Rembrandt, med school shitposter

Known mostly for his paintings, Rembrandt was much more than that. A rebel, a polyamorous partner and lover, and (least well known) the first medical school shitposter.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632 oil on canvas
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632 oil on canvas

Dr. Tulp was a well known anatomist and teacher. As the lead surgeon of the guild of surgeons in 1632, the “honor” of performing the one autopsy permitted every year in the Netherlands that time was his. The body was that of a convicted and executed criminal, Aris Kindt, whose crimes were the theft of a loaf of bread and two guilders from a widow.

All this is well known. What most observers miss, however, is Rembrandt’s criticism of medical teaching at this time (and, one could argue, to the modern era and today’s classrooms).

Look again.

Correct. None of the surgeons, not even Tulp himself, are looking at the cadaver. They are, instead, focused on the book in the lower right (except Tulp), very likely a copy of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), the first modern anatomy book author (and whose Cyprus pilgrimage and death should get its own post here at some point).

Rembrandt’s paintings never left anything to artistic license. While the scene itself is pure fiction, a man like Tulp would not have opened a cadaver himself and, instead, employed a preparator to do the actual work, the message is intentional: the man on the table is not of interest to the people opening him up. Instead, a 100 year old book, a dry account of Vesalius’ own autopsies in Switzerland, is the focus. Book learning instead of closeness to the very subject of a physician’s daily work.

The image was a thinly veiled shitpost and ill received by those involved, including Tulp who never forgave Rembrandt. He rode, nevertheless, on the waves of this fame and his own medical anatomy books’ success to mayor and governor at the Netherlands Committee of the Republic in Den Haag. His mayoral and governmental portraits were done by Paulus Potter, a young painter in his 20s who often mocked Rembrandt’s style.

Some might argue, that little has changed since the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Medical school focuses on book learning, not patient centric practice. As a non-shitposter I’ll refrain.