Imaging the Body


The urge to image the human body has always been driven by a complex set of intentions.

Today, images of the body are usually taken by scientists wishing to understand the body's structure and its functions, or by doctors looking to see how the body is affected by illness. But from antiquity through to the Renaissance there were other objectives: philosophical (to identify the location of the soul or 'self'), theological (to disclose the glory of God's creation) or aesthetic. Over the centuries the interior terrain of the body has been rendered visible with increasingly sophisticated technology, from medieval anatomical illustrations derived from dissection, through microscopy and X-rays to contemporary computer scanning techniques.

The first preserved anatomical illustrations of the entire human body occur in the treatise written by the 14th-century Persian physician Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Ilyas, Tashrīh-i Mansūrī (Mansur's Anatomy, c.1390). The treatise is divided into sections devoted to the five 'systems' of the body: bones, nerves, muscles, veins and arteries. The illustrations (and text) were based on the writings of Galen (c.129-216), whose influence shaped the understanding of the human body until the Renaissance. Numerous copies of Mansur's anatomical illustrations were produced from the 15th to the 19th centuries, suggesting how widespread its dissemination was in the Islamic world.

During the Renaissance the dissection of human cadavers became widespread, a trend led by the Flemish physician Vesalius who held the chair of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua, a centre of dissection in the 16th century. The close observation allowed by human dissection led to increasingly detailed and sophisticated renderings of the interior of the human body.

One form of anatomical illustration that was a popular instructional aid in the 16th century is commonly known as a fugitive sheet. These were delicate woodcuts representing the human body through a series of paper layers, which could be lifted to reveal with increasing detail the body's internal structures.

By the 19th century, anatomical illustration was no longer at the cutting edge of body imaging techniques. The mid-19th century saw the advent of microscopy, allowing the body's microdimensional world to be viewed, whilst at the end of the century, Röntgen's invention of X-rays was a radical departure in enabling the visualisation of the body's inner architecture. Contemporaneously, photography allowed the body to be investigated in hitherto unprecedented ways. Eadweard Muybridge's studies in human kinetics, published in 1887 in his enormous 11 volume work, 'Animal Locomotion', exhaustively recorded men, women and children (as well as animals) in a comprehensive variety of movements.

In the last four decades, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been at the vanguard of internal body imaging techniques. Using a powerful magnetic field and radio waves, the technology produces detailed pictures of the body's interior without exposing the patient to the dangers of radiation. It is a particularly sophisticated technology in its rendering of soft tissue, which makes it especially useful in neurological (brain) imaging. The Visible Human Project is an ambitious project running over the last 20 years to build a digital image library of MRI and computed tomography scans representing complete, normal adult male and female anatomy. The cadavers of one female and one male have been sliced longitudinally from the head down to the feet at intervals of 0.33 and 4 mm for the female and male respectively.

Conversely, the way the body looks externally has been used to identify and catalogue the invisible inner characteristics of the self. Physiognomy, the study of facial characteristics to determine the inner nature, has its roots in antiquity but was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers, thinkers, and artists through to the early 20th century. Most often the principal focus was on facial traits that revealed evil, criminality or mental illness. One especially visually arresting exponent was the eccentric Austrian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who made numerous self-portrait busts between 1770 and 1783 to exemplify a wide variety of pathognomic facial grimaces (which were caused, he believed, by the 'pinching' of malign 'invisible spirits'). Karl Henning's late-19th-century busts of two brothers with microcephaly are emblematic of the contemporary fixation with the physical appearance of the mentally ill. Jean-Martin Charcot, a Paris based neurologist, used photography to picture the visible manifestations of neurological disorders in facial expressions and gestures, primarily in female 'hysterics'. "Behold the truth", Charcot himself said of his studies of mental illness, produced at La Salpêtrière hospital from 1888-1918, claiming their transparent, impartial, and scientific documentation of the troubled mind via the pictured body.


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