Under the skin: illustrating the human body

As a species we are fascinated by the contents of our complex and fragile bodies. Identifying and understanding what lies beneath has been central to medical research and training for hundreds of years.


Throughout this time, physicians, scientists, surgeons, artists and printers have developed tools and techniques to identify and understand what is hidden inside the human form. From ancient woodcuts to high-tech MRI scans, their greatest challenge has been to represent the layers of the three-dimensional body on the two-dimensional screen or page.

The results – masterpieces of artistry and technology – that capture the beautiful and unsettling shapes, structures and textures of our organs, bones and tissues. The drawings, books and objects from the RCP library, archive and museum collections captured beautiful and unsettling interpretations of the shapes, structures and textures of organs and tissues. 

Two dissected heads by Jacques-Fabien Gautier D'Agoty, 1748, Credit: Wellcome Collection
Tabulae neurologicae, Scarpa, 1794

Amongst the many highlights of the exhibition was a complete edition of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, published in Basel in 1543. As one of the most famous books in the history of medicine and art, Vesalius' depicts the human body with a level of detail, accuracy and creative flair completely unknown before. Nearby, a 17th century work produced in London displayed a flayed man standing, as if still alive, holding up his own skin. The features of his face still clearly visible on the ghost-like surface. Equally as shocking was a brightly coloured engraving by Jacques Gautier d'Agoty from 18th century Paris. In it, two heads are shown, as if still living, lying closely together as though in a bed. At first sight they appear to be drawn with the accuracy and sympathy of a portrait, however on second glimpse it’s clear that their skulls and facial features have been dissected. 

 

A truly remarkable image created in Persia (present day Iran) in 1656, used feathered lines to indicate the wide spread of nerves throughout the body, various colours tracing the different branches and routes of the fibres. Nearby a Japanese manuscript from the 1820s delineated internal organs alongside a representation of acupuncture points relating to key systems of the body. From Victorian Scotland a startling 1893 photographic image showed a horizontal cross section of the human brain, seeming to visually presage the scans of modern age.

Items on display spanned from 15th century representations of the naked body to 20th century ultrasound images of a 20 week foetus. The exhibit peeled back the surface of human existence to reveal what lies beneath, cataloguing the various tools and styles humans have employed to chart the body through the course of seven centuries. 

About Thinking 3D

TThinking 3Dhinking 3D is an interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of three-dimensionality and its impact on the arts and sciences. The innovative project puts the minds of the 21st century in touch with those of early practitioners exploring three-dimensionality.

The programme includes a year-long series of exhibitions, events, public talks, gallery shows, and academic symposia intended to incite dialogue between artists, art and book historians, mathematicians, astronomers, geometers, earth scientists, botanists and chemists.