Making the human body visible: anatomical maps and illustrations throughout history

Medieval View of the Human Cardiovescular System

Lately, it seems that I have quite neglected the “Art” related topics in my posts. Thus, I have decided to catch up on it. For today I chose 4 web pages which present different angles on how the human body was represented throughout the ages.

The first one is centered around the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera at The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/05/hidden-treasure-national-library-of-medicine/ . As the website advertises this volume, it will show the reader that vintage nurse uniforms, Darwin’s studies of animal emotions and Chinese war propaganda have very much in common.

Secondly, there is the world of the mapping of the body, the way its anatomy has been imagined in the last thousands of years. One very nice book (which I have personally hold in my hands) is “The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination” (by Julie Anderson,  Emm Barnes, Emma Shackleton, University Of Chicago Press 2012). If one skims through it, this fascinating variety of images from the Wellcome Collection highlights the rich repertoire of human body images: from Jewish house like images, to the DNA structure, nude medieval female figures or 16th century blood vessels (not forgetting medical magic, astrology or surgeries).
A similar display of images can be seen on the Designboom website, a collection of Persian, Arabic and Japanese “anatomical maps”.

Last category I chose refers to images of human embryos: http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/visibleembryos/index.html. This is the result of a project-exhibition of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, which took place during 2008 and 2010. To quote the website description, “By depicting imaging technologies and people engaged in image production, it emphasizes the work of making visible embryos.” The images which span a 700 years period are the result/witnesses of changes in medical paradigms and choices regarding the human body: from debates over generation, or collecting embryos, to publishing in wax and molecular takes on them. In other words, this is not a simple collection of pretty (or gruesome) images, but a contextualised study which tries to understand the process of image production and the conceptual perspectives that enforced it.

Photo source: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/images/anatomy.bd.jpg

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