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Ambrosius Holbein's memento mori map for Sir Thomas More's Utopia. The meanings of a masterpiece of early sixteenth century graphic art

British Dental Journal volume 199, pages 107112 (23 July 2005) | Download Citation

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Abstract

This paper describes how, and asks why, the Renaissance artist Ambrosius Holbein hid a skull within the overall design of his woodcut map of Sir Thomas More's Utopia. (Fig 2) This map was prepared for the 1518 Froben edition of the book, and was probably commissioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Its identification now is made easier by the habits of interpretation with which all dentists are equipped thanks to their skill in dental radiology, and by the recognition of teeth appearing in an unlikely disguise.

Key points

  • Describes how recognition of a 'ship of teeth' led to identification of the skull, disguised as a map of Utopia, with which Ambrosius Holbein had illustrated the third edition of Sir Thomas More's book.

  • Draws attention to the part played by experience in dental radiology in heightening the perception of concealed anatomical structures.

  • Discusses the commissioning of the 'map' by Erasmus of Rotterdam, and suggests what viewers in the early sixteenth century might have made of the picture.

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References

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Acknowledgements

The assistance of Karin Hale for translation, Dr William Jenkins for research in Basel, Christina Mackwell, Senior Assistant Librarian at Lambeth Palace library for research on memento mori, and Kay Walters, Librarian at the Athenaeum, is gratefully acknowledged. The British Library kindly gave permission for reproductions.

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  1. Queen Anne House, 2A St Andrew Street, Hertford, Hertfordshire, SG14 1JA

    • M Bishop

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.4812526

Refereed Paper