Inside a dissection room, 19th century.
Inside a dissection room, 19th century.
I just stumbled upon this wonderful picture in the Wellcome Library Catalogue of three anatomical dissections taking place in an attic
Three bodies are being dissected in a room lit by skylights and decorated with human and animal skeletons and, along the right wall, a bust on a console and an illustration of a skeleton tacked on the wall between a list of dissection room rules and one of prices for male, female and infant cadavers.
Coloured lithograph by T. C. Wilson after a pen and wash drawing by T. Rowlandson. circa 1770 (Original size: 25 x 35.8 cm)
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is one of Rembrandt's most well-known paintings. It is also the most copied and plagiarized of all the 'Anatomy Lessons' in art history. Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in 1632 commisioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons for their Guild Room. The painting now hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is painted in the tradition of the famous group portraits which flourished in 17th-century Holland, a predominantly urban, middle-class society where the main patrons of the arts were the leading citizens of the various towns. Moreover, it is one of nine paintings made between 1603 and 1925 for the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons showing anatomy lessons and still to be found in Dutch museums (Mauritshuis and Amsterdam Historical Museum).
On the painting we see Dr. Tulp demonstrating the flexors of the forearm to an audience of seven surgeons from the guild (we still know the names of all of them). In the bottom right corner is a large open book normally identified as a copy of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica from 1543.
The event depicted can be dated to 16 January 1632 or one of the following days: the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, of which Tulp was official City Anatomist, were permitted only one public dissection a year, and the body would have to be that of an executed criminal. The corpse in 1632 was that of the criminal Aris Kindt (alias of Adriaan Adriaanszoon), who was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging.
Such anatomy lectures would usually only be carried out in winter time when temperatures were lower as there was no electricity in those days to refrigerate corpses and sometimes this experimentation and these talks would go on for several days.
Anatomy lessons were a social event in the 17th century, taking place in what were actual theatres, with students, colleagues and the general public being permitted to attend on payment of an entrance fee. Between 1619 and 1639 the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons used the Weigh-House (De Waag or St Anthonius Poorthuis) for the dissections. This was a small anatomy theatre, also used as guild room, with furniture, art and medical instruments.
It has been pointet out several times that this painting - like many of the other Amsterdam anatomy lessons - does not depict the actual dissection taking place. Several things points to this. The scene does not seem to be a crowded anatomy theater as we se it e.g. on the cover of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica. In all of the Amsterdam anatomy lessons there is an unrealistic absence of dissecting instruments, and on the Tulp painting we also notice the absence of the Preparator who was the person whose task was to prepare the body for the lesson. This was considered somewhat of a menial and bloody task, which the likes of Doctor Tulp would not be expected to carry out. Finaly the dissection itself is quite unusual; before preservation methods were available, the abdominal viscera, which were most perishable, would be dissected out first. Here the body remains unopened and the first attention of the surgeons is directed towards muscles and tendons.
The purpose of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is not to give an authentic picture of an anatomical dissection, but to portrait the important members (and citizens) of the Guild of Surgeons.
(Click on images to see larger version)
Mondino de Luzzi (ca. 1270 – 1326), also known as Mundinus, was an Italian physician, anatomist, and professor of surgery who lived and worked in Bologna. He is often credited as the “restorer of anatomy” because he made seminal contributions to the field by reintroducing the practice of public dissection of human cadavers in Bologna in 1316 and writing the first modern anatomical text Anathomia corporis humani (also in 1316). The earliest edition of the work was printed in Padua in 1478, and more than 40 editions exist in total.
On the woodcut we see a prosector (barber surgeon) and a physician - probably supposed to be Mundinus - preparing an anatomical dissection. From an edition of Anathomia corporis humani from 1493. Here we clearly see - as mentioned in my previous post - the physisian sitting with his edition of Galen (I guess), while giving instructions to the prosector who looks more upon the physisian than the corpse.
Fasciculus Medicinae is a “bundle” of six independent and quite different medieval medical treatises. The collection, which existed only in two manuscripts (handwritten copies), was first printed in 1491 in Latin and came out in numerous editions over the next 25 years. Johannes de Ketham, the German physician routinely associated with the Fasciculus, was neither the author nor even the original compiler but merely an owner of one of the manuscripts. The book is remarkable as the first illustrated medical work to appear in print; notable illustrations include: a urine chart, a diagram of the veins for phlebotomy, a pregnant woman, Wound Man, Disease Man and Zodiac Man. (From Wikipedia)
On the woodcut we notice a clear distinctinct separation between the anatomist and the barber surgeon and his assistents. The anatomist is on the pulpit and has no physical contact with the corpse. He is more of a philologist - an expert on the writing of Hippocrates and Galen. He instructs the barber surgeon what to do and explains his findings according to the ‘holy’ of Galen.
I am not accustomed to saying anything with certainty after only one or two observations.
- Andreas Vesalius Epistola rationem modumque propinandi radicis Chynae decocti (Letter on the China Root), translated by Charles Donald O’Malley. In Charles Donald O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 (2nd Ed., 1964), 201.
As opposed to his predecessors knowledge according to Vesalius is based on observation - not on reading the works of Hippocrates and Galen.
A motive in art that keeps fascinating me is the Anatomy Lesson. Over the next period of time I will show some examples here on my blog.
The first is the cover of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica from 1543. Vesalius is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy and he surely made a very important contribution with this book showing several of the Galenic ideas of human anatomy to be false.