A Tödlein-Schrein (Shrine of Little Death) made by Paul Reichel in 1583. It contains an accurately worked skeleton executed after the depictions in Andreas Vesalius’ influential work of anatomy De humani corporis fabrica.

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
August 20, 2023

A human skeleton stands in a round-arched niche in an ebony shrine; Like the niche, it is cut from Kehlheimerstein, a limestone rich in fossils, which is also known as Solnhofer Stein after the place where it was found.

 A plate from the work by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, published in Basel in 1543, served as a template. A payment reminder issued on November 17, 1583 indicates that the work was probably not created too long before that date;

the price is given as 150 guilders. The object is listed in the inventory from 1596 in the sixth box on the seventh of a total of eight shelves. The right hand of the skeleton, fascinating due to its realism, reaches for one of the apples from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:9).

Between them is shown the serpent that, according to the Bible, seduced the first human couple to eat the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:1-6). The hourglass and book can be seen on the left, the depiction in relief on the back wall shows a bow and arrow and a coffin.

While in the late Middle Ages death was often thought of and represented as a hunter, reaper or a mounted skeleton, creating an allegory of killing, here the metaphysical enigma of death finds a different, very differentiated expression. The biblical verse about man’s expulsion from paradise as God’s punishment for man’s disobedience, which man seems to be pondering, is staged in a very matter-of-fact way; the skeleton, as an anatomically correct human relic, has been stripped of all signs of a horribly decaying body. Alluding to Psalm 7, the bow and arrow can probably be understood as the weapons of God in his capacity as judges of righteousness and godliness (Psalm 7:9-18). Mirrors are embedded on the side walls of the housing as well as in the middle of the inner surfaces of the doors, which means that the viewer of this fascinating Kunstkammer piece is drawn directly into the subject matter.