Sample Paper on Depictions of the Human Body during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The human body has featured prominently in paintings, sculpture, and body and performance art. The visual representation of the human body has been used to define individual identity, establish sex and gender ideals, experiment with the nature of representation, and even to negotiate power. The role and meaning of the human body in the art are interconnected to cultural forces, including religion. The representation and interpretation of the human body have evolved across cultures and eras as prevailing social, economic, and political influences. For instance, Christians in the West believed that the body is sinful and shameful, therefore, created illustrations that strongly emphasized weakness. Cultures like the Hindu India who perceived the body as a divine figure emphasized the beauty of the human body in their caricatures. The human body was also depicted differently in the medieval (middle age) and renaissance ages. In the Middle Ages, the body was portrayedusing stiff and fully clothed images while in the Renaissance, artists used more active and moving figures.

Medieval Images

In the Middle age, people developed an interest in anatomy and the functions of the body. Medieval artists made illustrations for the anatomical and medical understanding of the human body. Most of the drawings of this period were schematic and majorly unnatural due to the lack of or insufficient knowledge of anatomy. Additionally, the images were crude because they were for teaching purposes (Lefrere and Berche 220). Eminent historians contend that medical illustrations in the medieval period were precisely meant as heuristic models thus did not need to be realistic to serve their pedagogical goals (Lefrere and Berche 220). The pattern of unnatural drawings was depicted even after the introduction of human vivisection in the 13th and 14th centuries. Nonetheless, more medieval artists started creating more natural images later. These anatomical illustrations were delivered through ancient manuscripts and textbooks. From 1853 to 1938, Karl Sudhoff extensively studied Funfbilderserie, a five-picture schematic pictures of the muscular, nervous, arterial, osseous, and venous system. This series was later included a pregnant woman with a crude illustration of a fetus in the uterus, and sometimes an illustration of the genital organs (Lefrere and Berche 220). Sundhoff’s examination of the pictures led to the understanding that the pictures were also illustrated in the Far East. The researcher also opined that picture series was carried down to the medieval period from antiquity through Arabic transmissions (Lefrere and Berche 220). These crude anatomical representations, which later included the eye, the gravid uterus, and the female viscera, were meant for instruction and teaching purposes. Breslau Codex 3714 and Copenhagen manuscript (MS 1653) in the 9th and 12th centuries respectively depicted images of the fetus as well as twins in the uterus (Lefrere and Berche 221). Another manuscript, the Provencal-Basel series, illustrated the female viscera. This time, the image of the uterus had six chambers although most medieval writers emphasized that the uterus had seven chambers. More manuscript emerged, showing the female viscera. A Leipzig manuscript codex of 1122 in 1400AD depicted a nude female figure in a slightly squatting posture with the legs drawn apart to show the genitals (Lefrere and Berche 222). Furthermore, a book by Choulant portrayed a fetus in an upright posture with hands on the face. Circles were used to illustrate the eye in the medieval period and its posterior and anterior was illustrated by a perpendicular line that divided it in half. In the Sloane manuscript (MS 981), there was a cross-section of the head with a drawing of an eye at the center. Around the eye were circles and semicircles.


The introduction of human vivisection transformed anatomic illustrations in the 13th century. Even though the Catholic Church condemned human dissection, scientists and artists went on with the practice to attain a clearer view of the human body (Harris and Zucker). Since a pig’s anatomy was thought to resemble that of a human being, the animal was often dissected for anatomical teaching. In the 12th century, Emperor Fredrick II at Salerno granted physicians the right to dissect pigs because he believed that the study of anatomy on the cadaver was important (Lefrere and Berche 221). In the 13th century, the practice of human vivisection began in Bologna for legal purposes and later spread to other parts. The first autopsy was performed by Guglielmo da Varignana in a case of suspected poisoning. These resulted in images of human dissection although they were often schematic because the practice was still in its infancy and as mentioned above, for pedagogical purposes. Mondino de Luzzi, an Italian physician, often regarded as “the restorer of anatomy, wrote the first modern texton human anatomy(Lefrere and Berche 221). However, the text focused more on how to perform human vivisection and less on the anatomical illustration. The book, interestingly, did not contain any images. Nonetheless, artists later made woodcuts in the representation of Mondino’s instructions on dissection. Mondino later wrote another edition that featured an image of the heart and a cadaver with an open thorax and abdomen.

Anatomical dissections paved the way to clear depiction of the human body. Henri de Mondeville, a French surgeon, wrote a manuscript with 13 anatomical images of the dissected cadaver (Lefrere and Berche 222). During this time, scientists and artists could remove the skin to expose the superficial muscles and dissect the cadaver from the back to show the viscera. Mondeville further introduced the use of visual aids in his anatomical lectures. His illustrations were followed religiously and used for teaching for close to two centuries. Guindo de Vigevano made a seminal contribution towards anatomical representation by expanding on Mondino and Mondevillle’s work. His text-based, diagrammatic images were painted to enhance the viewing of the technique of dissection. His pictures depicted improved depictions of the spinal and cranial cavities, as well as the abdomen. The diagrams also showed a striking thoracic cavity withan improved shape of the heart (Lefrere and Berche 222). These images represented a better technique of dissection of the abdomen, thorax, and the head. Between the 14th and the 15th centuries, an army surgeon, Hieronymus Brunschwig, published a book on wounds. The book provided details of gunshot wounds and was accompanied by woodcut illustrations. The biggest milestone in the medieval representation of the human body was the labeling of the human body in the 15th century. Johannes de Ketham, a German physician, edited a collection of medical writings known as the Fasciculus Medicinae (Lefrere and Berche 223). The collection featured woodcuts of anatomical features, labeled part of the body, scenes of dissection, figures to indicate injury and disease, as well as the appropriate sites of applying the treatment. Signs of the zodiac were used to mark the sites of vivisection. Other illustrations featured in the collection were a sick man with names of different diseases and their location, the wounded man with an arrow, sword, and stone piercings, and a pregnant woman with a crude illustration of a fetus in the uterus. As woodcarvings became prominent in anatomical depictions, Richard Helain, a Paris physician, provided skeletal plates, which were later printed on a single broadside or double sheets (Lefrere and Berche 224). More anatomical illustrations later followed including Magnus Hundt’s woodcuts of internal organs and brain anatomy by Laurentius Phryesen. Phryesen also illustrated the abdomen, the chest, the tongue, and the skeleton with names of the bones.

Religious Depiction of the Body in the Middle Age

Religion played an important role in the perceptions of the human body. In the Middle Ages, the three major religions were Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Cavero 152). These religions dictated ways of interacting with and using the human body. Bearing its foundation on the creation story of Adam and Eve and the fall of humanity, Christians viewed the body as sinful and deserving punishment. As a result, images of the human body were crude and covered since nudity was associated with sin. Moreover, Christian beliefs and practices such as sexual abstinence and fasting restricted sexual engagement among people during this period. Venerated bodies like martyrs, saints, and Virgins were banned from sexual activities for asceticism. The bodies were considered holy; thus, engagement in the sexual activity was seen as unclean. Christianity stimulated the study of anatomy. In ancient Rome, cutting open the human cadaver was taboo (Cavero 152). Dead bodies were believed to be unclean; therefore, contact was ritual pollution. It was also believed that touching the human cadaver was the disturbance of the dead. Christianity, on the contrary, had a different view of the human cadaver. Although Christians believed that the human body would be resurrected on the judgment day, less value was placed on the body after death (Cavero 152). In fact, according to the Christian teachings in the medieval period, God would resemble all the parts of the body during the resurrection. This belief allowed for practices such as embalming, which involved partial dismemberment of the body or in cases of a person dying far from home, different parts of the body would be buried separately. In a similar vein, these beliefs stimulated the study and illustration of anatomy. When universities were established in Europe in the 12th century, medicine was taught. Anatomical instruction in medieval universities extensively featured human vivisection (Cavero 154).

Dissection of the human cadaver was only to illustrate the authoritative text – Galen’s work. Galen was a Roman philosopher and a physician who wrote extensively on medicine. His work was highly regarded, and it was used to teach medicine in European Universities (Cavero 154). The philosopher believed that the body is the instrument of the soul and that each part of the body had been purposefully designed to match the characters of the soul. Galen believed that anatomical dissection not only illustrated the powers of the soul but also the outstanding artistry and skill of the divine creator. Human beings are the only animals with rational souls, and the organs symbolized the human being status, with the hand being a show of intelligence (Cavero 156). Although humans may not be as strong as other animals, Galen states that the hand can be used to make weapons, create traps, and other techniques to subdue the animals. The hand is not only helpful in survival but also in creating a political and social organization: man can use the hand to write the law, make items like ships, knives, and flutes. Galen extensively praised the human body and declared that such a perfect body had a creator because it could not emerge by chance. This declaration is in line with the Christian belief that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Galen made a seminal contribution towards anatomy in the field of medicine. In the universities, his work was used for illustrative purposes because it was believed that the physician had covered everything about human anatomy. In the 15th century, however, several medical professors in Italian universities, including Bologna and Padua, had begun dissecting the human body for research purposes (Cavero 157).

According to Katherine Park, the motivation behind the increasing interest in anatomy in the 14th century Italy was the female body, particularly the interest in understanding the procreation process (Lefrere and Berche 221). The century was characterized by population loss due to a plague epidemic. Therefore, Aristocratic Italian families wanted to produce heirs to continue their lineage, which spurred research in fertility and pre- and post-natal processes. The study of the procreation process was also geologically inspired since it was believed that Jesus Christ was placed in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Therefore, physicians started opening up the wombto understand this phenomenon, which shows how religion played a significant in the anatomical representation of the body.

The Depiction of the Human Body in the Renaissance Period

The renaissance period directly followed the medieval age. Artists in this era attempted to refine the anatomical representation of the human body. Artists collaborated with a physician to come up with lifelike sculptures that illustrated perfect bodies, unlike the crude representation in the medieval age. Artists like Leonardo Da Vinci Donatelo di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, Michalengelo Buonarroti Simoni, and Raphael Sanzio observed physicians performing vivisection to observed layers of muscle and bone structures of the body while physicians relied on the artists to draw the illustrations for the anatomical texts being created rapidly then. The above four Italian artists captured the individuality and beauty of the human anatomy exceptionally, and their works remain highly regarded even today. Donatello, who was known as the “master of early Renaissance sculpture,” created a more naturalistic, lifelike sculpture, David (Rigdon). The sculpture was symbolic to the Bible story of David, a young man who gained strength from God, to beat his giant opponent, Goliath. Leonardo is known for his title as the “ultimate Renaissance man’’ due to his tremendous contributions through the study of the human body (Rigdon). He dissected the human body in search of knowledge of how the body functioned and drew the parts of the body: both internal and external. The most famous work of Leonardo, according to Rigdon, is the Vitruvian Man, which is believed to represent not only anatomy but also geometry and astronomy. The artist strived to understand the human body first before putting it into art. He argued that most anatomical works of art were flawed, especially when the images illustrated movement. Therefore, he started creating images that perfectly illustrated the human body. The Vitruvian Man portrays the arms and legs in different positions and accompanies muscles reflecting the varying positions (Rigdon). Leonardo also presented many drawings of the internal organ, including the heart, the fetus in development, and the reproductive part. Most of his images, however, cannot be connected to portraiture since they lacked the face.

Michelangelo also illustrated the sculpture, David. His drawing was incredibly naturalistic with a demonstration of details like veins on the back of the hand. Although the sculpture is inspired by the Bible’s David, it is very distinct from that of Leonardo Da Vinci. Raphael gained his mastery in anatomical art from the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo (Rigdon). His famous drawing is the Two Men for the Victory at Ostia, which he created in preparation for a competition at Ostia. The human body in the drawing looked realistic than ever before, revealing Michelangelo’s skills in art and the knowledge of the human body. David was also sculptured by Donatello using bronze. The Medici family commissioned him to create the sculpture to be put in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi courtyard (Rigdon). He had made the same sculpture using marble, but the prominent family asked him to rebuild using bronze and make it look less like a prophet. The statue shows a nude male wearing a hat and boots, holding a sword. Nudity was embraced in most of the anatomical representations in this era due to change in religious beliefs. While in the medieval age the body was seen as sinful and deserving punishment, the renaissance Christians embraced the natural beauty of the body and perceived nudity as pleasing and natural. The sculpture gives more details of the story of Biblical David and Goliath, including a smirk on the face to show triumph.

Religion in the Depiction of the Human Body in Renaissance

The renaissance artists focused on illustrating the human body in accordance with humanism or naturalism. Although religion remained significant, it was no longer influential in philosophy (Rigdon). Education was disseminated on the foundation of Christian morals, but the content was not purely religious. Renaissance artists, therefore, placed the beauty of humanity over the concepts of divinity, which explains why artist freely created naked sculptures, unlike their medieval counterparts ho were keen to cover the body especially the reproductive organs. In ancient times, venerated figures like the Virgin Mary, the saints, and Christ were represented as symbols. In the Renaissance, however, these figures were created in the human form to show naturalism. Some depictions of Virgin Mary bore breasts to illustrate the natural form of a female body. The infant Christ was also illustrated in a more humanized form. This shift to humanization is reflected in the naturalistic and perfect anatomical illustrations of the human body. Furthermore, the divine figures were portrayed with different emotional expressions contrary to the abstract images of the medieval age.

Depiction of the human body in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance varied. Medieval art, inspired by the religious perceptions of the sinful nature of the body, created crude images that were clothed to cover the sin of nudity. The figures looked stiff, with no movement while the faces wore no emotions. Medieval anatomical art was less influenced by religion since humanization was emphasized. The figures in this era looked perfect and lifelike compared to the medieval ones. Artists created images that portrayed movement, and the faces expressed different emotions. While the medieval images were asymmetrical, those in the renaissance period were balanced both sides.



Works Cited

Harris, Beth & Zucker, Steven. “The Study of Anatomy.” Khan Academy. 2019. 7 June 2019.

Lefrere, Jean-Jacque. & Berche, Patrick. “The History and Illustration of Anatomy in the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medical Biography, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 219-221. 7 June 2019.

Rigdon, Amber. “The Influence of Anatomy on Renaissance Art.” LinkedIn. 2016. 7 June 2019