Treasures from the Rare Book Room: Anatomy as Art

There is probably no other medical discipline so tightly tied to art as anatomy. The link between the two disciplines is bilateral. Ancient sculptor Myron applied his knowledge of anatomy to render the perfect movement in his sculpture, Discobolus. And without artists would we have the incredible illustrations that aid in the study of anatomy? Falk Library has a superb collection of old anatomical atlases. With the help of these historical books, it is easy to study the relationship between the artist and the anatomist. From the gracefully posed skeleton in the Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis (1543) and whimsical backgrounds in Albinus’s Tabulae Anatomicae (1747) to Gautier Dagoty’s color mezzotint in Myologie Complete (1746) and anatomical dioramas in Ruysch’s Opera Omnia (1721), the examples from our collection can prove that the dividing line between the two disciplines is sometimes blurred. When artist and anatomist are one, the old medical books truly shine.

Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), “the artist of death,” was a Dutch botanist and anatomist known for perfecting the methods of anatomical preservation of body parts used in teaching surgeons and midwives. He is believed to be the first to use arterial embalming. His secret was to inject liquid wax into blood vessels. Over the years, he perfected his liquor balsamicum to preserve the lifelike color, elasticity, and structures of the preparations which would be otherwise invisible. To offset the macabre captured in the glass jars, he artistically arranged the specimens and elaborately decorated the jar tops. The exhibit he created became a major attraction. The cabinets filled three rooms and each of them was turned into a work of art. The frontispiece illustration from his Opera Omnia (1721) gives an idea of how his museum might have looked.

Illustrations from Opera Omnia

The wet specimens in the jars, sold to Tsar Peter the Great, are still available in a museum in St. Petersburg.1 His amazing dioramas did not survive, and are known today only from the printed works. The four volume set of his Opera Omnia can be viewed in the Falk Library Rare Book Room by appointment.

1. Morbid Anatomy: Surveying the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death and Culture,

~Gosia Fort