The Curious Case of the Ox and its Brain


Furniture, Textiles & Fashion
June 4, 2015

Today’s post is simply to express my glee at seeing new photographs of what will be one the galleries’ more unusual inhabitants.

This late 17th-century sculpture depicts the head of an ox, in white marble, resting on a section of a tree trunk that was carved from a number of pieces of wood. The skull of the ox is shown opened up to reveal a mysterious ‘growth’ of some kind. Rather melodramatically, the ox’s own flayed hide (also carved from wood) is wrapped around the trunk, complete with hooves and tail.

60-1882 Statue Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700 Padua 2nd half 17th century Marble and wood. In a report dated 6 February 2015, analysis of the wood identified it as an alpine pine, probably Pinus cembra.
Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700. V&A 60-1882

Elaborately carved, this strange assemblage combines artistic skill with a fascination for nature and scientific curiosity. By making the sculpture from a combination of marble and wood, the sculptor demonstrates his carving abilities and mastery of both materials.

Its theatricality is typical of the 17th-century fascination with  naturally occurring oddities and would no doubt have provided a dramatic talking point. Acquired in Venice in 1882, it was then believed to have come from a  collection of curiosities assembled in the Villa Altichiero in Padua, although there is no firm documentary evidence to confirm this.

60-1882 Statue Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700 Padua 2nd half 17th century Marble and wood. In a report dated 6 February 2015, analysis of the wood identified it as an alpine pine, probably Pinus cembra.
Seen side-on, showing the neatly crossed hooves and looking even more as if the ox is wearing a macabre stole.

Some of you may remember seeing a glimpse of the ox (sporting some fetching paper ‘ear-muffs’) in this post I wrote about mock-ups back in 2013. As the photographs above testify, the ox has since been cleaned, treated and thoroughly investigated in our Sculpture Conservation studios.

ox cons
Beheaded a second time: The ox and its tree trunk base being treated in our Sculpture Conservation studios.

Despite its unusual appearance, when previously on display, the ox evidently appeared friendly enough to some visitors that they insisted on petting it. The photographs below provide a good demonstration of how touching objects can very visibly mark and damage their surface.  The rather muddy-looking marks you can see on the right are the result of people touching the white marble.

The conservators found that these handling marks had combined with old layers of bees wax. They were able to remove a layer of the wax which, as you can see, had quite startling results.  Needless to say, when you next get to see it in the new galleries please don’t touch!

dirty nose
The ox of today doesn’t look too impressed at its previous manhandled/’overly petted’ appearance.

Standing at over 1.5 metres tall, it was obvious that the sculpture is rather top-heavy. Separating the head from the trunk allowed us to find out that the head weighs an impressive 74.2 kg. It appears that there was originally not much to support to keep the head on the trunk. To ensure that it will be safe and secure for re-display, the conservators and technicians will be attaching an armature onto it to stabilise it.

Here you can see a small hole in the back of the head, which was presumably added at some stage to help secure the marble head in place. The head weighs 74.2 kg and so our conservators and technicians have been working hard to ensure that it will be safe and secure for display.
Here you can see a small hole in the back of the head, which was presumably added at some point to help secure the marble head in place.

And finally so to that puzzling ‘lump’ that’s been staring up at us out of the top of the ox’s head! This apparent raison d’être for the sculpture is held within an oval cavity in the life-size head, where flaps of skin are peeled back to reveal a ‘stone’ with markings.

60-1882 Statue Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700 Padua 2nd half 17th century Marble and wood. In a report dated 6 February 2015, analysis of the wood identified it as an alpine pine, probably Pinus cembra.
As if an open head and flayed skin weren’t enough, the rather askew eyes, inlaid with black  glass, provide an additional unnerving touch.

The mysterious form was originally thought to have been a fossilised or petrified ox brain. This suggestion probably results from an event in Padua in 1670, when a hardened mass of bone was discovered inside a slaughtered ox and was believed to be the animal’s petrified brain. It was declared a medical marvel by Sebastiano Scarabicci, a lecturer in medicine at the University of Padua, who published and delivered a number of lectures about it.

60-1882 Statue Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700 Padua 2nd half 17th century Marble and wood. In a report dated 6 February 2015, analysis of the wood identified it as an alpine pine, probably Pinus cembra.

Ever since the ox entered the Museum, questions and suggestions have surrounded the ‘growth’. It was generally agreed that it could not be a petrified brain but was instead probably a large osteoma – a new piece of bone growing on another (typically a skull). In 1933, the Natural History Museum confirmed that it was organic and likely to be a piece of diseased bone from a large mammal, such as an elephant or whale.

Close-up growth
Close-up of the unidentified growth

Being called upon to work on the ox in preparation for the new Europe Galleries, provided the conservators with a perfect opportunity to explore this mystery a bit more. A mammal specialist from the Natural History Museum was invited to examine the ‘growth’. He was very excited by it and said that in his opinion it could be one of two things: a stomach calculus or a large dental anomaly. The conservators have since been in conversation with the Royal College of Surgeons, however, the quest to solve this baffling bovine mystery still continues …

60-1882 Statue Head of an ox; Marble statue of the head of an ox on a tree trunk, (North Italy) probably Padua, about 1650-1700 Padua 2nd half 17th century Marble and wood. In a report dated 6 February 2015, analysis of the wood identified it as an alpine pine, probably Pinus cembra.
Mysterious! – Our photographers often use a number of different arrangements of directional lighting to best show the three-dimensional quality of objects. I think this particular lighting also nicely heightens the sense of mystery surrounding the ox … as well as introducing a slightly sinister undertone …
About the author

Furniture, Textiles & Fashion
June 4, 2015

I am an Assistant Curator working on the development of the new Europe 1600-1800 Galleries. My interests are wide-ranging but subjects I have particularly enjoyed exploring for this project include:...

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“… the quest … still continues …” May I suggest that a radiological nuclide analysis might solve the mystery in a few days given modern atomic spectrometry etc. – it might even tell us, not only which animal was growing the “growth” (if true), but even where it lived and maybe even when as most regions have a nuclide fingerprint that sets them apart.

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