Wednesday 9 October 2019


Born on this day in 1593 was the Dutch surgeon Nicolaes Tulp, a man who would be no more than a footnote in medical history had he not been immortalised in a great painting by the young Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. In the painting, Tulp (who changed his name from the more commonplace Claes Peterszoon to speed his rise to the upper reaches of Amsterdam society) stands at the right, expatiating on the anatomy of the dead man's flayed forearm and left hand, while his audience direct their gaze elsewhere, on the huge anatomical volume that stands open in the far right of the picture space.
 As W.G. Sebald points out in The Rings of Saturn, this flayed left hand is larger than the right and, bizarrely, the tendons shown are not those for the palm but for the back of the hand. It looks, in fact, like an anatomical illustration taken out of context and appended incongruously to this cadaver. And it is on this cadaver (of a hanged criminal called Aris Kindt) that Rembrandt the great artist focuses his attention, while Rembrandt the brilliant portraitist is focused on the worthies assembled around him. Iconographically this hanged criminal is the dead Christ, and Rembrandt paints him with due attention, with compassion, respect and tenderness. Our gaze, and our pity, are drawn to him in his naked mortality, not to the bizarre exposure of his tendons. That is what raises the Anatomy Lesson from a superb group portrait to a great work of art.
  Sebald speculates that our old friend Sir Thomas Browne, who was pursuing his medical studies in Holland at the time, was very probably present at this dissection. One wonders what he made of it – but of course what he was seeing was the event in life, not The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.


  1. The incomparable Dave Lull directs me to Rembrandt's other Anatomy Lesson (of which only a fragment survives) and what might, just possibly, be a portrait of the young Sir Thomas Browne... Here's the link –

  2. with our technological devices now we can learn dissection far distance. But I don't think this is the reason why there is not a new rembrandt...

  3. Quite so, Ricardo. There'll never be another...

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