Anatomy, Technology, Art, and Culture: Toward a Realistic Perspective of the Brain

Daniel D. Cavalcanti, M.D.; William Feindel, M.D., C.M.; James T. Goodrich, M.D., Ph.D.; T. Forcht Dagi, M.D., M.P.H; Charles J. Prestigiacomo, M.D.; Mark C. Preul, M.D.


Neurosurg Focus. 2009;27(3):E2 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


In the 15th century, brain illustration began to change from a schematic system that involved scant objective rendering of the brain, to accurate depictions based on anatomical dissections that demanded significant artistic talent. Notable examples of this innovation are the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci (1498–1504), Andreas Vesalius' association with the bottega of Titian to produce the drawings of Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (1543), and Christopher Wren's illustrations for Thomas Willis' Cerebri Anatome (1664). These works appeared during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, when advances in brain imaging, or really brain rendering, reflected not only the abilities and dedications of the artists, but also the influences of important cultural and scientific factors. Anatomy and human dissection became popular social phenomena as well as scholarly pursuits, linked with the world of the fine arts. The working philosophy of these artists involved active participation in both anatomical study and illustration, and the belief that their discoveries of the natural world could best be communicated by rendering them in objective form (that is, with realistic perspective). From their studies emerged the beginning of contemporary brain imaging. In this article, the authors examine how the brain began to be imaged in realism within a cultural and scientific milieu that witnessed the emergence of anatomical dissection, the geometry of linear perspective, and the closer confluence of art and science.


With what words O writer can you with a like perfection describe the whole arrangement of that of which the design is here?

Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1487)

The impetus for the dramatic progress in the illustration of the brain that began during the end of the 15th and into the 16th centuries, and that was elaborated upon during the next 2 centuries, has not been well explained. It has been suggested that the change began when anatomists concentrated on dissections of the ventricles and explored the existence of the rete mirabile, thus departing from the medieval cell doctrine of the brain.[8,36] Other interpretations cite general increase in the level of intellectual curiosity during the Renaissance, or advancements in printing allowing illustrations to be included alongside descriptive text.[5] Still others have suggested that the reemergence of human dissection as a legitimate field of inquiry underpinned the change in representation.[3,8,10,30,35,36] We suggest, however, that beyond the association between artist and anatomy, such analysis must interpret the manner in which the brain was illustrated as a function of the broader, interrelated changes occurring in science, art, and culture between the 15th and 17th centuries when the artist became dissector and vice versa. During this period, the brain becomes the seminal organ with which artists and anatomical science become preoccupied because it has been at the center of the search for man's soul for centuries. As such, the importance of the brain is not as just another organ for illustration; it is the organ that undergoes the most radical change in philosophy and art for true 3D representation.

Intriguing recent work on the history of concepts of death and attitudes toward the human body cites the advent of a "culture of dissection,"[3,36] which began in the 1400s and lasted at least 2 centuries. This work has provided a cultural context in which to trace what were, in the beginning, often illicit activities of the great anatomists and artists of the period, linking their work to a wider cultural and scientific discourse that embraced Renaissance art. Most artists became involved with anatomy during the Renaissance and thereafter to help them portray the human body naturalistically, although there is meager information on how artists actually acquired anatomical familiarity (Fig. 1).[9,30] The most important junctions of progress in brain illustration occurred with the real, intimate involvement of the anatomist as artist, or anatomist with artist.

Figure 1.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman, oil on canvas, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1656). The dead man in the picture is Joris Fonteijn, known as "Black Jan," a thief who suffered the death penalty. As was usual in such dissections, the stomach and intestines were dissected before the brain. Gysbrecht Calcoen, a master of the Amsterdam guild of surgeons, assists and holds the calvaria while Deyman removes the falx. Note that Rembrandt chose to paint his signature on the dissection table, likely indicating his intimate familiarity with such scenes.

Technical advances of this period had a far-reaching affect on art. Linear perspective, for example, introduced and mathematically modeled during the Renaissance, changed the way the human body was seen and shown. Perspective was not only an artist's or architect's tool, it also was a way of examining and recording the natural world. The philosophical influence of perspective appears to have made the most radical change to illustrating the brain, of all of the organs. In fact, before this change the brain was not really illustrated; what was shown were diagrams of the cell doctrine. Thus, depictions of strange, imaginary schematics gave way to revelations as the result of artistic, cultural, and scientific/technological influences.

Although we often believe that the past is a seamless web, in which changes point chiefly in a single direction, history also shows us that change may be varied, complex, multidirectional, and even contradictory. Accordingly, we suggest that any exploration of the fundamental changes that occurred in brain illustration must consider the cultural and scientific contexts of anatomical dissection, art, and optical science, which together dramatically affected how the natural world was understood and rendered. We address these interconnected notions in the following sections with artistic examples as they relate to the development and progression of realistic brain illustration.