An exhibition of historical anatomy illustrations offers startling lessons for contemporary medicine

While teaching anatomy to medical students, the great Renaissance physician Andreus Vesalius used to draw muscles and nerves on the dissecting table. Like his ancestors, he believed the human body was best understood through direct observation. However, experience showed him that a trained eye was needed to see through gore.

Informed by these experiences, Vesalius decided to break with ancient tradition when he began to write an anatomy textbook in the mid-15and century. Almost every anatomy book before his was purely descriptive, guiding the process of dissection with words alone, reflecting the ancients’ anxiety that young doctors would be distracted by visual representation. In his magnum opus, From Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, Vesalius countered that even the most explicit language was less accurate than a picture, comparing the woodcuts he had commissioned to geometric diagrams.

As a fascinating new exhibit from the Getty Center and a publication from the Getty Research Institute amply illustrate, they were much more than that. Anatomical illustrations advanced both science and art because their full potential was realized by Vesalius and his offspring.

Many works of flesh and bone are deeply destabilizing. Anatomical illustration subjects are rarely passive, as one would expect in the dead.

For example, a skeleton depicted by the painter Jan van Calcar for Vesalius’s Made stands improbably straight, her head resting on an arm bent at the elbow. His other hand rests on a second skull on its side. The arrangement conveniently provides the anatomist with a means of showing two views of cranial anatomy. But another purpose is suggested by a Latin inscription on the table supporting the standing skeleton: One lives on genius, the rest will belong to death.

The language links this composition to an earlier artistic tradition depicting skeletons in action. the memento mori was a popular medieval Christian motif of impending mortality and the eternal afterlife. By evoking this iconography, Vesalius links the practical work of the doctor to ethics and philosophy. The doctor becomes a demi-god, even if the genius of medicine never lasts. The theology is appropriated and subverted. Through art, the content of Made goes far beyond the lessons of medical theatre.

While van Calcar’s image operates primarily in the realm of allegory, later anatomical depictions have pointed to other advantages to animating anatomical specimens. One of the strangest is a pair of legs walking through a landscape, engraved by Francesco Valesio for Adriaan van den Spiegel Existing Opera Quae, Omnia, published around 1616. The landscape is naturalistic, dotted with rocks and grasses, and featuring several villages in the distance. The legs are also naturalistic, at least down to the knees, where the realism ends and the science lesson begins.

Cutting through the skin to reveal the model’s enviable muscles and tendons, the doctor and artist provide instruction on the anatomy. (The manner in which muscles are pulled from bone even helps to elucidate the proper method of dissection.) Yet the depiction of movement shows something that no amount of dissection can reveal. The engraving illustrates the functioning of the body, intuitively linking morphology to physiology. In other words, the fantastic character of the composition paradoxically contributes to its realism.

It is difficult to imagine such an image in a contemporary scientific work. Although Grey’s Anatomy suffered throughout the 20and century (and still remains in print), the layered truths of early anatomical illustrations were increasingly likely to be seen in the art museum (especially in works of surrealism). Even as technologies such as MRI facilitated radical new views of the body, scientific standards became more conservative, reverting to the anxious pedantry of Vasari’s medieval and ancient ancestors.

flesh and bone is valuable as a historical document (sometimes punctuated by modern and contemporary art such as a recent work in neon by Tavares Strachen). However, the greatest potential of the exhibition and the book is to invigorate contemporary scientific illustration with the visual and conceptual imagination of art.