Banner by Matt Stoss and Emily Wen

Nosce te Ipsum - How Art and Anatomy Intertwine  

by Emily Wen 

Nowadays, when we think of anatomy, we think of “science”. We attribute the study of anatomy with physicians and surgeons. We think of our bodies as working machines - each part having a specific function and purpose. In contrast, studying anatomy during the 16th century was considered an intellectual past-time, a popular hobby based in science.  In fact, some of the earliest and most prominent anatomists were artists themselves. These artist-anatomists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, pioneered the discoveries of the human body and coined many of the anatomical terms that are still used today.

The Renaissance was a time for self-exploration and curiosity. During the “century of anatomy” it was common, even for regular Italian citizens, to read books on anatomy or to attend “Anatomical Theatres.” These were theaters that spectators of all different backgrounds (artists, future surgeons, and curious, usually wealthy individuals) came and watched public dissections of a human body (Pranghofer 2011). The entrance of these anatomical theaters often displayed the motto “Nosce te ipsum:” Know thyself (Science Museum).

Later in the 16th century, the study of anatomy became more like a science, and was used to compare humans and animals to try to find the “ideal body” and to analyze what makes some “superior” over others. Pathognomics was an older view of anatomy and focused mostly on the foundations and structure of the human body and used to determine the “soul” of individuals. A pathognomist would look at bone structures and attribute the appearances to the quality of that person’s soul (Stafford 1997). On the other hand, the newer view, physiognomics, focused more on the “air” of a person. A physiognomist would look at the subtleties of actions, the attitudes of a person, the clothing they would wear, and their exterior, in addition to the structures inside, when considering the “soul” and personality of a person (Stafford 1997). This kind of view point essentially stated that the human body was a mirror that reflected both their genetics and their environment (which still applies to the nature versus nurture debate today).

Artists during in the early 16th century were extremely influential; their printed illustrations inspired many. Interestingly enough, artists were also the pioneers of studying the anatomy of the human body. Some of the most famous artists at the time were Da Vinci and Michelangelo. These talented artists didn’t get their understanding of human figures, composition, and color theory out of nowhere; they had to study these techniques and skills through practice. Motivated artists, through the direct and uninhibited dissections of the human body (done in secret and usually on criminals), created very intricate and scientific drawings of skeletons, muscles, veins, organs and so on (Pranghofer 2011). Some artist-anatomists, such as Vesalius, were more stylish in their anatomical illustrations by adding scenery, props and creating interesting and dynamic poses. Regardless of the style, art was an important step for generating interest in studying the anatomy of the human body. It was only till later, after the use of anatomy as a tool of art, that anatomy started to pick up as a “scientific” study.

The relationship between human anatomy and art in the late 15th century and the early 16th century flourished. Why would so many artists study anatomy? At the time, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo believed that knowing the inner body structure was the key to knowing how to create correct proportions, muscles, and figures of both males and females. It is evident in their paintings, sketchbooks, and sculptures, that these two extraordinary artists were heavily influenced by their study of the human figure and human anatomy. For example, Da Vinci’s sketchbooks were filled with anatomical notes. These anatomical notes are surprisingly accurate and extremely detailed. Not only that, many of his studies of anatomy greatly influenced important anatomists of the time, such as Vesalius (who was known for his brilliant illustrations of anatomy and for his correction of the prominent and ancient anatomist, Galen) (Bambach, 2002). On the other hand, Michelangelo’s David was a more artistic sculpture that showed astounding male physique and muscles in a relaxed position. Even the simplest actions, such as pointing or standing seem to rely on the complex relationships and functioning of the muscles, bone, and skin.

The human body is dynamic. While simply standing or sitting, there are many muscles and bones being used that, when incorporated in art, make a person seem realistic and full of expression. It is hard to just draw a “regular” standing man without understanding the anatomy behind the muscles that enable them to stand. By studying the human body through dissections, skeletons, écorché models (models that showed the muscles of the body without the skin), artists during the Renaissance elevated their artwork of the human body to the next level.

To this day, artists that do portraits or human sculptures also study anatomy. It is common for aspiring artists to spend hundreds of hours studying human anatomy and doing figure studies. Despite the similar goal in understanding the human figure, there are differences between Renaissance artists and modern artists. The famous Renaissance sculpture of David by Michelangelo demonstrates David in a nude pose, with intricate detail and focus on the muscles, hands and face. This enormous statue makes use of marble and carving to give it its complex details. This type of medium was common for sculptors during this period.

Modern artists have long since vied away from the standard stone and marble as a common sculpting medium. They are starting to use photography, 3D modeling, and other creative and nontraditional mediums, such as LEGOs, dominoes, trash, flowers, food and so on to creatively express their visions. For example, Nathan Sawaya uses LEGOs as his choice of artistic medium. In one of his most well-known pieces, Yellow (2006), a yellow LEGO bust of a man is looking upward and holding open his chest as yellow LEGO pieces spill out (Karlin, 2013). Another example of a contemporary artist would be Lisa Nilsson. Her work with quilled paper presents anatomical cross-sections of the human body and was displayed at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia back in January earlier this year. Each of her pieces contained intricate and delicate cross-sections of the human face, organs, skeletal structure, and tissues (Mutter Museum, 2017). Both Sawaya and Nilsson used unconventional forms of creating works of art that still convey the knowledge of anatomy.

The curiosity and passions of artists during the Renaissance built the foundations of our current understanding of anatomy. These anatomical and artistic discoveries are evident in paintings starting from the Renaissance till now. The next time you contemplate a portrait or a sculpture in a museum, consider thinking about the structure of the artwork like an anatomist.

***For more information about this topic, I recommend taking Honors Literature and Science (ENGLIT 0612 and ENGLIT 0699), taught by Jeff Aziz and Jake Dechant.