Anatomy and Art

Anatomy and art are two fields of civilization’s scientific and cultural achievements that have been inextricably linked with each other since antiquity, and which are often connected with one another by their knowledge of the human body.

Several thousand years ago, in the land of the pharaohs, people familiarized themselves with the human body through the process of mummification, which resulted in the development of a local canon of beauty according to which sculptures, reliefs and wall paintings were made for many centuries to come. However, art was not of a single unchanging form through the entire existence of the Egyptian state, because idealistic likenesses of state dignitaries and realistic depictions of representatives of the lower classes were being created at the same time. There were also times, for example, during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, or the reign of the famous Akhenaten, when artists, with the consent of the ruling classes, presented the physiognomy of the person portrayed in a very faithful manner.

Córka Echnatona, kopia ntycznej rzeźby z ok. 1933 r. zb.. Wellcome Collection
Aechnaton’s daughter, modern copy circa 1933. Source: Public domain

The fascination with the human body is also very perceivable in ancient Greek art at every stage of its evolution. In this period it is possible to point out many artists who strove to depict specific parts of the human body as faithfully as possible. The best known canons in Greek art are the tenets laid down by the sculptors Polykleitos and Lyssipos who aspired to exemplify the perfect proportions of the human body in their work. At that time, however, their knowledge of anatomy was limited to reproducing the external elements which make up the human form to depict the figures they were presenting.

The Doryphoros of Polykleitos, Roman period copy in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Source: Public domain

With time, physicians such as Herophilos of Chalcedon and Erasistratos of Keos in Alexandria began performing the first dissections of the human body which helped the artists uncover the secrets of the body’s internal structure. In the Hellenistic period, which is when these two renowned physicians lived, many sculptures were made which were characterized by an excellent knowledge of the structure of muscles, ligaments and bones as well as a naturalistic approach to the physiognomy of the human body.

Roman art was in general a repetition of Greek artistic achievements whereas knowledge of the anatomy continued to broaden despite the ban which existed at that time on dissecting humans bodies. Huge inroads in this field were made principally by the physician Galenus, but because he worked mainly on animals he was unable to avoid making many mistakes which continued to function in science and art for several centuries to come. One of the outstanding achievements in the era of the Roman Empire was the unusually naturalist sculptural portraits of the emperors.

In the Middle Ages, due to religious considerations, the development of anatomy fell into stagnation for many centuries. The church at that time officially prohibited the dissection of humans. The only opportunity people had to uncover the secrets of the structure of the human form was by being present at tortures carried out in public and at executions, a perfect example of which is Gerard David’s painting made in 1500 depicting The Flaying of Sisamnes. The schematic drawings which appeared in anatomical treatises show just how slowly the progress in this medical discipline evolved.

Leonardo Da Vinci. Male profile and a study of two riders. Source:Public domain

During the Renaissance there was a marked increase in the interest in anatomy which was largely connected with the cult of the human body and which was very noticeable and widely promulgated. Prominent artists also contributed to the development of anatomy: Antonio Poallaiulo, Michelangelo, and above all Leonardo da Vinci, all of whom performed autopsies on human remains, first covertly and later with the official consent of the authorities. The author of the Mona Lisa also painted outstandingly beautiful and accurate drawings of the human anatomy. The renowned British physician, William Hunter, who lived three centuries later, when admiring these splendid works or art purportedly said: ‘I am absolutely convinced that Leonardo was, by far, the best anatomist of his time.’

The Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius who was born in Brussels and taught at the University of Padua, was a symbol of the major advances that were taking place in the knowledge of anatomy. At the age of 28 he published a seven volume, elaborately illustrated treatise on the human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This work became a milestone for the presentation of the human anatomy, thanks also to the woodcut illustrations (which are attributed to Jan Steven van Calcar, a pupil of Titian) in which the dissected figures were drawn in allegorical poses that were full of life, movement, with thoughtful and cheerful expressions. Moreover, from the scientific perspective it refuted many of the theses made by the ancient physician Galenus which, until that time, had gone unquestioned.

18th century wax anatomical model from La Specola Zoological and Natural History Museum, Florence. Source: Public domain

With the waning of the Renaissance and the advent of Mannerism, the manner of presenting the human body in art underwent yet another change. Almost overnight, it became popular to depict caricatured, improbable and artificial poses, thus distorting natural forms, that were supposed to astonish the viewers. The end of the 16th century also marked the beginning of the era of anatomical theatres. The first ones were built in Italy, but soon they also began appearing in Northern Europe. Dissections began to be treated as a type of open spectacle, not only for doctors and academics, as can be seen in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp dating from 1632.

At the turn of the 18th/19th centuries, the artistic value of many works of art, where the human body was the leitmotif, was further reinforced by scientific discovery and a more investigative approach to the subject. The best examples of art and medicine being combined are Jean-Antoine Houdon’s l’Écorché and the famous anatomical models which are on display in Florence and Vienna.

The fascination with the structure of the human body was perceivable in art and sculpture in each subsequent era. Even the advent of modern art at the beginning of the 20th century, and the emergence of new artistic trends, did not diminish people’s interest in the subject. Testimony of this are the leading works of Cubism (Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) and Futurism (Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase).