The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Art and Legacy of Vesalius

Quinta musculorum tabula

Image from De humani corporis fabrica, 1555.

"Genius lives, everything else is mortal"

Influenced by Mannerism, a late Renaissance style of art, the figures of the Fabrica are meaningful as well as representational. The figures have emotion and personality in defiance of death. Many skeletons are styled after the classic European art theme, memento mori, in which they look as though they are contemplating their own mortality.

Most famously, the woodcuts dramatically and artistically represent the different layers of the body, beginning with an active "muscle man" gesturing before a bustling Italian villa. As the bodies are stripped of muscles to show the different layers, the landscape behind them increasingly declines into a state of decay, an example of Renaissance symbolism. The body's posture also slumps as each layer of muscle and fat is peeled off.

Humani corporis ossium simul compactorum anteriori ex facie expressio

Image from De humani corporis fabrica, 1555.

Even among its critics, the Fabrica ushered in an era of discovery and refinement of anatomical knowledge. The decades that followed brought many changes to the teaching of anatomy. While the roles of lector and dissector remained separate in many dissection rooms, Vesalius' methods introduced the importance of the evidence of the senses over the authority of the past.