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Art and anatomy

Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy, 1771-1800

Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy, 1771-1800

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To be an artist during the Renaissance was, for many, to be an anatomist. As European artists turned towards more lifelike portrayals of the human body, they needed a deeper understanding of how the structures of the body worked together - and not only the surface of the body; the muscles and bones as seen through the skin were also of interest. Artists and anatomists worked together to investigate the body through dissection. They produced images of the body that combined medical knowledge and an artistic vision of humanity's place in the world.

Popular culture - the demand for drawings

In popular culture, fascination with the inner workings of the body meant an ongoing demand for images. Popular leaflets were produced, as well as large, lavishly illustrated books. The bodies shown in these drawings seemed to be alive. Whether skeletons or écorchés (‘muscle men’, whose skin had been flayed off), they were posed as upright living figures, often in classical landscapes.

Sculptures of the body

In the engravings for his 1543 De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)Andreas Vesalius followed the conventions of Ancient Greek sculpture, with an emphasis on muscular bodies displayed as if they were sculptures. This became a standard way to portray the human body, not only in terms of its physical structures, but as a living system.

The belief in God’s creation of the body

Why such an emphasis on making dead bodies look alive? The phrase nosce te ipsum can be found in many anatomical illustrations, carved in anatomy theatres and on the frontispiece of books of this period. Meaning ‘know thyself’, the phrase was used to indicate to viewers that anatomy was a way to self knowledge - psychological as well as physical. It was a reminder of the divine nature of the body as God’s creation, and of human fragility. Vanitas figures and memento mori also stressed the need to remember mortality and the inevitability of death.

Art and studies of the body


Leonardo da Vinci is probably the best-known Renaissance figure whose anatomical study was fundamental to his art. But, as demand grew for more naturalistic and accurate images of the body, so too did the interest in anatomy among artists. Academies of art established across Europe from the 1600s had anatomy on the curriculum well into the 1900s. Specialist professors of anatomy were normally appointed from the medical world to demonstrate to students. If no bodies were available for dissection, pictures and three-dimensional wax models were used by medical and art students alike. These models were prized as much for their artistic value as for their anatomical value.

Gray’s Anatomy: the human body on display

The European tradition of representing the body according to highly rigorous standards of naturalism and aesthetic value continued into the 1800s, and Gray’s Anatomy, published in 1858, became a standard work and is still used today.


A Carlino, Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning (Chicago and London: University of Chicago press, 1999)

A Carlino, ‘Paper bodies: a catalogue of anatomical fugitive sheets 1538-1687’, Medical History Supplement, 19 (1999), pp 1-352

A Cunningham, The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection Of The Anatomical Projects Of The Ancients (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997)

S J Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York and London: W W Norton and Co, 1996)

L Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the 18th and 20th Centuries (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989)

M Kemp and M Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: The Art And Science Of The Human Body From Leonardo To Now (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

L’ame du Corps: Arts Et Sciences 1793 – 1993 [exhibition at Grand Palais]

D Petherbridge and L Jordanova, The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy (National Touring Exhibitions, Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council of England 1988)

R Richardson, The Making of Mr Gray's ‘Anatomy’: Bodies, Books, Fortune and Fame (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)


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