The Anatomy LessonBMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39559.677708.3A (Published 08 May 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1075
- Munier Hossain, staff grade surgeon, Ysbyty Gwynedd, North Wales
Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Pulp (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_007.jpg) was a group portrait commissioned by the Guild of Surgeons of Amsterdam. Rembrandt was only 26 at the time he painted it. The itinerant painter had travelled from his native Leiden to Amsterdam. Luck readily smiled on him.
Dr Tulp—the newly appointed reader of the Guild of Surgeons—needed a portrait to befit his new status. Rembrandt’s genius was in transcending the limited appeal of a group portrait to become a chronicler of anatomy dissection of his time. What is the story behind this autopsy? Where did the body come from? As a surgeon I get easily drawn to the subject matter.
Rembrandt leaves us various clues to the life and times of his contemporary anatomist. The body looks too healthy for him to have died a natural death. Only corpses of executed murderers were allowed for dissection in those days; indeed, the corpse was that of an executed criminal. We don’t see any dissecting instruments, but a textbook is open at the foot of the corpse. This voluminous tome could be Vesalius’s anatomy treatise, which was published nearly a century earlier and proved wrong many Galenic assertions, laying the foundations for a scientific study of the human body.
Some of the painting’s subjects are looking ahead. Are they looking at other spectators? Anatomy dissection in 17th century Europe was as much a social as a scientific event. Demonstrations were held in public theatres once a year and the display offered to students, high officials, and the public for a fee. Although the body remains intact, the left forearm is already completely dissected. Taking centre stage is the demonstrator, Dr Tulp. Dressed in a wide brimmed hat and formal outfit, his social standing is obvious.
He is busy demonstrating the actions of the long flexors of the hand to his amazed audience. With one hand he is lifting and pulling the flexors; with the other he is mimicking their function. This action is of obvious interest to the observers, at least two of whom are looking directly at Tulp’s hand. We meet the spectators forever locked in a moment of rapt attention. This chronicle of anatomy dissection is also a subtle narrative of our continuing obsession with unlocking the secrets of the human body. The painting draws the viewer in to a private demonstration of the unravelling of a mysterious secret.
My appreciation is that of a layman, yet I cannot but also comment on the painting’s visual beauty. Rembrandt was a master of light and shadow, and his skill is evident even this early in his career. The faces are remarkably bright, giving a lighting effect, but death casts its dark halo on the corpse. In painting this humble commission, young Rembrandt created a masterpiece that, centuries later, still evokes a vivid leap of imagination.
Oil on canvas, painted in 1632 by Rembrandt