Moulage (Wax Model)

Ekzema Impetignosum (No. 826)

Wooden Plank: 18,5cm x 23cm x 1cm
Baby Face Moulage: 19cm x 24cm x 4cm
The object is part of the UCT Pathology Learning Centre’s collection, and permission for access to the object must be granted by Dr Jane Yeats.

The object is available for viewing at the UCT Pathology Learning Centre by appointment only.

Object Domicile

The Baby Face Moulage can be found in the New Mortuary Block Building where the Pathology Learning Centre is. The Baby Face moulage sits on top of a shelf, with no specific shelf number, in the Skin and Bones Room.

Object Origin

Sonneberg, Thuringia, Germany 1923 / 1930

This object was made in Sonneberg, Thuringia, Germany by a company called Somso Modelle. It was created in order to make teaching dermatology easier, both for the lecturer and students.

The wax models, or moulages have been used by many for different purposes. In the 15th century artists, in churches and by physicians, used it. The wax moulages function was to educate the medical students, especially in dermatology, however, this practice declined when photography was introduced. The Baby Face moulage travelled from Germany and ended up in Cape Town around the 1930s. It was housed at the Anatomy Department, and in 2011 it was handed to the Pathology Learning Centre for “decorative” purposes. The moulages however, do not have a permanent home as they do not ‘typically’ fit into ‘pathology’ or ‘anatomy’, and therefore have somewhat been ignored. If these wax moulages continue to be ignored, an important part of a ‘cultural memory’ will be erased. Therefore, the wax moulages should be treated as cultural artefacts, as these moulages are objects, made by people that have historical or cultural significance. In this light, the moulages are revitalized and instead of being collectors of dust, are able to tell us about a past that could help us better understand our present. It can help us challenge the way we look at science and art, and question the way we relate to science and art as two separate entities, when, in the past, they both informed and influenced each other. The moulages therefore, become a metaphor. It becomes a metaphor for life, death, suffering, pain and self-reflection. These moulages tell us about the suffering individual, but it also tells us about the context in which the moulages were made, what was deemed appropriate or a taboo, and what the ideological beliefs and practices were of the specific time. About twenty-one years ago, the wax moulages were revived in Zurich and became part of teaching dermatology at the University Hospital of Zurich. The wax moulages were seen as part of their cultural heritage and therefore, many exhibitions were created in order to address various issues relating to the wax moulage. Therefore, the baby face wax moulage in South Africa should be used not only as a teaching device, but should be looked at in order to tell us about the history of science, cultural memory and life itself at a certain period of time. The moulages, then, become an enquiry into the way matter was understood, the role of the human being in Nature and social relations in previous eras.

Wax models or Moulages have been a common practice since the 15th century. Wax models were used as teaching devices for medical students, were seen in churches and can be seen in wax museums like the Madame Tussauds Museum. However, for the purpose of this essay, one specific wax model is of interest and that is the Baby Face Moulage. Therefore, the Baby Face Moulage has become the focus of this object study. What is so intriguing about this object is not its function or how it was made, although it is fascinating, the intrigue lies in its presence today and how people react and respond to the diseased looking moulage. This essay aims to evaluate the position of the moulage in the present day by looking at how it was viewed in the past in relation to art and science and how this impacts how we see them today. This essay sheds light onto the rich and textured history the moulages can produce outside of the medical discipline. The moulage becomes a metaphor; a metaphor for life, death, anguish, pain and self-reflection. The moulage can be seen as “ semiotic subjects” since it articulates and communicates signs, metaphors, signification and symbolisms (De Ceglia, 2006, 447).

The wax model or moulage of the baby faced covered in a skin disease can be found in the Pathology Learning Centre at the University of Cape Town’s Medical Campus. The wax model is of a baby face that is covered with red, crusty, inflamed scabs. The skin around the scabs is also inflamed. These scabs have formed on the baby’s’ forehead, right down to the chin area. The scabs are more sporadic on the forehead and chin area yet are closer together on both cheeks of the baby. The skin disease covers the face besides the nose, mouth and eyelids. The baby face is Caucasian yet the gender of the baby is unidentifiable. Part of the head is covered with a cotton bandage and is stuck onto a wooden panel that has been painted black. The craftsman has painted brown hair onto the baby face but there appears to be one or two eyelashes on the baby face that could be real human eyelashes, a practice that was common in some countries, like Italy in the 15th century. (Bastos, 2017: 542). The scabs are rough and textured. The exact materials used to create the rough textured scabs are unknown but oil paints were commonly used to create the pigmented skin tones and detailed facial features.

A small rectangular label has been drilled into the wood on the bottom right hand corner. The label, made out of paper and hand written, contains what could be a catalogue number and the name of the disease.  However, the name of the disease cannot be easily seen since some of the paper has been torn off. What appears to be the catalogue number is No.826 and the name of the disease is “Ekzema Impetignosum”. There is another word that appears on the label but it is difficult to make out what it says. Ekzema Impetignosum is commonly known as “Impetigo” today. Impetigo is a skin disease that commonly affects children. Impetigo is a bacterial skin infection that “colonizes” the skin and that is contagious. Today, children who have Impetigo can be quickly cured if they take oral antibiotics (Darmstadt and Alfred, 1994: 293).

On the back of the moulage, there is a small circular blue sticker that says “Made in Germany”. In the center of the wooden panel there are the numbers 23/18 written in pencil. The curator of the collection, Dr. Jane Yeats, did not know what this meant. However, it could potentially indicate that it was the 18th piece acquired in 1923. The date of the acquisition is unknown but Dr Yeats estimated around the 1930s (Yeats, personal communication, 2019). There is very little information about this specific moulage. Dr. Yeats explained that the Pathology Learning Centre had twelve moulages. These moulages all depict dermalogical diseases, but the collection seems to be a random selection of skin diseases.

Most of the information around this specific moulage is speculative, based on small clues. The Anatomy Department originally owned the moulages. However, according to Dr. Yeats, the anatomy building was built in the 1960s, which means that location of these moulages between 1927/30 to the 1960s is unknown. In 2011 the Anatomy department gave twelve moulages to the Pathology Learning Centre and a loan agreement was written up and signed. According to email correspondence between Ms. Caroline Powrie, from the Anatomy Department, and Dr. Yeats, the skin moulages were sent over and put in the “Skin and Bone” room to “add some variety” in the room. The moulages, including the baby face moulage are placed on plastic stands on top of shelves that are placed all around the room. They do not have a shelf number or their own section but are placed in the room for “decorative” purposes.

The moulages would have been acquired in Germany for teaching purposes, so that the medical students could get a realistic representation of the skin diseases. Dr. Yeats stated that this moulage collection potentially could have been a professor’s private collection that he/she then donated to the Anatomy Department after he/she had used them.

On one of the other moulages, there was a small circular sticker on the wooden panel with the companies name and logo on it. The company is called “Somo Modelle” and had a small male figure on it depicting the outline of the males back muscles. Somo Modelle was founded in 1879 by Marcus Sommer is Sonneberg, Thuringia, Germany. The company started producing an extensive range of “heat resistant” moulages in 1900, which were in co-operation with the University Institutes in Jena. Today the company specializes in Anatomy, Zoology and Botany models, which are still used for educational and teaching purposes (Somo Modelle, 2019).

The moulages had immense significance when they first started being made. Artists used them because the wax was aesthetically pleasing and was used for technical reasons such as the ease in which the wax could be melted and molded. The moulages were also used for religious purposes during the time of the Renaissance and during the 17th century. During this time, many wax moulages could be found in churches such as Orsammichele and in Santissima Annunziata in Florence. When pilgrims went to visit the churches, such as the Orsammichele and the Santissima Annunziata, they would offer life size wax figures to the church as an offering, which would convey their respect for the church (Poggesi, 1999: 10-11). The State and more so the Church, prevented corpses from being used for anatomical studies and many who tried to do so would get penalized. In the 15th century many artists and sculptors such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo drew the first anatomical drawings and did this by studying and dissecting the body. Thereafter, renowned anatomists such as Fallpopio used these drawings for their own scientific purposes (Poggesi, 1999:11). This indicates that the arts and sciences were never separate disciplines but informed each other to create a robust body of knowledge.

The Museo della Specola in Florence contains wax objects from the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Wax modeling in Florence can be divided into two distinct periods. The first one would be work done by Zumbo, an Italian sculptor, in the 17th century and the second phase of artists-artisans at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. These artists were schooled and directed by Felice Fontana, an Italian physicist (De Ceglia, 2006: 417- 418). By looking at the wax moulages one can understand how not only how visual imagery was used in scientific knowledge, but how matter was understood and the role of the human beings in nature.(De Ceglia, 2006: 418).

In the 20th century the wax models started to be looked at from a different lens, that of a historical perspective. The moulages were seen as realistic documentations of a time where death was very much a reality due to war, famine and major epidemics (Poggesi, 1999: 25). By looking at the moulages, during the 20th century and today, we are visually reminded of the destruction of human life and how fragile it was and still is. It makes the viewer think of the “relentless passage of time” and acts as a reminder of not only death, but also pain and suffering. This type of thinking was prevalent in the 17th century and therefore, these wax moulages act as cultural artifacts, since they are objects that have historical and cultural significance (“artifact”, n., 2019). Therefore, by analyzing the moulages in a way similar to the 20th century, we can analyze how discourses in science have changed over time, which will allow for new subject positions to emerge and new ways of speaking about science to follow (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 347).

The moulages, like many visual representations cannot occur in isolation from other cultural contexts (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 347). The moulages speak to a “scientific imagery” that comes to us with the authority that encourages us to assume that these images are objective representations of knowledge. However, these moulages are sites for further investigation into the social, political and cultural meanings of the time in which they were produced and informed the process of production (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 247). These moulages as well as other visual representations help shape the meaning of the body in ways that explain a lot about ideology, gender identity and concepts of disease at the time of making. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 364).

In the late 20th century, the National Institute on Drug Abuse used visual imagery to depict what a “normal” brain looks like and what a brain on ecstasy looks like. This was done as a preventative measure to discourage people from taking ecstasy and was used as a scare tactic (Sturken and Castwright, 2009:373). The same concept can be applied to the wax moulages. The moulages were one of the first ways diseases such as syphilis were recorded. At that time, Syphilis was a taboo as it was linked to sin and death (Colby, 2016). Therefore, these moulages say something about religious beliefs, morality and filth.

In the Tracing Life exhibition, 36 facial moulages were used to bring peoples’ experiences of illness, even the patients expression, to the front. There were taken from the Charite Eye Clinic in the first decade of the twentieth century. The wax moulages show the individuals physical and emotional reactions. The moulages become individual documents for individual suffering. The visitors of the exhibition were left with mixed emotions of curiosity and disgust, fascination and personal feelings of repulsion (Alberti and Hallam, 2013: 139).  It is at this moment that the viewer sees themselves in the faces of the moulages. They questioned if they would want to stay and find out more or turn around. Yet, this site becomes self reflective as it becomes a site where the viewer is forced to look inwards and reflect on the meaning of wellness, illness and morality (Alberti and Hallam, 2013: 139).

The Museum of Wax Moulages located at the University Hospital of Zurich contains 1800 moulages. The moulds were made from the skin of living patients at the hospital in the beginning of the twentieth century (Alberti and Hallam, 2013:124). In 1993, when the museum opened, 600 moulages went on display since they were an important part of Switzerland’s cultural heritage. The curator of the museum said that many exhibitions were created in order to address issues such as “ displaying wax models as documents of historical diseases, exploring the role of moulages as media is public campaigns against sexual diseases (syphilis) and examining the use of moulages in surgical and dermalogical research during the 1920s” (Alberti and Hallam, 2013: 124-125). In 1998, the curator said that the University Hospital was revitalizing the moulages in dermatology teaching ( Alberti and Hallam, 2013: 125).

Despite the extensive historical, cultural and aesthetic information that can be extracted from these moulages, there has been an exclusion of these wax models from the art canon as they was not considered to be art. In contemporary times, dermatological moulages are outside of “recognizable art” because multiple figures were made from the same mold, they were unnumbered and unsigned (Heard, 2009:244). However, the art versus science standpoint had not always been a common debate. In the past, many artists worked along side physicians, sharing and transferring their skills with one another to produce and add onto bodies of knowledge. This is of particular interest because in the present time, the moulages do not have a specific resting place as they move around and between collections with no intrinsic meaning and purpose and happen to be stored in the Pathology Learning Centre even though they are not considered part of ”pathology”. It is a shame since the moulages have a great deal of non-medical “cognitions and emotions about life, death, behavior and morality” (Bastos, 2017: 533). Moulages are non-human entities, yet they have the ability to affect the human relational sphere in terms of how we look and treat people who have certain types of diseases (Bastos, 2017: 534). Moulages also force one to reflect on the power relations at play. The power relations lie between the patient who is allowing themselves or being forced to be cast; the physicians choosing what to cast and the artists who are able to cast and finish the piece (Bastos, 2017: 541).

The fascinating aspect of moulages, whether we look at them as pieces of art, or not, is their ability to reach inside of us in the most discomforting way, because they relate to our hidden insides  (Arnold, 1999: 162). The moulages have “greater gravity and emotional charge” and therefore amaze viewers, even if the viewer has very little background knowledge about the subject (Arnold, 1999: 163). Part of the aesthetic, wonder, awe and fear that the viewer feels is the “mimetic likeness” of the wax to human flesh. It is interesting to note that these same feelings that we have towards moulages can be seen in how we react to robots today. Stephan Basson wrote, “the more humanlike robots become an onlookers response to them may be more positive however, at some point this trend reverses with the viewer experiencing distress due to the lifelike nature of the robot” (Basson, 2019: 66). This shows that although we might feel so far removed from the past, a time in which these wax moulages were made, we still have the same desire and curiosity to create an immortal self that has the same likeness.

In conclusion, the baby face moulage, like all the other moulages can be seen as a cultural artifact since it represents and tells us something about the past. Moulages are of historical and cultural significance as they inform us about morality, disease, death and suffering, which could be linked to religious beliefs. The moulages, therefore, become a metaphor. They become a metaphor for life, death, anguish, pain and self-reflection. The moulages become the point in which we can enquire about the past to inform the way we look at the present, cultural memory and the history of science and medicine. Therefore, the wax moulages should not just been seen as tools of instruction but “semiotic subjects” (De Ceglia, 2006, 447).


I would like to thank Nina Liebenberg for organizing and introducing us to the staff at The Pathology Learning Centre. My deepest appreciation goes to Dr. Jane Yeats, the curator at the Pathology Learning Centre, who was more than willing to assist me in understanding the history of the moulage at The University of Cape Town. In addition, I would like to thank Ms. Caroline Powrie, the curator at the Anatomy Department, who clarified some information for me regarding the moulage. Finally, I would like to thank Prof. Pippa Skotnes who reviewed this essay and helped formulate my ideas. Contribute information to this page