Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Amsterdam, 1632. Reproduced by kind permission of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

This group portrait by Rembrandt shares certain features with the earlier depiction of Banister’s lecture: the close, all-male setting, a shared moment, the centrally-positioned cadaver, and – at its foot, extreme right foreground - the large textbook lying open for consultation (though in practice the event would have been more public). The painter’s hand vividly depicts the Dutch anatomist Nicholaes Tulp lifting up and exposing, with his intact hands, the tendons and muscles of the dead man’s forearm and hand. The seven impeccably dressed surgeons (whose names are listed in the scroll held by the man at the back) look on in rapt attention, as the story of the mechanics of the body unfolds. It is an image full of drama and suspense, communicating vividly the renewed interest in the human anatomy in the Renaissance, and the excitement about the knowledge to be found in its interior. It is also suggestive of the methods of knowing in the period, which combined objective demonstration, pictorial and verbal representations, and scientific theories – some of the men focus on the corpse, one on the lecturer’s face and others on the book which presumably offers diagrams and descriptions of the relevant physiology. Tulp was one of Pieter Pauw’s students in Leiden before moving to Amsterdam to become Reader of the Guild of Surgeons. There was one public autopsy conducted by the Guild every winter, and the occasion recreated here can be dated precisely to 31st January 1632. The body belonged to an executed criminal, Adriaen het Kint, who had been hanged earlier on the same day, according to the custom of using criminal corpses for study. But the dead male body in the period’s painting, with the light focusing it as the object of gaze, was usually that of Christ. In this work by Rembrandt, art shows science stepping into the spotlight and almost taking the place of religion.