Anatomy and Art: Renaissance Inquisition into the Human Body

Muscle Man, 19th century, papier-mache anatomical model, 47 x 14 x 6.5 in. Special Collections, Gettysburg College.
As Europeans explored the globe, they encountered singular beasts, new plants, exotic peoples, and extraordinary objects. Cabinets of curiosities exemplified Europeans’ interest with marvelous natural and man-made objects. The proliferation of such cabinets was a distinctly Renaissance phenomenon, a manifestation of the period’s inquisitiveness, its preoccupation with understanding all aspects of the physical world, and its emphasis on individual human achievements.[1] The human body and its physiology became the fascination of Renaissance naturalists and artists. In 1548 Renaissance historian and poet Benedetto Varchi compared the appreciation of anatomy to the study of art, because both exhibited the remarkable artifice to which men of culture were innately drawn.[2]

Engraving of the 17th-century anatomical theater at the University of Leiden in Holland

The practice of anatomical dissections for medical education became more prevalent during the Renaissance. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries university statutes in Florence, Bologna, and Padua and elsewhere decreed that dissections should be performed in the presence of students. Both a male and female body was to be dissected annually, with advanced medical students required to attend. The public anatomy was almost always performed in January or February due to the lack of refrigeration and normally lasted five to fifteen days.[3] The anatomy theater was constructed in medical schools specially to house public dissections. The exhibitions had a strong moralistic message, and were intended to make the visitor reflect upon the mutability of human life and ponder upon Man’s transitory state.

Ruysch painting.jpg
Johan van Neck, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch, 1683. Amsterdam, Historisch Museum.
Frederik Ruysch studied medicine at the University of Leiden following an apprenticeship with an apothecary. Even before completing his university studies, he had begun to work on the preservation of anatomical material, especially blood vessels, which he dried and treated with varnish.[4] He began teaching at Amsterdam University and trained midwives, permitting him to gather material which he prepared for his collection. His mounted preparations were placed in vials or large jars, which he sealed with lacquer and lead foil and covered with the bladder of a pig. Ruysch’s cabinet attracted many visitors including the young physician Herman Boerhaave, Amsterdam mayor Nicolas Witsen, artist Maria Sibylla Merian, and Russian czar Peter the Great. The czar was enchanted with the collections, spending days with the cabinet. He eventually bought the entire collection from Ruysch, displaying the cases in his Kunstkammer in Saint Petersburg. Ruysch is the subject of the Johan van Neck's painting Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch with Infant, which was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to valorize the skill and lifework of Ruysch.

Although public dissections were a useful learning tool, several factors made frequent dissections impossible. During the summer months, when dissection was not feasible, the anatomy theater was used as a museum. Various methods have been used throughout the history of medicine to circumvent the problems associated with the use of human cadavers, but the manufacture of models has been one of the most successful solutions. Models of the human body and its parts have been made of wood, wax, glass, and even preserved bodies. Using papier-mâché, naturalist Louis Auzoux constructed animal and human models to include parts that could be disassembled, allowing a hands-on experience, which he called “clastic”. The first complete clastic human model was completed in 1822, and five years later, Auzoux opened a factory for the production of anatomical models for medical, biological, and veterinary schools.[5]

Muscle Man is a papier-mâché anatomical model that was used at Gettysburg College by Professor Stahley in his Anatomy, Physiology, and Personal Hygiene course in the late 1890s. It is 47 inches in height and was designed to be displayed vertically on a stand. Some muscles and blood vessels are labeled by name and others are numbered. Half of the face depicts the underlying muscular system and the other half shows the cranium and teeth. The top of the cranium may be disassembled to show the brain, which may also be removed to reveal the bottom of the cranial cavity. The anterior and posterior abdominal-thoracic plates are removable. Consistent with a majority of anatomical models of the time, the model does not have genitalia. Although the original accompanying document has not survived, directions for dissecting larger models came with each specimen. The model displays small hand symbols. According to a description by Auzoux, “an ordinal number preceded by the [hand] sign indicates that the piece upon which it is placed may be detached.[6] Anatomical models are still heavily used in the classroom today. The Anatomy and Physiology courses at Gettysburg College rely on plastic anatomical models to demonstrate the skeletal and muscular systems, sensory organs, and the human body in its entirety.


[1]Hood Museum of Art, The Age of the Marvelous (Hood Museum of Art, 1991), 82.
[2]Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (University of California Press, 1994), 209.
[3]Paul F. Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (JHU Press, 2004) 328-329.
[4] Luyendijk-Elshout, A.M. “Death Enlightened: A Study of Frederik Ruysch,” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 212, (1970): 121-126.
[5]Antonio Valdecasas et al., “Understanding Complex Systems: Lessons from Auzoux’s and Von Hagens’s Anatomical Models,” Journal of Biosciences 34, no. 6 (December 20, 2009): 835–843.
[6] Dr. Auzoux, 'Brain Model on a Large Scale,' The American Journal of Psychology 4, 1 (1891), 132.