500th Anniversary of Andreas Vesalius the Pioneer of Medical Illustration

Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish professor of anatomy at the University of Padua (1514-1646), published in 1536 a set of large anatomical woodcuts known as the Tabulae Six. This work has been extended and republished in 1543 as the famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which superseded any earlier works in the science and art of illustrating anatomy and became a standard document for many generations of physicians.

Vesalius‘ work is based on pure empiric research from dissecting human cadavers, which allowed him to correct some of Aelius Galenus‘ assumptions that were inherently part of the medical curriculum for hundreds of years. He closely collaborated with the Flemish artists Jan Stefan van Kalkar and also other important artists of his time to achieve high quality documentations of his dissections in terms of detail, appeal and instructional value.

Anatomists of the Renaissance were inspired by the cultural and social influences of their time and „dramatized, beautified, and moralized“ their works (Michael Sappol. Dream Anatomy. National Institutes of Health, 2006) . Images were composed of upright, living bodies being sometimes in emotional state and positioned in natural landscapes. The intent of their image compositions was to prevent observers from thinking of the death and let them exclusively focus on the subject anatomy (Benjamin A. Rifkin, Michael J. Ackerman, and Judith Folkenberg. Human anatomy: depicting the body from the Renaissance to today. London : Thames & Hudson, 2006.). Illustrations were arranged systematically to discover the anatomy from the outer skin layer to the deep seated organs without losing the link to the whole body.

Vesalius issued along with the De Humani Corporis Fabrica a flap system, the Epitome, consisting of prints from large woodcuts that could be used to successively cover and uncover layers of the body. Exact overlay of gradually augmented flaps allowed the reader to visually dissect the body and better understand its topology. Figures primarily showing the muscles of the body with peeled off skin were classified as écorchés. The écorchés, impressively documented the intent of obscuring the death and presenting the anatomy within a living context. Many écorchés have been designed as spreading the skin with their own hands to reveal the view onto their viscera.

Augmented Reality tries to follow the artful approaches of Andreas Vesalius and presents anatomy right at the human living bodies. Here, studying organs within the context of a real human body is no longer related to traumatic views into an injured patient undergoing surgery or a dead person being dissected. Augmented Reality has the power to make views into the body as natural as studying any other complex system and directs the foucs of interest on the subject.

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