photo by Meghan Strell
On a cold January day, above the meat
market in Amsterdam, Dr. Nicholaeos Tulp addressed an audience of 300
or so. Gathered 360 degrees around they comprised of learned men, teachers,
students, and a general public who had paid five guilders to witness the
event. In front of him lay the draped form of a fresh corpse. This was
the anatomical theatre of the seventeenth century.
He was, in his own time, known as the cartographer and biographer of a certain stomach valve and author/publisher of a series of medical books chronicling mid 1600’s medicinal plants and medical oddities.
Dr. Tulp and Rembrandt
Tulp is also credited for bringing Rembrandt up from obscurity in Leiden and into the light of Amsterdam society. Rembrandt’s painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” (1632), which was composed “live” during one of Tulp’s lectures, depicts the dissection of the criminal Aris Kindt, who had been executed and condemned to public dissection by the Surgeon’s Guild of Amsterdam.
In the painting, Tulp is surrounded by members of the surgeon’s guild, who in their lace ruffs and fine cloaks, are depicted in their finest attire. Tulp demonstrates the dissection of the forearm, as they look on, not at the body, but at an open anatomical atlas across the room.
Through his dynamic composition and use of chiaroscuro, Rembrandt captures the intensity and excitement of the moment of discovery. Rembrandt’s painting became something more than a snapshot of a particular winter’s evening. It shed a new light on the age of discovery.
Dr. Tulp finished his work as anatomist in 1652, a few years
after the death of his oldest son, Peiter, who was a doctor and the heir
of Tulp’s medical knowledge. But he remained an important figure
in the city of Amsterdam, in his new career as a magistrate and lawmaker.
It’s a bit ironic that Tulp became a man who sat in judgment of
criminals who may have been condemned to death and public dissection.