The Beauty of Anatomy s01e03 Episode Script

Rembrandt and Ruysch

We are our bodies.
We see the outside all the time, but that's less than half the story - the surface, the exterior.
We know far less about what's inside.
Heaven forbid that we should actually see our insides.
Most people go through their life without getting a look at their organs, and for good reason.
My lungs and kidneys and heart and bones and muscles, arteries and veins, they do their jobs unseen.
But for the anatomists, the doctors and artists who have struggled for centuries to understand how our bodies actually work, getting inside - dissection - was vital.
In this five-part series, I'll be investigating the beautiful synthesis between discoveries in anatomy and the works of art that illustrate them.
As a scientist myself, and someone who is fascinated by anatomical images, I want to find out exactly how anatomy has inspired art and art, anatomy.
And it is going to be my privilege to see some of the greatest works of art in the world.
In the 17th century, the Netherlands experienced an artistic and scientific renaissance.
During this Dutch Golden age, anatomy became not only the cutting edge of science, but fashionable as well, and it inspired some of the most beautiful representations of the anatomist's skill that have ever been produced.
Many of the great doctors and scientists and thinkers who drove this revolution have been largely forgotten, except in one sense.
Some of their dissections, their anatomy lessons, were captured in paintings, and the artists who painted them were amongst the very best, including Rembrandt.
So what was it that drew Rembrandt to anatomy? And why for that matter was carving up a dead criminal considered a suitable subject for high art? I'm in Rembrandt's home country, the Netherlands.
It was here that in the 1600s, at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, something very special happened to anatomy.
It became the subject of world-class painting, the kind of respected art people went to see in galleries.
When we think of Rembrandt, we tend to think of his portraits.
They exude a dignity and charm.
Portraits of people at ease with the world at a time when the Dutch enjoyed great prosperity and wealth.
But there was also another side to his art.
Rembrandt is universally recognized as one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art, but what is perhaps less well known is that he was absolutely fascinated by anatomy.
The painting I've come to see is being temporarily housed in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.
It was Rembrandt's first group portrait and represented a huge opportunity for the young artist.
Now, I've got to tell you that I've been waiting for this moment for quite some time.
The painting that we're about to see, I think it is fair to say, is my favourite painting in the world.
And I've seen it in prints and reproductions hundreds of times, but this is the very first time I'm going to see it in the flesh, and it is right in here.
This is The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt.
And it is so much bigger than I thought it was going to be! Good Lord, look at that.
It just glows.
The amazing thing about Rembrandt is his light.
But look how it is justit's illuminated.
Oh, wow! There is so much to say about this painting that it is almost difficult to know where to start.
But one of the things that I think is really striking about it and one of the reasons I absolutely adore it is its composition is kind of unusual.
It's not entirely clear what the focus is meant to be.
All of the surgeons, members of the Surgeons' Guild, who are learning from the great master dissector.
If you look at their eye lines, they're kind ofodd.
None of them is looking at the body itself.
You've got two in the middle who are overlooking the body at the book in the corner.
Now, we think that book is De Fabrica, by Vesalius, the 16th century anatomist.
At the back .
those two chaps are breaking the fourth wall, they're staring right at you.
Group portraits like this were generally commissioned after the appointment of a new praelector to commemorate his tenure.
And each of the surgeons would have paid for his place in the painting.
Obviously, one of the main focuses of the painting is the man in the hat.
That is Dr Nicolaes Tulp.
And he, at the time, was the praelector of Amsterdam.
This is 1632.
He is the chief medical officer for the city.
And it was he who commissioned the painting from Rembrandt.
The hat is important because it indicates Tulp's seniority over everyone else in the portrait.
And interestingly, Rembrandt initially painted the guy at the back, his name is Adriaan Slabberaan, with a hat.
And you can just make out the shadow of it.
It was painted out at Tulp's request in order to show that his status was higher than everyone else in the portrait.
Tulp was a relatively young man at the time, 39, which is my age.
But he would go on to make significant contributions to both medicine and science.
He was the first person to suggest that smoking was related to lung disease.
He was the first person to suggest that women with breast cancer should have the diseased tissue removed and drained, a mastectomy.
But he also went on to have a really significant political career.
In fact, he was mayor of Amsterdam four times.
Although group portraits of surgeons had been commissions before, Rembrandt's was unusual in that it gave such prominence to an entire dead body.
Nina Siegal is a writer in Amsterdam who recently published a novel based on this painting and the dead criminal, Adriaan Adriaanszoon, who is at its heart.
One thing that really strikes me is that because of Rembrandt's ability to paint skin tones, Adriaanszoon is just there, he just glows above everyone else.
I don't know whether that was deliberate that he should be the prominent figure, but that is what it looks like to me.
Well, in my research, I actually found that this criminal was a thief.
And everywhere that he went, he would be whipped or branded and his body would be scarred, basically, by his punishments.
And yet Rembrandt seems to have chosen to clean up the body, to make the body very bright and very illuminated.
When you look at the picture, you just can't help but your eye automatically goes to this dead man.
Do you think that was Tulp's idea or was it Rembrandt's idea, do we know? I believe that it was Rembrandt's idea, and it was a radical idea on his part.
I think we have to think of this as Rembrandt's attempt at redemption.
He has taken a common criminal, who would have been reviled in his own society, and turned him into a kind of saint or Christ-like figure, a Lazarus, somebody who is redeemed through science, essentially.
Over the years, much has been made about how accurate it is.
Where does this come from? Why is there such fascination with how accurate it is? You have to remember that this whole picture is a fiction.
Doctors, of course, and medical people want to look at it as a document of the existing medical knowledge of that time, but what it really is is a construction of Rembrandt's imagination.
If there was an anatomical lesson, they would not have started with the arm, they would've started with the torso and they would've cut out the belly first, cos those are the organs that decay fastest.
So we would not have seen this picture at all.
In fact, we would not have seen these men standing around in this way either.
They would have been in a theatre that was in the round that was about 200 to 300 people.
They would've all been standing over the railings and shouting and arguing.
So, in fact, the whole picture is a work of fiction created by Rembrandt to create a kind of harmony and to tell a story that he wants to tell.
For years, there have been debates about the anatomical accuracy of Adriaanszoon's arm.
In my view, it looks absolutely fine.
But the important point about choosing to focus on the arm is that Rembrandt and Tulp were making a statement.
If I straighten the finger out here, you can see the muscle, the tendon of the muscle moving.
So, if you can imagine if you have an inflammatory The arm had been an object of fascination for both the ancient physician Galen and his 16th century successor, Vesalius.
Well, the choice for the section of the forearm was clearly not Rembrandt's, it was most probably Tulp's because Tulp followed the example of the great physician of the 16th century - Andreas Vesalius.
In his book, Vesalius had himself portrayed with a dissected forearm.
And he named it the most important instrument for a doctor.
So in adopting this iconography in The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr Tulp, Mr Tulp shows himself as the new or reborn as Vesalius, in a way.
If we move slightly more distally, we come across this square-shaped structure here, where these tendons are popping out.
The hand was the instrument of instruments.
It was regarded as the most divine thing.
And Galen said, "This is a wonderful piece of natural engineering.
" Choosing the hand has got all that riding on it.
It relates to Galen, it relates to Vesalius and it relates to Tulp's own interest in what makes the human being divine.
So, Rembrandt's an amazing artist.
He is one of the people who can create these layers of meaning.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606.
He came here, to Amsterdam, when he was in his early 20s and set up a studio.
With 100,000 inhabitants, Amsterdam was the largest city in the Dutch Republic, and it was the richest.
There was money here, money to invest in universities and medicine and money to commission up-and-coming artists, like Rembrandt himself.
The Dutch Republic was really the centre of the world.
It was the most radical, the most dynamic economic and political structure that the world had ever seen, and that had consequences both for art and for science.
The new rich traders and merchants wanted art that would reflect their view of the world, and that's why you get these fantastic paintings of very ordinary people, of wealthy people but not of rich people, not of aristocrats.
So, in a sense, Rembrandt is actually reflecting the fashion, the zeitgeist of what is going on in Amsterdam at this time.
Very much so.
He is both representing the economic and social power that exists and also describing this beginning of this wave of discovery, of scientific discovery, that was going to take place throughout the Dutch Republic through the 17th century.
This wave of discovery saw people striving after new knowledge instead of relying on the wisdom of the ancients.
And Rembrandt himself was no different, particularly when it came to understanding anatomy.
Rembrandt lived and worked right there for 20 years He moved in just after he finished painting the Tulp Anatomy Lesson.
Now unfortunately, he wasn't very good with money, and he frittered away his cash.
He went bankrupt in 1656.
He had to sell this place to repay all of his debts.
Now as part of that process, an inventory was drawn up of all of his possessions.
And amongst the bric-a-brac of a painter's life, there were body parts - four flayed arms and legs.
Everything that you can see here is reconstructed from that inventory.
Rembrandt owned a range of curiosities, including exotic weapons and lion skins.
And he collected paintings, drawings, prints and casts.
The inventory is proof of Rembrandt's curiosity about anatomy and death, but it is not the only evidence that we have.
We also know that he visited local butcher shops and picked up animal parts, joints that he could study and sketch.
In 1656, the year of his bankruptcy, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a second anatomy lesson, this time conducted by a Doctor Deijman, who had succeeded Nicolaes Tulp as praelector of the Surgeons' Guild three years earlier.
Although Tulp was a skilled and modern anatomist, as a doctor, he remained loyal to classical medicine, whereas Rembrandt's portrayal of Dr Deijman seems to reflect a growing interest in new ideas.
Well, that is very different, isn't it? It is much darker, almost sinister.
And it certainly gives the impression of being a lot less staged.
Once again, the body being sliced up is that of a criminal.
This chap was called Joris Fonteijn, also known as Black John.
He was executed on the 27th of January, 1656, for multiple counts of burglary.
This painting has been hugely overshadowed by the Tulp Anatomy Lesson, and that is mostly because this is less than a sixth the original.
In 1723, almost the whole thing was destroyed in a fire.
This fragment is all that remains.
Fortunately, a preliminary drawing by Rembrandt does survive, showing that the corpse would have been surrounded by surgeons.
Based on this and by borrowing from other Rembrandt paintings for the missing head shots, experts at the Amsterdam Museum have created a digital reconstruction to show what the original painting might have looked like.
Ironically, the corpse on the table survived the fire more or less intact.
And that is because it contains much lead white, the element with which the white paint is made.
And the white of lead white is less sensitive to fire.
What is interesting about The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr Deijman is the element of time that Rembrandt incorporated here.
He gives us the impression as if we are at the second day of the anatomy lesson, because the thorax has been emptied, the perishable organs have gone and we're looking up to the head, with Dr Deijman performing the brain dissection, which is a great moment and a moment supreme of any anatomy lesson.
So, Deijman had to surpass his predecessor, Tulp, in choosing the right dissection.
And Rembrandt had to surpass his own anatomy lesson of 24 years earlier.
Now, this is very different from the Tulp Anatomy Lesson, and I think it is fair to say not quite of the same calibre.
But there are lots of very interesting things about it.
And the first is the position of the body.
Most anatomy lesson paintings have the body lying long ways, whereas Joris here is coming out of the picture.
This forced shortening of his limbs to give very large feet and perspective, almost like the cover of a comic book.
And the second is the position of his head.
You can't really get your head into that position unless you've been hanged.
It is as if Rembrandt has chosen this precise moment to capture a freeze frame of the anatomy lesson in action.
Deijman's hands are poised for the next step, which would have been to separate the two hemispheres in order to reach down into the core of the brain.
Once again, this harks back to the 16th century and Vesalius, whose instructions Deijman could well have been following and whose illustrations would have shown him what to expect next.
But Deijman may have been looking for something more.
One interpretation is that he was searching for Fonteijn's soul.
At this point in history, people had started to realise that the brain was an extremely important organ, and probably the centre of consciousness.
So the ideas about the soul and consciousness have moved from the heart into the brain.
And there were various models for how this might work.
And one of the most important have been written by Descartes, who was a French philosopher who'd isolated the site of the human soul in the pineal gland, which is situated just beneath the structures we can see in the Deijman dissection.
And it could be argued that this painting actually represents a fusion of the scientific and religious interests of the age.
Descartes' book containing this theory, Les Passions De L'ame, or The Passions Of The Soul, had been published in Amsterdam shortly before this painting was made.
It was the talk of the town.
This may explain the enormous popularity of the anatomy lectures given by Jan Deijman.
Records indicate that the dissection attracted several hundred spectators each day.
Rembrandt clearly excelled in this genre.
But he was not the only Dutch painter to tackle anatomical portraits.
Two of his contemporaries painted portraits of Dr Deijman's successor, a man who became praelector in 1666.
What is fascinating about these paintings is not so much the artistry itself, but the anatomists portrayed within them.
This guy was a character.
He was larger-than-life.
I have to admit, I'm a bit of a fan.
His name was Frederik Ruysch.
Now, throughout history, anatomy had been studied largely for intellectual reasons - knowledge for its own sake.
And it appears that Ruysch's motivation was slightly different.
He was primarily interested in studying anatomy in order to help treat patients.
This very practical use of anatomy is what shines through in the paintings made of Ruysch by the artist Adrian Backer and Jan van Neck, which are temporarily in storage at the Amsterdam Museum.
This is The Anatomy Lesson Of Frederik Ruysch.
He is standing there.
It was painted in 1670.
It is a painting that belongs to the famous series of paintings from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons.
And so this is Ruysch here.
The only one wearing a hat, of course.
In all of the paintings, the same.
And at this point in his career, how old is he? He is 32 years old.
But he had a really long career, didn't he? Yeah, he had a second painting done in 1683.
It was painted by Jan van Neck, and he is dissecting the corpse of a newborn.
Quite a disturbing image, this, at least for 20th-century eyes.
Why did he choose a newborn baby to take apart? It was very unusual to show a newborn instead of an executed criminal.
I think he chose to be depicted with a newborn because he was also the chief obstetrician of Amsterdam.
And in terms of what we can see in the picture, there is the baby, but then there is very significantly the placenta next to him.
And one of the surgeons is pointing to it.
What is the significance of the placenta in this picture? Ruysch carefully examined the placenta and he believed it was a special muscle in the wall of the uterus.
And he thought that this muscle was responsible for expelling the placenta after delivery.
That muscle doesn't exist, the womb does that naturally, the uterus does expel the placenta as part of birth.
Is that not what they were doing before this? No, sometimes midwives tried to pull out the placenta with a little bit of force, and this can cause severe haemorrhages.
And Ruysch taught them that you could patiently wait for the placenta to be delivered, and don't take the risk of those severe bleedings.
And did he have a positive affect on childbirth, on pregnancy and obstetrics in and around Amsterdam? I think so, because he was concerned with the education of the midwives and he got permission from the City Council to teach midwives and to perform exams for the midwives.
So he really transformed the level of obstetrical care in Amsterdam.
But as well as celebrating Ruysch's medical improvements, these paintings testify to his other great skill - his groundbreaking preservation techniques, which allowed him to conduct dissections beyond the traditional winter season and into the early spring.
When we look at the first Anatomy Lesson Of Dr Ruysch, what is more striking is that we are looking at an intact body, almost intact body.
Because he had a reputation as a wonderful preparer of dead bodies.
Ruysch wanted to have these bodies painted as intact as possible.
He used rapidly setting liquids with added pigments to create the effect as if they were not dead, but just asleep.
And again, this newborn baby is depicted as if it were asleep, with his little hand clutched around the umbilical cord.
Which is strange, of course, but wonderful, and moving even.
Ruysch wants to stress his reputation as an excellent preparer of bodies.
His reputation internationally was that he could raise the dead to life again.
I think the most important legacy left by Ruysch was he was able to both pickle various body parts and leave them in a state where they can still be studied today.
It is quite astonishing that nearly 350 years later, you can still look at samples which he created.
This is extremely important because in making these new discoveries about anatomy, people needed to be able to show what they had found.
And this is still used today, the same approach is still used today in teaching medical students human anatomy.
But there is another fascinating aspect to Ruysch's work, which I am returning to England to investigate.
It turns out that as well as being the subject of great art, Ruysch was himself an incredibly gifted artist.
If a little bonkers.
The Wellcome Library has a beautiful edition of engravings made from Ruysch's drawings of the anatomical specimens in his collection.
And this is it - The First Anatomical Thesaurus Of Frederik Ruysch, published in 1739, eight years after he had died, at the ripe old age of 92.
I'm just going to have a look at this fold-out illustration.
Wow, this is the most extraordinary, bizarre image.
I almost don't know what to make of it.
It has five skeletons of babies, which reflects Ruysch's interest in obstetrics.
And they're all doing different things.
The one at the top is actually playing a sort of violin made of, well, these branching structures.
He has got a friend down here who is playing some sort of wind instrument.
And you can tell they're babies because this one, you can see the fontanel, which is the gap in the skull before the skull has closed in newborns.
And they're all standing on this giant pile of what looks like rocks or eggs.
In fact, they are gallbladder stones.
All surrounded by these branching trees that look like foliage, but in fact, I guess, are representations of nerves and arteries.
It is almost like a Salvador Dali - totally surreal.
Or maybe a prog rock album cover from the 1970s.
But whatever, it is totally bonkers and absolutely wonderful.
Ruysch created dozens of these drawings featuring foetal skeletons and body parts.
But while they may seem bizarre, they do carry a solemn message.
The key message here is actually about trying to show not only his art, but also, these were kind of moral messages for the people of the time.
They were showing how short people's lives were and indicating that death could come at any moment.
And we can see at the bottom of this particular illustration that one of the skeletons is holding a mayfly, the symbol of a brief and ephemeral life.
Frederik Ruysch was a radical pioneer of anatomy.
And like his predecessors, Nicolaes Tulp and Jan Deijman, he challenged the medical status quo.
In Amsterdam, as the debate raged between ancient wisdom and modern medicine, anatomy emerged as the leading medical science.
During this Dutch Golden Age, our knowledge and understanding of childbirth, of cancers, of a whole host of diseases just leapt forward.
And because the people involved were so celebrated, they were painted.
Thanks to their research, their science, we have some of the finest works of art of all time.
And at the very top of the pile is Rembrandt.