The Anatomy Lesson: 400 years later

The anatomy course at my school has been over now for about 3-4 weeks. I do not miss the stench, or the exams, but I do think fondly upon the lessons and curiosity to explore the body. Anatomy is the basis of medical education, and the experience is powerful and sadly short-lived.

During anatomy, I often would think of a painting by The Master himself, Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” Other than not being dressed like Pilgrims, and having a little more light, there is no difference between the two lessons. Approach any medical student, show them this painting and they would be surprised to see how similar an anatomy lesson in 2012 is to one in 1632.

The painting itself is quite magnanimous, 5.5ft x 7.1ft. Rembrandt was about 26 years old when commissioned by the Guild of Surgeons of Amsterdam for the De Waag board room in 1632. As a brief aside, while backpacking through Amsterdam this past summer, I was fortunate to see De Waag for myself: an old city gate occupied by the Surgeon’s Guild for public lectures and dissections, where this very painting was likely created!

As stated earlier, this was a commissioned group portrait. The subjects, other than the corpse, were surgeons of the guild who, naturally, paid to be in Rembrandt’s painting (their names being listed on the form being held by the man in the back). The instructor is Dr. Tulip, who is giving his second autopsy in the theater. Tulip has the most light of any character, so you are drawn to his pose.

The lesson itself is the ventral side of the upper left forearm; Tulip is demonstrating presumably the superficial flexors of the digits. While some argue Rembrandt’s anatomical correctness, keep in mind that this is a group portrait of surgeons, and they were very satisfied with his work (enough so to recommission Rembrandt for another painting years later). The corpse itself is that of a convicted dutch criminal, common subjects for autopsies in that age. The shadow over the corpse’s face is not simply the result of the man leaning over to view the dissection, but a characteristic technique used by Rembrandt, known as umbra mortis (shadow of death).

Fast forward to today’s anatomy lessons, and the scene is almost identical. A crowd of medical students in scrubs hovering over the donated corpse, intently listening to the instructor identify and explain a muscle or organ. There is even a book, presumably a dissector (some sources believe De humani corporis fabrica) in the bottom right, just like the trusted Grant’s Dissector or Netter’s Atlas found in our labs.

Looking at this painting, and appreciating how similar the education is across centuries, is a humbling reminder of the intimate connectedness of the medical profession. While my anatomy course has ended, I can look at Rembrandt’s painting and be reminded of the experience, despite the almost 400 year difference.


P.S. This painting is very popular. Édouard Manet made small copy of it for his physician while visiting The Hague in 1856.


  1. How interesting to now know more about this beautiful painting and to see how little has changed over time! Thank you.

  2. Too true, you’ve certainly captured it, and how fascinating it is to realize how very little things have changed. Thanks for this. All the best in the rest of this year’s course work. Thanks as well for visitn my blog and for the follow! I’m looking forward to seeing more of your posts in the future.

  3. Love this description, so thorough. Also, thank you for mentioning the Manet copy! It’s so cool to compare Manet’s perception of the painting to the actual Rembrandt. Bedankt!

  4. The foreshortening in this is so strange! I always think of Aekins’ medical paintings first.

  5. Sharing your post with my sis who is a medical doctor. I’m sure she’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

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