Tan Chen, BA
Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Grand Rapids, United States
|The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp depicts a rare occasion of a public dissection in Amsterdam in 1632. This painting was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons during the time Dr. Tulp held the office of Praelector in Anatomy. Dr. Tulp, a well-known civic leader and anatomist, was also in charge of apprenticing surgeons.1
There have been discussions about the accuracy of this painting in that some of the muscles and tendons are not correctly attached at the correct epicondyle. What is important though is that the painting is a reflection between anatomic structure and function, and that this type of motion was popular in the intellectual thinking of the 17th century.2 Although the painting illustrates the anatomy of the forearm and the thinking of the time, its initial purpose was to showcase the members of the Guild of Surgeons.
Most of those portrayed watching the dissection paid to be in it. This was to help offset the cost of Rembrandt as he was quickly becoming a highly sought after artist. According to records, two of the onlookers in the painting were actual surgeons, while the rest were influential people of the area.
Commissioned for display in the Guild Room, the painting offers a glimpse into important changes in the world of medicine. Gone are the days of public executions and dissection, and a much more subdued method has taken over. In the modern world executions are no longer public, and anatomy students no longer know the name of their corpse. Great care is taken to remain respectful of the deceased, and in doing so the hands and feet are covered so as to take away the intimacy many associate with these body parts. Today it is easy for a person to donate their body to science and allow anatomy students a real look into the human body, whereas before no choice was given.
The corpse in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp gives the painting a more macabre feeling. The body being dissected is that of Aris Klindt (an alias for Adriaan Adriaanszoon), an armed robber sentenced to death by hanging. A public dissection was only a yearly event, and all bodies being dissected were that of criminals. Owing to the lack of proper refrigeration, the event took place in the winter, when temperatures would help to preserve the corpse for the several days. In Rembrandt’s painting, the hands and feet are easily seen and there is no care taken to respect the deceased, with exception to a cloth laid over the genitalia. Gazing at the over-emphasized enlarged arm allows one to reflect on the gruesome nature of the act at hand.
While nowadays bodies are well preserved and refrigerated, there is something unnerving about the freshness of Aris Klindt. One has to wonder whether he knew that his body would soon be dissected in full view of anyone who had the money and desire to see this gory process. It also leads the viewer to consider the drastic changes which have transpired over the years. What was a thrilling or exciting form of entertainment is now left solely up to science. No longer do even the lower echelons of society need worry about how their body will be treated upon death. As with many things, the more we evolve as a society and become more advanced, the more tasteful and civilized we become.
- Mellick, S.A., Dr Nicolaes Tulp of Amsterdam, 1593-1674: anatomist and doctor of medicine: ANZ J Surg. 2007 Dec;77(12):1102-9.
- Masquelet, A.C., [The anatomy lesson of Doctor Tulp]. Bull Acad Natl Med, 2011. 195(3): p. 773-83.
TAN CHEN was raised in Vancouver and attended Dartmouth College where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in neuroscience. Currently, he is a 3rd year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. His passions include community service, music, fencing, writing, and drawing.