Vesalius as anatomist

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)
Andreæ Vesalii suorum De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome
Basel: Ioanne Oporini, 1543

In this striking self-portrait, Vesalius shows his skills in dissecting the human hand. For a full account, click 'Extended captions' below.


This portrait is reminiscent of Jan Stephan Calcar’s portrait of Melchior von Braunweiler (1540), now in the Louvre, particularly in the pose and clothing, as well as a classical column that featured often in Calcar’s portraits. Calcar (c. 1499-c. 1546), a Flemish artist who worked under Titian, was known to Vesalius as he had made the woodcuts for Vesalius’s earlier publication, Anatomical tables (1538). Intriguingly in this coloured version, a round button coloured in gold on Vesalius’s right shoulder stands out. On close inspection, the additional detail of the inside of this button (in the woodcut, the pattern inside it is a double circle) appears like a letter 'C'. If it is a letter C, who or what might it refer to?

This portrait indicates the importance of the hand in two ways: first, Vesalius is shown using his own hands – with the instruments shown on the table – to undertake dissection; secondly, he is dissecting the hand, which was regarded as the ‘instrument of instruments’, and what distinguished humans from other animals. The structure shown here is the ‘tendon of the first muscle moving the fingers of the hand’ (flexor digitorum superficialis); it has a division through which an underlying ‘tendon of the second muscle’ (flexor digitorum profundus) passes through.

On the table is an ink point and a quill, next to which is a piece of paper with a text that begins ‘On the muscles moving the fingers, chapter 30’, though the text is actually chapter 43, book 2, in the Fabrica. A small knife can be seen underneath Vesalius’s right hand, and on the edge of the table is written ‘age 28, 1542’. Below this, in the shadow of the table, is written: ‘ocyus, iucunde et tuto (swiftly, pleasantly and safely)’, a motto associated with Asclepiades of Bithynia (c.124/9-40 BC) by Celsus (25-40 BC) regarding how to heal a patient. To view the whole of this book, click the Digital Library link below.
Text by Professor Sachiko Kusukawa

Extended captions