Christian History Home > 2002 > Issue 76 > Interior Design
16th-century students of anatomy saw the hand of God in the intricacies of the body.
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Nicolaus Copernicus's re-mapping of the macrocosm wasn't the only sixteenth-century breakthrough on a scientific frontier. Equally stunning was a bold trek into the microcosmic world of our physical selves.
This voyage, led by the anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), seemed to bring humankind into a new and intimate knowledge not just of our physical being, but of our spiritual being as well.
Born in Brussels, Vesalius likely received his elementary education from the Brethren of the Common Life, a Roman Catholic spiritual association that trained Thomas à Kempis and Desiderius Erasmus. His studies took him from the great universities at Louvain and Paris to that at Padua, which appointed him professor of anatomy and surgery the day after he received his M.D. in 1537.
While at Louvain, Vesalius had participated in one of his first human autopsies, an event that set the course of his future research. The ancient anatomist Galen—rediscovered in the Renaissance—had derived his human anatomy from observations of animal subjects. But in his 1538 manual Six Anatomical Tables, Vesalius proclaimed a new method: researchers of human anatomy should dissect and observe actual human subjects, and develop terminology and illustrations to match their observations.
After 1539, Vesalius performed a series of dissections—usually on cadavers of criminals or indigents, or members of dedicated patron families. He recorded some of the results of these and sketched them for detailed rendering in the lavish woodcuts of his Fabric of the Human Body (1543).
Some anatomists reacted harshly, defending Galen. But most church leaders received Vesalius's findings without a murmur. (In fact, a notable 1540 dissection had taken place in Bologna's Church of San Francisco.)
When we read Fabric, we begin to understand this favor of the church. In the first chapter, Vesalius exults over the created wonder of bones: "God, the supreme Architect, in his wisdom formed material of this temperament, placing it beneath the surface as a foundation for the whole body." In Book II, he urges his reader to "sing hymns to the Creator of the world, who produced from such a tiny space [the jaw muscle] in charge of such an important task." In Book VI, he passes over the question of why so much water flowed from the side of the crucified Jesus, "for I must not in the slightest degree upset the complete veracity of the authentic Gospel of John."
Vesalius's theologically informed approach to anatomy was not unusual in his time. Many sixteenth-century researchers studied the body to gain insight into the soul. Indeed, anatomy entered the curriculum of Lutheran Protestant schools not through medical schools but as part of the study of philosophy. And the man who introduced anatomy to the University of Wittenberg's curriculum in 1535 was a theologian—Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).
Melanchthon admired Vesalius's work and shared his sense that this new, inner frontier bore the stamp of divinity. The theologian wrote this poem in his copy of Vesalius's Fabric:
"Think not that atoms, rushing in a senseless hurried flight,
Produced without a guiding will this world of novel form;
The mind which shaped them, wise beyond all other intellects
Maintains and fashions everything in logical design …
Accordingly it follows that the body's several parts
Came not together aimlessly as if devised by chance:
With purpose God assigned to each its own allotted task
And ordered that man's body be a temple to Himself …
Wherefore as man reflects upon the marvels in himself,
With reverence let him venerate this Maker and his Lord,
And keep the temple undefiled, immune from any stain,
Lest wrath divine in vengeance come and hurl it crashing down."
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