Animate Skeletons and Living Death: The Art of Vesalius’s Anatomical Science

Claire Litt //

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 3.59.55 pm
A muscular anatomy from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.

Medical sciences study the corporeal aspect of human existence. Since our species’s emergence as anatomically modern humans in the Middle Paleolithic era, we have shared an experiential knowledge of what it feels like to have the body of a Homo sapien as the sensual medium between the physical world and our inner lives. While our biology has, largely, remained unchanged over thousands of years, our intellectual and visual concepts of what a body is have shifted over time and across cultures. A fitting analogy can be found in the writings of Renaissance painters who describe cardinals as wearing purple robes, compared to their paintings of cardinals wearing a colour that, today, is referred to as red. Surely early modern Italians saw the same colour that we see today in the cardinals’ portraits. In medical theory, the human body is the same, but in practice, the body, like the colour purple, is not what it used to be. 

     The modern body, for one thing, is medicalized. Representations of dead bodies are sterilized of emotion and regarded primarily as teaching tools. Gray’s Anatomy reveals inanimate human skeletons, laid out in unnaturally stiff positions, divorced from the people to whom they belong to allow for an empirical, scientific analysis. Western medicalization of the body harkens back to a significant event in the history of medicine: the divergence of the arts and sciences, which had hitherto been one entangled body of knowledge. Analyzing representations of skeletons and cadavers from before the first modern medical textbook, Vesalius’s De Humani Coporus Fabrica (1543), along with anatomical woodcuts from that book, reveals that art traces a diachronic corporeal experience, revealing humans’ self-conceptualization at incremental stages in history. More significantly, these images reveal that art was the means through which radical medical science broke free from standard medical doctrine to develop an anatomically correct understanding of the body. The divergence of art and science was preceded and, paradoxically, precipitated by a Vesalian moment in which they were closer than ever before.


Rogier Van der Weyden. 1435. “The Decent from the Cross” Oil on oak panel, 220cm × 262 cm. Muse del Prado.

 In medieval and early modern Italy the most common representation of skeletons were cartoonish, dancing personifications of death. The stark contrast between the levity of these scenes and their grim meaning provided a conceptual framework for death in a culture where it was omnipresent. Published less than a decade before De Fabrica, Han’s Holbein’s Dance of Death showed skeletons that danced, sang, and gleefully made off with their victims. While the gaiety of these scenes’ treatments of death is almost offensive to modern sensibilities, they would have been regarded by many a disgruntled peasant with a sort of schadenfreude. Death was the ultimate equalizer, and it was coming for wealthy nobles just as it was for the common poor. Dancing skeletons proclaimed “As you are now so once was I. As I am now you soon shall be.” Skeletons were not bodies to be studied but reminders of mortality. While in early medical textbooks skeletons were, as they are today, inanimate, they retained a stylistic similarity to the dancing skeletons in popular culture and drew upon their associated meanings, making the text both a teaching tool and a momento mori for its reader.

Thomas Gemini, (Copy from Vesalius’s De Fabrica). “Plate 3 Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio, aere exarata” London, 1st ed. 1545.

Vesalius’s anatomical dissections led to radical art that inverted its predecessors’ anatomies: instead of inanimate and inaccurate bodies, his skeletons were both animate and accurate. Vesalius’s bodies are not personifications of death, but rather real dead humans – a visual and scientific reconceptualization of the human body that required both artistic realism and hyper-consciousness to force readers away from orthodox, Galenic theory. The skeleton who mourns his own death projected life into the afterlife, creating a psychological double-removal. There is a desperate hilarity in someone who is already dead being able to grieve, yet its rendering is profound, not funny. These skeletons’ emotions validated the human corporeal experience as meaningful while their accurate anatomy was a testament to experiential knowledge—knowledge gained first-hand through experiments. Experiments, Vesalius affirmed, not Galenic doctrines, were to be the basis of modern science—but, oddly enough, it was this revolutionarily accurate medical text that also spurred the first self-conscious depiction of the death of an individual, as opposed to personified death, in early modern art.

The skeletons signaled the value of their human experience through copying expressive iconographic gestures that originated from famous paintings of their time. The skeleton bent over with its head in its hands imitates figures in contemporary paintings on the lamentation of Christ. The “intellectual” lamenting skeleton recalls moment mori or vanities portraits in which the person contemplates, with the aid of a skull or freshly plucked flower, the brevity of life.  The Latin inscription on the tomb beneath him reads “Genius Lives Forever, Everything Else Will Die” which was perhaps Vesalius’s intention in writing De Fabrica. While the skeletons were in mourning, the muscular anatomies imitated famous contemporary art. One cadaver points to the sky in an obvious reference to Raphael’s recently completed School of Athens, in which Plato points upwards to the realm of forms. Another cadaver peels off his own skin, mimicking the portrayal of St. Bartholomew in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, which is just down the hall from Raphael’s School of Athens. It isn’t hard to draw the connection when only years after these paintings’ completions, Vesalius’s anatomies appear in these exact poses. We are able to read their emotions because they are derive from these artworks and greater cultural understandings of bodily expression.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 11.08.42 AM
The lamentation gesture as seen in Rogier Van der Weyden The Decent from the Cross (1435) and a skeleton from De Humani Corporus Fabrica (1543).

 However, radical art only remains radical for so long. As Vesalius’s science became accepted into mainstream medicine, he no longer required the reader to engage with the text in a hyper-conscious manner. The art itself was replicated, accepted, and de-radicalized. Vesalius continued to make discoveries and correct the text of De Fabrica leading up to its publication in 1543, even while the anatomical woodcuts, which were realized to have errors too, had already been cut and printed. When De Fabrica was republished in 1555 it saw further changes to the text, but only minimal changes to the woodcuts. It was easy to reorder type, and much more expensive to have an artist redo all of the woodcuts. As a result, the text changed, and knowledge (Lat. scienza) advanced. The images became iconographic and, as they became obsolete, they came to represent cutting-edge science instead being that itself. The University of Toronto has a copy of the second addition De Fabrica (1555) that contains over one thousand annotations in Vesalius’s own hand. Unfortunately, Vesalius died, likely in a shipwreck near Greece, before the third edition was complete.

 Anatomical dissection made science more accurate and art more realistic, and allowed for art and science to develop in tandem to their culmination in the De Fabrica. Vesalius required art to help his audience re-conceptualize science. His skeleton and cadavers’ validation of experiential knowledge helped his readership accept his own methodology of experimental anatomical dissections. The paradox is that the use of art for the advancement of science also necessitated their divergence. While experiments are Vesalius’s legacy, art is not. Today’s medical text books revert to pre-Vesalian skeleton; objective and unconscious. Animation and emotion—in short, humanity—are banished. So too is death itself. In modern medical sciences, death is regarded as a topic as objects of rational inquiry and even, according to some scientists, a disease. Just as the body, death been medicalized. In North American Western culture, we have no dance of death and no lamenting skeletons, and so we must ask whether our secular and scientific ethos has made death stranger, more mysterious, and more sacred, than it was for Vesalius’s students.


Gemini, Thomas (After Jan Stephan Van Calcar). “Plate 3 Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio, aere exarata” London, 1st ed. 1545. British Museum. No. 1982,0515.1.

Unknown. 1624-1684. “Dance of Death: the Nobleman, after Holbein” Copy of Hans Holbein’s Woodcut series 1538. 1624-1684. British Museum. 1868,0822.7590

Unknown. 1530. Ein Contrafacter Todt. Augsburg, Germany. British Museum. No. 1874,0711.1982

Van Calcar, Stephen, and the Workshop of Titian. 1543. “Cadavar Drawing” from Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Van der Weyden, Rogier. 1435. “The Decent from the Cross” Oil on oak panel, 220cm × 262 cm. Muse del Prado. 

Vesalius, Andreas. 1688-1700. “Opus Typochromaticum” from De Humani Corpus Fabrica. Johannes Teyler. British Museum1871,1209.5124. thtps://


Kornell, Monique K. B. Roberts, and National Gallery of Canada. 1996. The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four centuries of art and anatomy. Ottawa, Ontario: National Gallery of Canada.

Neill, M. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Cazort, Mimi,

Olds Clifford C. and Ralph G. Williams, 1976. Images of Love and Death in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. (The University of Michigan Museum of Art.) plate  LVII 14N.

Parks, Katherine. “Introduction to De Humani Corporis Fabrica” Anatomiaitaliana. Acessed April 12 2018.


Vesalius, Andreas: Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, scholae medicorum Patavinae professoris, de Humani corporis fabrica Libri septem. Basileae : [ex officina Ioannis Oporini], [Anno salutis   eparatae 1543]. Universitätsbibliothek Basel, AN I 15, / Public Domain Mark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s