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Michelangelo's The Last Judgment - St Bartholomew holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin; it is conjectured that Michelangelo included a self-portrait depicting himself as St Bartholomew after he had been flayed alive.

Flaying, also known colloquially as skinning, is a method of slow and painful execution in which skin is removed from the body. Generally, an attempt is made to keep the removed portion of skin intact.[citation needed]


A dead animal may be flayed when preparing it to be used as human food, or for its hide or fur; this is more commonly called skinning.

Flaying of humans is used as a method of torture or execution, depending on how much of the skin is removed; this is often referred to as "flaying alive". There are also records of people flayed after death, generally as a means of debasing the corpse of a prominent enemy or criminal, sometimes related to religious beliefs (e.g. to deny an afterlife); sometimes the skin is used, again for deterrence, esotheric/ritualistic purposes, etc. (e.g. scalping).[citation needed]

Causes of death[edit]

Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.[1] Hypothermia is possible, as skin is essential for maintaining a person's body temperature, as it provides a person's natural insulation.


The Assyrian tradition[edit]

Assyrians flaying their prisoners alive

Ernst G. Jung, in his "Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Haut" ("A short cultural history of the skin"), provides an essay in which he outlines the Neo-Assyrian tradition of flaying human beings.[2] Already from the times of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BC), the practice is displayed and commemorated in both carvings and official royal edicts. The carvings show that the actual flaying process might begin at various places on the body, such as at the crus (lower leg), the thighs, or the buttocks.

Shield showing three flaying knives, symbol of Bartholomew the Apostle

In their royal edicts, the Neo-Assyrian kings seem to gloat over the terrible fate they imposed upon their captives, and that flaying seems, in particular, to be the fate meted out to rebel leaders. Jung provides some examples of this triumphant rhetoric. Here are some from Ashurnasirpal II:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins; the captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.[citation needed]

The Rassam Cylinder, in the British Museum demonstrates this.

Their corpses they hung on stakes, they stripped off their skins and covered the city wall with them.[3]

Other examples[edit]

Searing or cutting the flesh from the body was sometimes used as part of the public execution of traitors in medieval Europe. A similar mode of execution was used as late as the early 18th century in France; one such episode is graphically recounted in the opening chapter of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979).

In 1303, the Treasury of Westminster Abbey was robbed while holding a large sum of money belonging to King Edward I. After arrest and interrogation of 48 monks, three of them, including the subprior and sacrist, were found guilty of the robbery and flayed, their skin was attached to three doors as a warning against robbers of Church and State.[4] The Copford church in Essex, England, may have been found to have human skin attached to a door.[5]

In Chinese history, Sun Hao, Fu Sheng and Gao Heng were known for removing skin from people's faces;[6] the Hongwu Emperor flayed many servants, officials and rebels.[7][8] In 1396 he ordered the flaying of 5000 women.[9] Hai Rui suggested that his emperor flay corrupt officials; the Zhengde Emperor flayed six rebels,[10] and Zhang Xianzhong also flayed many people.[11] Lu Xun said the Ming Dynasty was begun and ended by flaying.[12]

Examples and depictions of flayings[edit]


Apollo flaying Marsyas by Antonio Corradini (1658-1752), Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Flaying of Marsyas after challenging Apollo. Painting by Titian.
The Judgement of Cambyses, part 2, half of a diptych painted by Gerard David in 1498.
  • One of the plastinated exhibits in Body Worlds includes an entire posthumously flayed skin, and many of the other exhibits have had their skin removed.




See also[edit]


  1. ^ p.69 Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Haut. p. 69. Ernst G. Jung (2007).
  2. ^ Paragraph based on the essay "Von Ursprung des Schindens in Assyrien" in Jung (2007), p.67-70
  3. ^ Rassam Cylinder. The British Museum. & 636BC, pp. Col.1, L.52 to Col.2, L. 27.
  4. ^ Andrews, William (1898). The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc. London: Williams Andrews & Co. pp. 158–167. Retrieved 4 May 2015.
  5. ^ Wall, J. Charles (1912), Porches and Fonts. Wells Gardner and Darton, London. pp. 41-42.
  6. ^ . 中国死刑观察--中国的酷刑
  7. ^ "也谈"剥皮实草"的真实性". Eywedu.com. Retrieved 2013-07-11.
  8. ^ 覃垕曬皮 Archived 2007-12-11 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ 陈学霖(2001). 史林漫识. China Friendship Publishing Company.
  10. ^ History of Ming, vol.94
  11. ^ "写入青史总断肠(2)". Book.sina.com.cn. Retrieved 2013-07-11.
  12. ^ 鲁迅. 且介亭雜文·病後雜談
  13. ^ Watts, Edward Jay (2006). "Hypatia and pagan philosophical culture in the later fourth century". City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press. pp. 197–198.
  14. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Mercadier" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 148.
  15. ^ Mariotti, Giovanni (17 August 2003). "La fine di Marsia secondo Tiziano". Il Corriere della Sera.


  • Jung, Ernst G. (2007). "Von Ursprung des Schindens in Assyrien", in "Kleine Kulturgeschichte Der Haut". Springer Verlag. ISBN 9783798517578.

External links[edit]