A guillotine looming menacingly outside the Freedom Tower evokes terrifying references ranging from the industrial-scale beheadings of the French Revolution to the U.S. government's recent reign of error in its war on terrorism.

The diabolical device is on display at the historical landmark as part of "Instruments of Torture Through the Ages," a harrowing exhibit reflecting humanity's darkest nature and showcasing the evil implements of terror employed by the powerful to brutally control the masses.

Inside the tower's chambers, many of the dreadful apparatuses on display make the guillotine appear a painless mode of execution. Earlier methods of capital punishment widely practiced throughout Europe included crucifixion, hanging, disembowelment, impalement, burning at the stake, dismemberment, drawing and quartering, flaying, or boiling in oil.

An interrogation chair, also known as the throne.
An interrogation chair, also known as the throne.

Details

"Instruments of Torture Through the Ages": Through August 29. Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7700; miamitorture.com. Monday through Friday noon to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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The exhibit — coproduced by the Toscana Museum, in collaboration with Amnesty International, Centro Cultural Español, and the Dante Alighieri Society in Miami — brings these methods of torture and execution disturbingly alive.

The iconic building was selected to host the litany of horror inflicted by history's worse malefactors "because it is a symbol of freedom for many who have fled oppressive political and social systems abroad, including political prisoners," says Covadonga Talavera, the U.S. spokesperson for the Toscana Museum.

Organizers of the spine-wracking exposition that has toured the globe since 1983 hope it will help draw attention to contemporary human rights abuses around the world.

Miami Dade College has planned a series of lectures, panels, and workshops exploring issues of freedom, human rights, and torture in conjunction with the show.

During a recent tour, Jorge Gutierrez, director of the college's art gallery system, explained that the institution's mission is to educate the public through a historical survey of a "practice condemned by most civilized countries as an inexcusable crime but still practiced in many parts of the modern world."

Culled from private collections, most of the nearly 100 instruments of torture on display are originals dating from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

The exhibit's impact is immediately sinister and visceral. The threshold resembles the entrance to a Renaissance fair, with the exterior walls of the display painted red and black and festooned with medieval banners. Accompanying the torture devices are elaborate texts printed in English and Spanish and amplified in many cases by sprawling, wall-size reproductions of Lucas Cranach's, Goya's, and other famous painters' engravings depicting violent acts of torture.

Add to those displays the life-size wax figures of victims stretched on a rack or being waterboarded, and the effect grows more ominous. Audio and video clips that add a historical perspective provide a full-bore immersion into a sensory nightmare. At times, one can't help but imagine the victim's grief and suffering echoing across the ages in these gloomy chambers.

The exhibit transports the viewer to a period when torture was a public spectacle (the word gala, after all, derives from gallows), a time when people packed lunches and gathered their families to view the latest hanging or beheading in the town square.

From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 18th Century, one of the most popular means of execution throughout Germanic Europe was "breaking with the wheel," where naked victims strapped to a wheel had their limbs and joints smashed with a cudgel. Their shattered limbs were then braided into the spokes of the wheel, transforming the victims into what a 17th-century chronicler called a " huge, screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster of raw, slimy, and shapeless flesh mixed with splinters of smashed bones." The contraption was typically known as the catherine wheel, named for Saint Catherine of Alexandria, an early church martyr.

As one navigates the six distinct salons of the exhibit, it becomes evident from the historical illustrations that women were particularly singled out for sadistic treatment. During the witch hunts, their barbaric tormenters used savage devices — such as the Judas cradle, the cat's paw or Spanish tickler, the pear, and the breast ripper — to extract confessions of consorting with the Devil. After suffering prolonged bouts of unspeakable torture, the women would invariably feed the flames of purification at the stake.

The cat's paw — about the size of four fingers of a man's hand — was made of iron and resembled a feline's curved claws. It was typically used to tear a victim's flesh to shreds and rip it off bones when raked over the face, breasts, or abdomen.

Man's rabid ingenuity surfaces with meticulous ferocity in the pear, which was used to ravage the mouth, vagina, and anus of female victims accused of sexual union with Satan and his minions. It was also later used on heretical preachers and homosexuals. The instrument, which was forced into a victim's cavity, could be expanded by tightening screws, thereby forcing its pointed segments to shatter jaws and cause irreparable mutilation to the orifice.

Perhaps most frightening about these monstrous gadgets is that taken out of context, they can easily be envisioned as beautiful kitchen tools created by modern craftsmen for the pages of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

Also on display are an assortment of whips, flails, pillories, and masks often used for public punishment and humiliation, as well as several examples of chastity belts designed for the so-called protection of women while their husbands were away on military campaigns.

Two of the most hair-raising torture appliances on display are the iron maiden of Nuremberg and an interrogation chair, also known as the throne, both bristling with razor-sharp, porcupine-like metal spikes designed to skewer victims. Also on view is an early model of an electric chair that reminds viewers of the callousness with which the death penalty is carried out to this day.

The exhibit closes with an expansive section devoted exclusively to the Inquisition and the Catholic Church's systematic campaign to root out heresy after a bill issued by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 legitimized torture.

The "28 articles" listing the sins the Inquisition attempted to expose and purge range from apostasy and blasphemy to sodomy and sorcery, charges used primarily as a tool to expose Jews who were forced to convert or flee Spain.

One of the displays in this section includes an early example of waterboarding, a technique that spans the centuries to the present day and recalls the U.S. military's abuses at Abu Ghraib and controversial policies at Guantánamo Bay.

It's a chilling reminder that torture still flourishes among the most developed countries of the civilized world. Perfected by electronics, pharmacology, and other calculatedly atrocious methods, torture is, if anything, more effective than even Torquemada could have dreamed. It makes for a compelling argument that rather than growing closer to salvation, man's religious bigotry and failing respect for human rights and dignity pushes him ever closer to a spiritual and moral abyss.

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