The many-breasted tombstone in Assistens Cemetery

In Assistens Cemetery Copenhagen, there is a rather unusual tombstone showing a many-breasted female figure which is dedicated to the natural philosopher and polymath Peter Christian Abildgaard.

Abildgaard was a man of the Enlightenment who was interested in all branches of natural history, as reflected in the carvings. The statue is of the Great Nature Goddess of the Greeks, Artemis of Ephesus, Mother Nature herself… hence the many nurturing breasts. Underneath the protection of the goddess, the tomb is divided into bands depicting the hierarchy of Nature. The plant kingdom is represented by apple blossom for “Abildgaard” (abild means ‘apple’). The come insects, butterflies, and what are probably little helminths, parasites which live on sticklebacks and which were a particular study of Abildgaard’s. Marine creatures come in the guise of a crab accompanied by dolphins; these in turn are followed by the birds, represented by an eagle with outstretched wings. The display is topped off by the mammals in the shape of a ram’s head. All lie under the benign protection of Artemis.

However accomplished the tombstone is at conveying Abildgaard’s life and oeuvre, it is nevertheless a curious monument. The inspiration for its design may be traced back to one of two different sources: the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, both areas of interest to Abildgaard,

The Renaissance connection might well be with the statue of Artemis that is part of a spectacular fountain in the Villa D’Este in the Tivoli Gardens in Rome; or perhaps with a similar ancient Roman version in the National Archaeological  Museum in Naples, which, in turn, may be a copy of a Greek original. However, some people think that the idea for the Copenhagen Artemis originated in the philosophies of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution of 1787, after which, in an attempt to replace traditional religious idols, the figure of Artemis of Ephesus become a symbol of the Philosophy of Nature.

As an aside, in 1773 Abildgaard founded the Danish Veterinary School (he invented a new type of horseshoe more suited the animals physiology) and in 1789, the Danish History Society.

So the next time you are in Copenhagen you should visit the Cemetery (it has lots of other interesting headstones) and pay a little tribute to Peter Christian Abildgaard.



(Adapted from Secret Copenhagen by Johanne Steenstrup & Klaus Dahl, published by JonGLez)

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