Jan Stephan van Calcar, frontispiece to Vesalius, De Humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel, 1543.

This famous engraving for the frontispiece of De humani corporis fabrica shows Vesalius resting his hand directly on the cadaver, which is positioned centrally. The similar gestures by Banister and Tulp in the later images seem designed to indicate that they shared Vesalius’ belief in the importance of first-hand, practical investigation into the body.

Vesalius taught at the University of Padua, and his work helped to inaugurate the modern science of anatomy. Lavishly illustrated with engravings from Titian’s workshop, his book was both visually stunning and intellectually shocking; most significantly, Vesalius highlighted a number of errors in the work of Galen, previously taken as authoritative. In this title-page, the sex of the cadaver is noteworthy: the dissected corpse is clearly a woman, and her exposed reproductive organs form the centre or fulcrum around which the energetic crowd coalesce.