Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
IC Reporter
  Issue 96, 3 July 2000
News
Sir Richard Sykes to be next Rector «
IC scientists create first transgenic malaria mosquito «
Beit Quad project update «
Your chance to toast the new Senior Common Room «
Top accolades reflect high standard of teaching «
The Queen's Birthday Honours List «
Wellcome Trust appoints new Governor «
Glaister joins new transport board «
Lords seek advice from management students «
Rector lambasts government for consistent underfunding «
Universities dismayed by threat of science cuts «
O&G topping out ceremony «
 
Features
Reconstructing Rembrandt: the grim reaper exposed «
Review: Golden Jubilee for lunchtime concerts «
 
Regular Features
In Brief «
Media Mentions «
Noticeboard «


Reconstructing Rembrandt: the grim reaper exposed

Rembrandt's painting, The Anatomy of Dr Deijman, was a scientific impossibility, the result of immense artistic licence, a work of fiction largely created in the artist's head.


Laurence Garey, professor of anatomy in the division of neuroscience at ICSM, and William Schupbach from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, join Dr Mei Guan, prosector in the division of neuroscience and Kate Whitley, Wellcome Library photographer, to illustrate the possibility of a 17th century dissection
The painting, the fifth in a series of group portraits of doctors and surgeons performing public dissection in the 17th century, will appear at the Hayward Gallery in October as part of an exhibition entitled, Know thyself: the art and science of the human body from Leonardo to now.

Currently on display at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the 1656 work shows anatomists, Dr Deijman and his assistant, Dr Calkoen, dissecting the brain of a man whose abdominal cavity is also exposed.

Laurence Garey, professor of anatomy in the division of neuroscience at ICSM, was asked by William Schupbach from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, to reconstruct the painting to show whether the dissection was possible.

Both spent two hours with Dr Mei Guan, prosector in the division of neuroscience, in the anatomy dissecting room at the Charing Cross campus with an embalmed cadaver.

Their findings were surprising. Rembrandt had eliminated at least a cubic metre of space between the patient's head and feet while the anatomist holding the falx, or 'scythe' - the membrane which separates the two hemispheres of the brain - had twisted it to face the audience and made it appear attached.

Creative licence
"The greatness of the work is that is looks totally natural but it's not. Rembrandt used enormous creative licence for effect with the fresh cadavar of a criminal who had just been cut down and whose identity he wanted to reveal," explained Professor Garey.

"To show the feet and brain in the same dimensional image is a work of genius but physically impossible. As our photographer discovered, the only way to record them together in the same shot was to stand on a ladder above the body."

The artist first created the work in his head in two halves, resulting in a piece of historical research, not a modern representation of surgical anatomy. "Rembrandt had the information but did not respect the perspective. The distortions represent the humiliation of the dead figure. Everything's been crammed in for effect."

Death motifs
The Anatomy of Dr Deijman, like other paintings in the series, focused on the moral effects of leading anatomy and medicine and was more concerned with educating the public about how fragile life is, added William Schupbach.

"Rembrandt frequently emphasised death motifs. The falx might have been chosen because the scythe is traditionally carried by Death and Dutch anatomy pictures were often composed as reminders of the inevitability of death.

"I can't think of any other reason why he'd choose to paint such an obscure protective tissue as the falx. This painting proves that no picture can be taken on trust," he said.

Their findings will be published in a book, to be published by Cambridge University Press to coincide with the opening of the exhibition.

 
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© Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 2000
3 July 2000