“Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages” was painted on handscroll by Japanese artist Kobayashi Eitaku in the 1870’s. The scroll shows the stages of decomposition of the body of a woman, including the fresh stage, bloat, decay, and skeletonization. This painting has scientific, religious, and erotic themes.
It’s not unusual for artists to use dead bodies and body parts for their subject matter because of their need to study the human form, and because of the historical connection between the science of anatomy and artistic illustrations. However, “Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages” is the earliest example I’ve seen that illustrates the stages the decomposition.
This taphonomic painting also has Buddhist themes because it depicts the impermanence of the physical body. The temporary nature of life and the physical existence is stressed during Buddhist rituals.
Because the subject matter is a courtesan, the curator notes for this piece at the British Museum say that this handscroll also falls into the genre of erotic art, or shunga. The wordshunga means picture of spring in Japanese. The word “spring” is a common synonym for sex.
All images come from The British Museum.