From Wooden Amphitheaters to Actualized Body: The Progression of Anatomy & the Subsequent Evolution of Illustrating the Human Body

By Jared L.

Early anatomical theatres were temporary establishments: wooden amphitheaters where crowds could watch the dissections take place. Even when theatres became more established, permanent structures, the process and methods of anatomy were crude in the sense that they did not focus on the accuracy of the anatomy of the human body. The first public dissections were conducted by an assistant, while the professor of anatomy sat high above, reading from an aged text, all of which was performed in front of an audience. Sarton provides an excellent description when he writes, “The average professor had never done any dissection of his own and despised that kind of work [….] if the professor was of the true scholastic type (and he often was), he would have more confidence in his text than in the dissected body” (173-174). This reveals the state of mind of this time period, as anatomical professors were not concerned with progressing the discourse of anatomical discoveries, but rather reiterating established concepts, regardless of the accuracy. However, there still existed true anatomists who preferred to personally perform the dissections, such as Andreas Vesalius, who took a visceral approach to anatomy, and conducted his dissections himself, believing the physical body instead of the preceding texts. He viewed his practice as living art, involving the audience with the process and bringing the reality of the dissection much closer. The anatomist “exploited contemporary theatrical techniques, diminishing the distance between the lecturer and the audience by allowing the audience to handle the organs as he removed them from the body” (Findlen 276). This was a peak in the dawn of modern anatomy. Anatomists moved away from the distanced scholarly professor, who trusted solely the words of the textbook over true living evidence.
In addition to bringing about a newfound critical development of anatomy, Vesalius also helped pioneer a shift in artistic portrayal of anatomical discoveries. He published a book in 1543, titled The Fabric of the Human Body, which contained very detailed prints of his explorations and discoveries. This collaboration between science and art helped further the osmosis of ideas and concepts. It had reached a point when, “men of science had been gradually trained not to be satisfied with words; they wanted to see things, to see them clearly…in their wholeness and surroundings” (Sarton 177). This marks the definite progression in anatomical practice, and subsequently the accuracy in which it was captured and portrayed. It was more visceral and progressive, with discoveries in accordance with detailed images. It is also interesting to note the work of work of Charles Estienne, or Carolus Stephanus, a French artist who published several books in medicine, agriculture, and classics. Most notable to this article were his books containing prints of staged anatomized bodies. Kemp writes, “The figures – whether men acting out heroic dramas in grand settings such as all’antica landscapes, or women anatomized in bedrooms – correspond in tone to the author’s definition of the nobility and grandeur of the human estate in relation to God’s creation” (196). When viewed through this perspective, it’s interesting to see how art was able to transcend the status of the human body, still relating them to “God’s creation,” regardless that the soul was gone, thus making them nothing more than cold machines.
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The provided image is an illustration by Stephaus titled, “De dissectione partium corporis humani,” details a pregnant woman with her torso open in dissection. When analyzed through Kemp’s viewpoint, the image inherits an almost celestial quality, as the woman is preserved in an act of perpetuating human life, and perpetuating God’s creation through the human body. As anatomy became more accurate, and artistic renderings became more realistic, art still possessed the ability to immortalize the body in a state of beautification and transcendence. Man was able to actualize his corporeal self, and preserve these discoveries through art, while still allowing the human body to remain connected to God and divine above other animals.
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Jared Lynch is a senior at Ball State University, where he is majoring in English with a focus in creative writing. He was recently published in the inaugural issue of the Digital Literature Review, where he also served as head of the Design team.
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Bibliography
Image: Estienne, Charles. De dissectione partium corporis humani. 1545. Woodcut. “Gallery: Dream Anatomy.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 30 April 2014.
Findlen, Paula. “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections.” The Cambridge History of Science Volume 3: Early Modern Science. Ed. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 272-280. Print.
Kemp, Martin. “Style and non-style in anatomical illustration: From Renaissance Humanism to Henry Gray.”Journal of Anatomy 216 (2010): 192-208. Online.
Sarton, George. Six Wings: Men of Science in the Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957. Print.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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