Art, Meet Science: Renaissance Anatomies Brought to Life Through Stone Mosaic
Rich, rusty reds and creamy neutrals. Dimensional shadows and languid curves. Each of John T. Unger’s life-size human figures appear to be ultra-detailed photographs—except every skeletal joint, flexed tendon and curving muscle are stone, made from thousands of pieces of hand-cut tesserae.
Artist with three completed mosaics and exhibition maquette | photo by Ray
The 14-part mosaic series “Anatomy Set in Stone” is the product of Unger’s relentless pursuit of an idea that haunted him: rendering human anatomy in lifelike realism through mosaic. The genesis of the idea was Unger’s realization that minerals mined from within the earth occur in the same colors as the interior of the human body. Because of their size and detail, viewing a completed mosaic head-on is like a looking into a mirror.
Unger selects each piece of stone to closely match the color, shading and texture of his reference images—high-res scans from the U.S. Library of Medicine’s 1873 edition of Bartolomeo Eustachi’s Tabulae Anatomicae. The original work is even older: most of Eustachi’s etchings were lost after his death in 1574, and only assembled into a complete volume for the first time in 1714.
Though Eustachi is less well-known than his contemporary Vesalius, he is still considered one of the first true comparative anatomists, skilled at distinguishing the differences between animal and human body structures. Unger believes the mosaics offer valuable insights into how the human body is formed and functions, just as any modern anatomical tool.
Selections from Bartolomeo Eustachi's 16th century anatomical engravings
Side by side comparison of the mosaic and the original etching of Table 38 of Eustachi's Tabulae Anatomicae
“These mosaics are an act of reverence and preservation of knowledge from antiquity—the fact these drawings are still accurate and relevant after 465 years feels like they deserve to be immortalized,” Unger said. “I wanted to build something timeless that would continue to be interesting for thousands of years. There’s no expiration date on these mosaics.”
After exhaustive archival research, Unger did a test run in 2005, and worked up a small-scale mosaic based on one of Eustachi’s 16th-century copperplate engravings. Unger chose Eustachi’s prints because his folios were hand-painted in vibrant color.
After completing the prototype, he soon realized he couldn’t shake the compulsion to make a much more detailed, hyper-realistic version, and on a much larger scale.
In 2015, Unger purchased several tons of marble, travertine, onyx, jasper and lapis lazuli to begin the work in earnest. He cuts each piece into strips as thin as a millimeter—which stone does very reluctantly—then shapes them with nippers and a series of diamond lapidary machines. The goal: a snug fit, and flowing structure.
Photo of the artist by Jesse Turnquist
Completed with the help of an invention of Unger’s own design—a custom flipping table—each finished mosaic measures 4’ x 7’ and weighs 300 pounds. By the time the series is complete, Unger will have pushed 2 to 3 miles of stone through his wet saw. He plans to exhibit the finished series alongside enlarged reproductions of Eustachi’s original etchings.
Another motivation for the project, Unger added, was the intersection of art and science in a time when he feels we need more of both. "Since early childhood I’ve been fascinated with art, natural history, geology and minerals, scientific inquiry and antiquarian books,” Unger said. “This project allows me to dovetail all my intellectual interests and explore their overlap."
Though the mosaics are not for sale, Unger has partnered with New York City-based printer Duggal to offer reproductions on enamel-coated aluminum. Lightweight and durable, these Vibrachrome prints exhibit the same deep detailing of the original mosaics, but at a fraction of the weight and cost.
Detail showing ruby eyes
Detail of Marble Mosaic of Table 21
Two of Unger's marble mosaics will be exhibited in the group exhibit, 'Saints, Mortals, and Myths', at Carrie Haddad Gallery, June 12th - July 28th.
About the Artist
John T. Unger lives and creates his art in Hudson, New York, and has worked in mosaic, sculptural steel and mixed media for more than 25 years. Unger’s mosaics have been commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History, Budweiser and Stagecoach Music Festival, Chicago Public Art Group, Chef David Burke, and many other corporate clients and private collectors. Internationally known for his sculptural firebowls, John T. Unger’s clients include Calvin Klein, Sandals Ochi, Rum Fire at the Sheraton Waikiki, 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, and Southwest Porch in Bryant Park, NYC.
Marble Mosaic of Table 31 of Eustachi Tabulae anatomicae with steel frame
Marble Mosaic of Table 30 of Eustachi Tabulae anatomicae with steel frame
Marble Mosaic of Table 21 of Eustachi Tabulae anatomicae with steel frame