Before There Was Reality T.V. There Was……….Anatomy Lessons?

“Hey honey, what do you want to do this weekend?” “Oh, I definitely want to go see Mrs. Smith dissected. I heard she had some WORK done!” This is a possible discussion between a couple during the Renaissance. (Somewhat kidding here) During that time public dissections were very popular. In fact, you might even purchase admittance to one as a marriage present. Can you imagine? You payed to gain entrance to these dissections per visit or per corpse and they lasted up to a week. Many small dissection theaters were built all over Europe to cater to this public fascination. Since the theaters were made of wood, many did not survive.

Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt Van Rijn
Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt Van Rijn

One such public dissection was captured for posterity. The affair would have been crowded with doctors, lawyers, intellectuals,etc. In other words, if you were important you would be there. The painting is called “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was actually a real man who was a member of the local Amsterdam surgeons guild. Dr. Tulp apparently commissioned this painting and chose a young artist in town to render his likeness. You might have heard of him? His name was Rembrandt. Only twenty-six at the time Dr. Tulp chose this young artist probably thinking to do him a favor and give him an artistic break. Dr. Tulp chose well. In the video he narrates “Every Picture Tells a Story” art historian Waldemar Januszczak explains that Dr. Tulp was not his real name. His real name was Claes Pieterszoon. Nicolaes is apparently a more proper version of Claes. Tulp means “tulip.” At this time, tulip mania had broken out in Holland. Apparently Dr. Tulp hoped to cash in on some of the notoriety. Later Dr. Tulp was to go on to be mayor of Amsterdam four times. Ironically, though Tulp hoped to achieve notoriety, he only did so because he became a subject in a painting by Rembrandt. There is a lesson in humility for you.

Also ironic is the fact that even though Dr. Tulp meant himself to be the “star of the show” he is at least rivaled, if not upset by the corpse. We also know his name too. A petty criminal, his name was Adriaan Adriaanszoon, also known as “The Kid.” He was convicted of armed robbery and hanged for stealing a coat. Well, sort of. It was just the “last straw” in a series of criminal acts. The hanging took place on January 16, 1632. The city of Amsterdam permitted only one public dissection per year and it had to be an executed criminal. Adriaanszoon was the lucky model and he gained a notoriety beyond his wildest dreams. He is, however, immortalized as a criminal. His body literally shines a ghostly white and is face is partly in shadow. Perhaps this is to indicate every man is a mixture of good and bad. Or maybe it is to indicate “the shadow of death.”

Dr. Tulp has started the anatomy lesson with the arm, which is probably not the likely place where most anatomy lessons would have begun. The body has apparently already been prepared for dissection. Dr. Tulp’s fingers are pressed together to show that if you lifted the muscle indicated, the fingers would come together. Januszczak notes that in art the ability to paint the body accurately “separates the men from the boys,” and Rembrandt proves himself here to be a master. In the lower right corner of the painting you see an enormous open textbook on anatomy.

Surrounding Dr. Tulp you see a gaggle of doctors. Some of the men are leaning in, observing closely and hanging on to every word of Dr. Tulp. Some of the men seem to be staring off into the distance, maybe a little bored? Two men stare straight out at the viewer. One of those holds a paper, which lists the names of the men in the painting. Most likely everyone paid to be in the portrait. The way it works is the more you pay, the better the position you secure in the painting. This is also how it worked in Rembrandt’s famous portrait “The Night Watch.” Rembrandt has also signed his full name, as opposed to his initials.

As Januszczak points out in the video, there is something missing from this portrait, and that is the audience. Where is the larger audience viewing the autopsy? Simple. The audience is you. Rembrandt cleverly makes you a participant of the painting, not just a viewer. If you notice closely, Dr. Tulp isn’t looking at the men in the painting. His gaze extends out beyond them to the invisible audience. Also, one of the two men who look directly out at the viewer is pointing down at the corpse. This Januszczak says, is to illustrate the fact that death is the inevitable end of every man. So Dr. Tulp got his portrait for posterity and Rembrandt got to make his point. Death IS the end of every man. The only question really is what kind of man have you been? Good or evil? After all, in the end it is only the anatomy of the soul that really counts.