Anatomy Lessons

The Corpse on Stage

Frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543).

Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.

Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible.
With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.

Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).

Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)

Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.

Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)

Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)

Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.

Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)

However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.

Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)

The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.

Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)

Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.

Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.

The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.

The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.

Detail of the book.

Detail of tendons.

The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)

But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.

Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)

Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)

Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.

Detail of Rachel Ruysch.

A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.

Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)

De Raadt writes about this picture:

This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.

Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)

In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.

Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)

The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.

Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)

This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).

Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)

A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)

But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.

J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)

With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.

Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)

Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)

Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)

Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.

Asterix and the Soothsayer (1973) Goscinny-Uderzo

Tulp (1993, dir: Stefano Bessoni)

With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.

Tulp, Lego version.

Hillary White, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Bird (2010)

FvrMate, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, (2016)

HANGBoY, The Anatomy Lesson (2016)

Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.

This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie – XI

AnatomieHugh Aldersey-Williams

ANATOMIE – Storia culturale del corpo umano

(2013, Rizzoli)

Restiamo sempre sorpresi quando leggiamo che, per gli antichi, la sede delle emozioni non era il cuore o il cervello, ma il fegato. Ci coglie infatti il sospetto che il modo in cui guardiamo al nostro stesso corpo sia influenzato dalla cultura in cui siamo cresciuti. Ma la profondità e la portata di questa verità ci sfugge quotidianamente.

L’aspetto più stupefacente, leggendo questa densa ma appassionante “storia culturale del corpo umano”, è scoprire di pagina in pagina quante cose diamo per scontate: dal valore imprescindibile che assegniamo alla testa, all’importanza del nostro naso, all’ignoranza pressoché totale sui nostri organi interni, “esoterici” e in un certo senso inquietanti, l’autore ci conduce attraverso un percorso che si snoda dall’antichità ad oggi, fra difficili scoperte, clamorose smentite ed errori stupefacenti.

I primi anatomisti si scoprirono “esploratori” di una sconosciuta geografia interna, fino ad allora nascosta, e cominciarono a dare il proprio nome ad organi, appendici, insenature e “isole” proprio come i conquistatori di un Nuovo Mondo. Ma questa ricognizione non è ancora finita, e il libro di Aldersey-Williams svela con stile preciso e piacevole come non soltanto la scienza ma anche le belle arti, la letteratura e perfino il linguaggio facciano della forma umana un oggetto complesso, sfaccettato, che partendo dalle proporzioni ideali di Leonardo Da Vinci cerca oggi una perfezione ancora maggiore, un affrancamento dalla vecchiaia e dalla morte le cui suggestioni ricordano il mito di Frankenstein. Una storia variegata, che dalla lezione di Tulp di Rembrandt alle sopracciglia di Mona Lisa, dagli esperimenti di Mengele ai moderni impianti biomeccanici ci racconta quanto mutevole, ibrido ed essenzialmente indefinibile sia questo corpo che abitiamo.


Fritz Kahn


(2013, Taschen)

Sempre nell’ambito delle scienze anatomiche, è interessante considerare come la scienza odierna utilizzi dei modelli tecnologici per rapportarsi alle varie parti del corpo: il cuore come pompa meccanica, il cervello come computer, il sistema osteo-muscolare come perfetta macchina in movimento, e via dicendo. Questo tipo di metafore sono state spesso criticate come fuorvianti, soprattutto dai fautori di una visione più olistica della medicina, ma accostare il meccanico e l’organico ha sicuramente il pregio di spiegare in maniera chiara il funzionamento di un determinato sistema, anche ai non addetti ai lavori.



Lo aveva compreso perfettamente Fritz Kahn, classe 1888, ginecologo, scrittore, artista, che a partire dagli anni ’20 si dedicò alla divulgazione scientifica in maniera completamente inedita ed originale. Cosciente dell’importanza delle immagini nell’educazione, Kahn si prefissò il compito di rendere finalmente visibili e comprensibili i processi fisiologici creando delle analogie con qualcosa di familiare: i processi industriali. Ecco allora che nella sua illustrazione più celebre, L’uomo come palazzo industriale, il corpo è rappresentato come una serie di luoghi di lavoro moderni, organizzati in catene di montaggio, pannelli di controllo, circuiti, macchinari. Nel tempo Kahn affinerà queste metafore architettoniche e industriali, con una capacità e una fantasia per l’accostamento analogico che ha dell’incredibile.



Ad ogni pagina di questo sontuoso volume che ripercorre l’intera carriera di Kahn, ci si trova di fronte a nuove invenzioni iconografiche, trovate surrealiste, connessioni improbabili, sempre però concepite con spirito divulgativo, per ridurre la complessità e rendere i processi vitali accessibili al pubblico più vasto.



Oggi che siamo abituati all’infografica, nei testi scolastici come nelle riviste scientifiche, nei manuali di istruzioni come nei giornali, possiamo comprendere ancora meglio l’importanza di questo pioniere dalla fantasia sfrenata, spinto da una incontenibile voglia di condividere con tutti le meraviglie dell’anatomia umana.