was ultimately sentenced to hang. Carpue and his colleagues secured the use of the body, and after the execution, they were there waiting.
It was crucial that they get the body while it was still warm, before rigor mortis set in. A building was rapidly constructed near the site of the execution, and immediately after Legg was hanged, he was suspended from a cross in the nearby building. Once the body had settled into its final resting position, a cast was taken to show exactly how a crucified body would finally come to rest on the cross.
There are several notable differences between the typical paintings of Christ crucified and the cast of James Legg. First, the skin of the armpits hangs down to a grotesque degree. More abruptly, however, the contents of the stomach bulge down and out, creating a deep and shocking indentation between the lower halves of the rib cage.
After the cast was taken, Carpue flayed the body to expose the muscles underneath and another cast was taken.
The casts were put on display at the studio of Thomas Banks, and they were very well received. Eventually, they were moved to the Royal Academy of Arts and were even on display at St. George’s Hospital for a time. In 1917, it returned to the Royal Academy of Arts, and it’s still on display today, most recently at the Museum of London.