The beauty of anatomy. 3/5.

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About this work


In this five part series, Dr Adam Rutherford investigates the close relationship between discoveries in anatomy and the works of art that illustrate them. In seventeenth century Holland, anatomy was the cutting edge of medical science, inspiring the great artists of the age to produce some of the most beautiful anatomical paintings yet created. Adam visits the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague to see Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). At the time Tulp was the newly appointed Praelector Anatomiae, the chief medical officer for Amsterdam. The corpse belonged to a criminal, Adriaan Adriaanszoon. Novelist Nina Siegal explains that Adriaanszoon’s illuminated and blemish-free body was in reality heavily scarred. Tulp is dissecting the muscles of the forearm; a choice of site which is likely to have been his own rather than Rembrandt’s. The hand was regarded as a divine work of natural engineering by Galen, Vesalius and Tulp alike, and Vesalius himself appears with a dissected forearm in the Fabrica. Rembrandt set up a studio in Amsterdam in his early 20s. At the time, Amsterdam was the largest and richest city in the Dutch Republic. The area attracted nouveau riche traders and merchants who wanted art that reflected their worldview. Rembrandt was known to work from animal parts, and an inventory of his house conducted after his bankruptcy in 1656 included four flayed human limbs. In the same year Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a second anatomy lesson; that of Dr. Deijman, who had succeeded Tulp as praelector. Only a sixth of the original painting survives. The corpse is shown undergoing a brain dissection, a procedure typically carried out on the second day. It may be that Deijman was looking for his soul; the philosopher Descartes had recently isolated the site of the soul in the pineal gland, situated just below the structures seen in the painting. Two of Rembrandt’s contemporaries painted portraits of Deijman’s successor, Frederik Ruysch. Adam goes behind the scenes at the Amsterdam Museum to view the works, one of which features Ruysch dissecting a newborn. The unusual choice of corpse reflects Ruysch’s position as chief obstetrician for Amsterdam. Ruysch pioneered ground-breaking preservation techniques which lent corpses the appearance of life. He is also famed for his bizarre dioramas featuring foetal skeletons. Adam returns to the Wellcome Library to view a print of one such work.


UK : BBC 4, 2014.

Physical description

1 DVD (30 min.) : sound, color, PAL

Copyright note

Tern Television Productions Ltd 2014


Broadcast on 27 August 2014.

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Michael Waterhouse; Tern Television Productions for BBC



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