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ISSN: 1233-9687
Polish Journal of Pathology
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vol. 70
Review paper

Autopsy in European art of the last five hundred years. A short story

Roman Nieczyporowski

Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk, Poland
Pol J Pathol 2019; 70 (1): 57-61
Online publish date: 2019/04/24
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We will probably never know who and when performed the first autopsy, but Galen’s (c. 130-200 BC) interests in anatomy prove that the desire for scientific knowledge of the human body has been with us since ancient times, despite it being a taboo subject in European culture for a very long time. There were many reasons for it, however this is no place to discuss them. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that from late antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages there was no favourable atmosphere for dealing with autopsies. No wonder, then, that the artists did not take up the subject. The situation changed at the beginning of the Renaissance. Fascination with classical antiquity has triggered interest in the human body and its anatomy. This subject virtually did not exist in art before, however at the beginning of the early modern period it became so popular that it was embraced by such outstanding artists as Leonardo da Vinci, but also young adepts of painting and sculpture. This situation can be largely credited to Alberti, who in his work De pictura published in 1435 urged artists to study anatomy. But the interest in anatomy was also fuelled by the situation in Europe in the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. It was a period that in a special way accustomed people to the phenomenon of dying, making death something close to every human being. Epidemics of plague and other contagious diseases, hunger and war, although they had occurred earlier, were particularly striking in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In addition, there were public executions that gathered large crowds of people. All of that caused people to become accustomed to the sight of demise, which did not let itself be forgotten, and the spectre of death constantly occupied minds, becoming a frequent topic of conversation. Philosophy and theology directed their attention to the matters of death. This resulted in increased interest in the technique of “dying well”; ars moriendi or ars bene moriendi became an extremely popular motif in art and literature at the end of the Middle Ages. One of the concepts closely related to that motif was danse macabre, dance of death, which consisted in depicting a procession of people of different social backgrounds led by a personification of death. Initially, it was depicted as a mummified, dried-out human body with a distinctive rib pattern, a head with empty eye sockets and without a nose, which is perfectly visible in the famous painting by...

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