Vesalius and his De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a painting. Oil painting on vellum.



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SKU: 11868 PORTRAIT | Vesalius, Andreas Categories: , , , , ,

71×51 cm, vellum glued on a pine tablet. Modern frame, 86×65 cm. and support. Not dated not signed, but late XVII century and Dutch. Showing a man sitting or standing at a table, holding a book: ..Humani Corporis Fabrica…At the wall behind him: a drawing Ta(bula) V: at the table an inkpot and quill and a table cloth. Our painting comes from an antique shop in The Netherlands. No further provenance is available. We have bought it for its potential historical interest. After we bought the painting, we had it cleaned and its dark brown varnish removed. Some small retouches were applied where these proved necessary. Not the vellum but the pine panel under it had been busted and restored before. So we had a support structure made to the back of the frame of the painting to restrict any further motions of the panel boards. It can easily be removed. The restorer is Mr. John Post at Breda in the Netherlands. We consulted for background information from various national and international experts on Vesalius and obtained art historical consultancy and support from dr. Jeroen Grosfeld, art historian and former director of the city museum of Breda, The Netherlands. We have come to the conclusion that the painting, Vesalius and his De Humani Corporis Fabrica, was made in the XVII century in the Low Countries, as part of the decoration that illuminated a surgeon’s room in some town. THE MAN: One of the most famous physicians of all times is Andreas Vesalius or Andries van Wesel in Dutch. He was born in Brussels in 1514, studied first in Paris and Leuven, and later at the University of Padua, where he devoted himself to surgery and the anatomy of the human body. Basing his observations on dissections he implemented himself, he wrote the first comprehensive textbook on the anatomy of the human body. With the studio of Titian in Venice he had made revolutionary illustrations of the human anatomy, this probably in close cooperation with Titian’s pupil Johann von Calcar. (ca. 1499–1546). Von Calcar also made the portrait of Vesalius that, together with the illustrations, was incorporated in the first edition of ‘The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body’ commonly known as De humani corporis fabrica and was printed in Basel in 1543. That same year Vesalius presented his book to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who engaged him as his regular physician. He lived in Brussels until 1559 when he left for Madrid as a physician at the court of Philip II, the son of Charles V. On the way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he probably became ill aboard a ship and died in Greece in the year 1564. Vesalius revolutionized the study of biology and the practice of medicine. His work represented the introduction of human dissections into medical curricula and the growth of European anatomical literature. Due to his work anatomy became a scientific discipline, with far-reaching implications not only for physiology but for all of biology. THE PAINTING: Of a person as famous as Vesalius relatively many portraits must have been made through only maybe a dozen survive (i).  Not one of those is recognized as a portrait of Vesalius, for which he posed. The only life portrait of Vesalius is the one Jan van Calcar made. Van Calcar also drew all the anatomical parts that were engraved by Titian’s workshop in Venice for the Fabrica. The original portrait is lost but its image survives as the woodcut right before the text of his Fabrica starts. From this example, most painted portraits have been derived. This also is the case with the painting we recently discovered and which is hereby presented. No doubt one recognizes Vesalius in the mirror image of the before-mentioned woodcut. In the painting, Vesalius looks older than in the van Calcar woodcut (published 1543). The face, the highbrow, and lining of his hair, beard, and mustache all match. He is dressed in a kind of overall, over his normal clothes, as is the case in the Van Calcar woodcut: his work suit.  At the table, we see the pot of ink and quill, like in the Van Calcar print. Recognition is further supported by the book Vesalius holds, the quill pen in the inkpot which qualifies him as the author of the book, and at last the depiction of a dissected hand hanging above this, a variant of the dissected arm in the Van Calcar portrait. But the book and this image, do they perhaps tell us more about any special meaning or suggest a context for this portrait? The book is bound in parchment with a decorated title page or frontispiece on the cover. Did the artist perhaps use an example of such a frontispiece in one of the editions of Vesalius’s Fabrica? Perhaps the frontispiece of ‘Andreae Vesalii Anatomia’, edited in Venice in the year 1604, served to some extent as an example. If so, then our painting is made after 1604. But two details of the book’s cover are confusing. The title of the painted frontispiece is the original one but not completely correct since the first word ‘DE’ is replaced by ‘AB’ followed by three quotation marks. Also, the date, ‘ADMDLII’ (1552) is from a different edition of the Fabrica, published in Lyon. But that edition is in octavo and does not carry such a frontispiece. Are we looking at a constructed frontispiece, meant perhaps to convey a message? It is worthwhile looking in some more detail at the frontispiece of the book cover. The title is surrounded by illustrations of both the instruments and the results of dissection. Dominant is the skull (cranium) at the top. Could it be that the skull represents the surgeon, the anatomist? The bones of his shoulders (clavicula) and arms embrace the title and seem to hold the man and woman dissected. His instruments are being sterilized with alcohol and fire. From its ocular openings (orbitum oculis) a cloth streams towards and holds the instruments used for the dissection. These instruments are two different saws, a hammer, a trephine, and a skull drill. The corpse of the woman seems intact except for the left arm which has been taken off. The male corpse misses both arms and his abdomen is opened, much like it is on the title page of the 1543 edition of the Fabrica. Under the image of the female corpse are further instruments: a forceps, a spatula, and a bistoury. Under the image of the male corpse are the contents of the thorax: heart, lungs, aorta, and trachea. Overall the book frontispiece strongly summarizes what the book has to offer: an anatomist, his instruments and the results of his work, the parts of the human body, the ‘Fabrica” of the body.  There is an intriguing possibility to explain the hair and beard on the skull on the left-hand side (ii). The abundant curling of the hair, the retreated hairline, and the presence of the beard: is the artist suggesting the skull is Vesalius’s own? We are not aware of any painting where the skull carries hair and a beard and cannot think of any other reason why our skull is covered with hair at one side than to suggest that the skull is Vesalius’ skull. TECHNICAL aspects of the painting. If we take a closer look at the technical side of this work of art we can better understand what we see. The picture frame is a recent addition. The painting itself was done on vellum, first drawn in sepia ink and then filled in with oil paint. It was then glued to a panel of boards of pinewood. The vellum used provided a firm grounding that also offered protection against movements of the pinewood support. This is an indication that the painting might have been part of a wood-paneled wall or a door. The light shade of the back of the panel probably also is an indication of this. There is no signature nor are there stylistic specifications that can help to identify an artist or a school. The painter who made this is an anonymous craftsman, a very skillful one at that. Probably he worked somewhere in the Low Countries in de seventeenth century. A painting like ours might have been part of a surgeon’s room like those seen in many towns in the Low Countries of the seventeenth and eighteenth century (figure nr.4,5,6). They were used for the storage of medical instruments, consultations, and meetings. In a room like this, a portrait of Vesalius will have granted extra respect to the profession and the work of the physicians and surgeons. Although some surgeon’s rooms in The Netherlands have been preserved, none has a painting of Vesalius. Our painting must be qualified as a rare and precious remnant, the more so as it seems to be more than just a portrait. Emphatically it is the portrait of the famous physician, of his work as an anatomist, and also of his work as an author.  i) Spielmann, M. H, The iconography of Andreas Vesalius (André Vésale) anatomist and physician, 1514-1564, Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, Research studies in medical history no. 3, London, 1925 / ii An artist would say the right side of his head, a physician would say the left side of his head. Artists would define sides by what THEY see, doctors will define the sides by which side of the PATIENT is meant.