Of Art and Anatomy

by Samantha Breakstone (Vanderbilt University)

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "I counsel you not to cumber yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind...how in words can you describe this heart without filling a whole book? Yet the more detail you write concerning it, the more you will confuse the mind of the hearer" (Richter). Understanding that many of the earliest writings on human anatomy did not include illustrations, da Vinci brought potent insight into the value of medical illustration. Da Vinci accurately identifies that visual material has the power to both transcend technical terminology and provoke interest that dry textual accounts cannot. Never wavering in its importance, medical illustration has undergone various evolutions throughout its history. However, the two most important influences on this evolution have been the gradual acceptance of human dissection and the advent of the printing press in the 15th century (Tsafrir).

Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 B.C.E.) is recognized by historians as the first to illustrate human anatomy based on legitimate scientific study (Singer). However, Aristotle's illustrations were inferences on human anatomy based upon the dissection of animals (Tsafrir). Since Greek religion problaimed that the corpse was a sacred entity related to the soul, human dissection was prohibited; as a result, Aristotle's theories on human anatomy were fatally flawed (Matuk). This is evidence of the crucial role that human dissection plays in the history of medical illustration.

When Alexander the Great finally sanctioned human dissection in Hellenic Alexandria, Hippocrates's theories of humors drove medicine and were believe to have a more holistic scope that didn't necessitate physical proof (Calkins). Dissection was therefore driven by spiritual and aesthetic motivations rather than scientific, as the Greeks saw the body as nature's masterpiece, each part held to define perfection in form and purpose (Matuk).

This treatment of the human body as an objective form of interest was reawakened by the same humanistic ideas that gave birth to the Renaissance (Roberts). Artists of the 15th century became increasingly interested in the human form for artistic purposes; meanwhile, the emerging spirit of critical inquiry also inspired scientific revolution in the field of human anatomy as anatomists hungered to dissect cadavers in order to investigate the structures of the human body (Sappol). Both art and science held claims on the human form, and neither could completely understand it without assistance from the other. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the first artist to consider anatomy for reasons beyond its artistic applications (Tsafrir). He studied structure and function in depth through observation and careful dissection--completing approximately 30 within his lifetime (Smith). Da Vinci was unique in that he could dissect and illustrate from his own observations. Human dissections in the name of art were more respected in the public than those in the name of science; thus, most anatomists after da Vinci looked to accomplished artists to illustrate their dissections (Roberts). As a result, the boundary between art and science during the early modern era was permeable; medical illustrations emerged as a unique balance of accuracy, beauty, and entertainment such as those in Vesailius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) (Sappol).

Matuk, Camillia. "Seeing the Body: The Divergence of Ancient Chinese and Western Medical Illustration." Journal of Biomedical Communications (32:1) 2006.

Richter, Ian. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Oxford: OUP, 1952.

Roberts, K. B., and J. D. W. Tomlinson. The Fabric of the Body: European Medical Traditions of Anatomical Illustration. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Sappol, Michael. Dream Anatomy. NIH publication.

Smith, Sean. "From Ars to Scientia: The Revolution of Anatomical Illustration." Clinical Anatomy (19) 2006.

Tsafrir, Jenni, and Avi Ohry. "Medical Illustrations: From Caves to Cyberspace." Health and Information Libraries Journal (18:2) 2001.

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  1. "When Alexander the Great finally sanctioned human dissection in Hellenic Alexandria..."

    I would be very interested to know the source for this statement. I'm not an expert - I could be totally wrong - but there are a few factors that make this unlikely.

    Alexander founded Alexandria, but he left Egypt soon after and never saw the city built. I don't see how he could sanction anyone to do anything after Alexandria was up and running, because by that time he was dead.

    Alexander's body though was kidnapped (necronapped?) by his former General Ptolemaos, who had set himself up as king of Egypt. Alexander was interred in Alexandria, close to the Library, which was built by Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II. So if anyone sanctioned dissection, it would have been a Ptolemy.

    The great fear for any Hellene would not have been legal sanction, but what the Gods were going to do to you for cutting open a dead body. Merely touching the dead was highly polluting. I suggest dissection might have begun only after men with good Greek educations, but who did not believe in the Greek pantheon, became available, and that would have begun with the building of the Library.


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