Drawing Death: The Age-Old Relationship Between Anatomy And Art

By Londonist Last edited 32 months ago
Drawing Death: The Age-Old Relationship Between Anatomy And Art

A pathology technician and curator at Barts Pathology Museum, Carla Valentine encourages the use of the collection for artists and artistic projects. As Carla explains, art and anatomy go hand in hand, and have done so for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci is so well known as an artist, many have forgotten he was a skilled anatomist too, frequently dissecting cadavers in Florence. He created such a huge volume of anatomical work that when he left his heir the task of having it published, it proved too voluminous to be completed. Da Vinci's skill was in depicting the mechanical functions and forces of the skeleton and muscles; this began what would become the modern science of Biomechanics. One source states that da Vinci was startling in his accuracy; “The drawings and notation are far ahead of their time, and if published, would undoubtedly have made a major contribution to medical science.” Funnily enough, with current prejudices, this artist would not be allowed in some pathology museums.

Anatomical study of the arm, (c. 1510)

There was a reason for this type of artistic study of the dissected form: those studying medicine and anatomy needed to work from dissected cadavers in order to learn, yet cadavers were few and far between. Drawings supplemented learning in the same way that medical books aid students now, and the efforts of those creating these studies were sometimes revolutionary. Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) from 1543 was instrumental in refuting many of the assumptions made by Galen on the human form. Galen was a Roman physician operating in an era when human dissection was prohibited. Instead, he dissected animals such as dogs and monkeys, theorising that human anatomies would be similar (which in many ways they weren’t). Galen's logic remained uncontested for 1,300 years, until Vesalius came on the scene with his desperate dissections — he carried several out by stealing hanged corpses from the gallows — and attention to detail, overseeing all the drawings, engravings and printing. Finally, students and the public as a whole, had real knowledge of the human body.

Image from Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica,

Coming much later was the well-known Gray’s Anatomy — first published in 1858, and still a popular tabletop tome. Henry Gray worked at St George’s Hospital in Tooting and was certainly a talented prosector, aided by the fact that the Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed him to dissect bodies of the unclaimed dead from workhouses and hospital mortuaries. It was in fact Gray's partner, Henry Vandyke Carter, who illustrated the now-iconic book — yet he wasn’t mentioned on the cover. The publishers of the first edition wanted to ascribe joint authorship of the book to Carter, but Gray objected. It’s only recent editions which give the artist his due.

Gray’s Anatomy 1977 edition

Before cameras, potted specimens and body donation programmes, art was the way in which students not only learned anatomy but people in general recorded death. Barts embraces the marriage of anatomy and art; it frequently collaborates with London based Art Macabre, which holds creatively themed classes all over the city and provides attendees with free art materials and refreshments. Barts previously held the event 50 Shades of Pathology in which it explored colour and how it relates to death and disease. This proved so popular, Barts will repeat the event in November as part of the Royal College of Pathologist’s National Pathology Week.

Image via www.deathdrawing.com

Another upcoming collaboration in July explores the images of Death and the Maiden in which a beautiful woman is often depicted with a skeleton. Expect a free deadly ‘Mortini’ cocktail if you come to this event!

Image via lozzybonesart.com

Also in London, Dr Lucy Lyons — Barts Pathology Museum’s current artist in residence — coined the term ‘slow looking’ for the classes she teaches to medics and the public alike. These artistic engagements with pathology specimens encourage a more contemplative relationship with the intricate beauty of the human form and are so popular that even those intimate with the subject, such as surgeons, attend.

Dr Lyons and Carla Valentine recently collaborated with UCL on a funded research project Drawing Parallels utilising contentious foetal specimens. At one point they presented seven different groups of people with potted specimens, photos of those pots and Lucy’s own depictions of them. The findings were very favourable: the pots themselves and the drawings were considered useful and preferable. Conversely many described the photographs as cold and one dimensional: a wonderful testament to the value of the artist in anatomy.

Image via www.lucylyons.org

With this in mind the pair began to collaborate with London-based illustrator Lauren Hellier (Lozzy Bones) on a project aiming to reproduce many of the museum’s specimens as simple line drawings to bring out their salient features. This resulted in a new website for the museum and some unique merchandise which really engages people with the collection and opens their eyes to the potential that still exists when anatomy and art are combined.

Images via www.lozzybonesart.com and Barts Pathology Museum

If you’d like to draw the specimens in the museum then look out for Barts' special art based events.

Last Updated 23 June 2015