Vesalius's Renaissance anatomy lessons

Find more images from Vesalius's Fabrica in the Vesalius Gallery.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) is one of the most important figures in the history of anatomy. He was the author of De Humani Corpis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), a beautiful and revolutionary Renaissance study of human body. Born in Brussels, Vesalius was educated as a physician, and eventually became a teacher of surgery and anatomy. As a young student, Vesalius was so fascinated by the human anatomy that he stole the body of an executed criminal from a scaffold, taking it home to study the amazing structure of the body.


At that time, student physicians did not have to attend dissections as they do today. Instead, they were expected to learn from the teachings of the Greek physician Galan who lived between 129 and 216AD. For 1000 years after Galan's death almost no original anatomical inquiries were performed, mainly because the Church was against the dissection of human bodies. From the 1200s onwards, some dissections were carried out, but not many - surgeons had to rely on the corpses of executed criminals, and these were in short supply. Also, without fridges there was no way to preserve the bodies, so dissections could only be performed during the winter when temperatures were icy. Therefore, only a limited number of students would have had the experience of attending a dissection in person.


Vesalius's work brought a number of important changes to the study of anatomy. Most importantly, Vesalius repeatedly stressed the idea that students must not depend upon the teachings of their elders, but must explore the inner workings of the human body for themselves. The truth is under the skin, and is not necessarily hidden in dusty books.


Also, while working on his masterpiece the Fabrica he discovered that a number of Galen's teachings were wrong. This, he realised, was because Galen had taken his evidence from animal bodies and not human bodies. By delving into the workings of the human body, Vesalius was able to correct 200 previously unquestioned theories, for example that the lower jaw is comprised of one bone, not two as Galen's animal studies had led him to believe.


Vesalius's work is also famous for its detailed and beautifully drafted illustrations. The Humani Corpis Fabrica is a wonderful example of Renaissance art. Its illustrations show the complex formations of the muscles, nervous system, blood vessels, viscera and skeleton. During the Renaissance, scholars and artists throughout Europe were taking a renewed interest in the classical sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome, and so Vesalius was tapping into the spirit of the times. He employed a range of skilled draftsmen to work on the illustrations, including Jan Stephan Van Calcar, a student of the painter Titian. A number of the drawings in the Fabrica have used classical sculptures, such as the Belvedere Torso, as models. In many of the illustrations the figures are posing in worldly or dramatic positions, and often they stand before beautiful landscapes. In the famous 'muscle men' pictures (one of which is pictured above), the skin and muscles appear to be gradually unwrapping themselves, falling away from the bodies in order to reveal the complicated system of muscles beneath.