From the 13th to the 18th century in Japan, a fascinating artform was practiced. Kusozu art pieces depicted the stages of decomposition of a human corpse and despite their dark subject matter are delicate and intricate creations. The paintings are inspired by Buddhist teachings on the fragility and shortness of our lives on Earth.
The name Kusozu means “painting of the nine stages of a decaying corpse”. The paintings usually depict females, and show the decay of the physical body in gruesome detail. As well as paintings, the style can be found in historic books, scrolls and religious artifacts.
One of the most famous examples of the craft is Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body which is believed to be from the 18th century. It includes the following scenes in it’s images; (1) the woman’s impending death and her preparation for it; (2) the noble woman has just passed away and her loved ones are seated around her; (3) slight skin discoloration (maybe some liver mortis) and a bit of bloating of during early decomposition; (4) the onset of putrefaction with bloating and marbling; (5) advanced decomposition as seen by pervasive marbling, leakage of purge fluid from the mouth, and the abdominal cavity has burst open (6) caving of abdominal cavity and scavenging animals; (7) start of skeletonization and the disappearance of soft tissue; (8) complete skeletonization and scattering of remains; (9) finally human remains have been completely scattered or consumed by unseen animals so all that remains is a memorial for the deceased woman.
The Wellcome Collection has spent several years gathering and exhibiting pieces as part of Forensics: Anatomy of Crime – which we urge you to check out to find out more about this fascinating part of Japanese history.