In 1632, a 26-year old Rembrandt produced a jarring painting titled The Anantomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. In the painting, a doctor is depicted dissecting the left arm of a subject. The doctor, Nicolaes Tulp, was born Claes Pieterszoon in 1593 to a wealthy and prominent Amsterdam family. The name “Tulp” refers to the tulip, the national flower of The Netherlands and a word that in English would later serve as a convenient acronym for the Calvinist theology that under girded Tulp’s scientific worldview. At the age of 18, Nicolaes entered the prestigious Leiden University to study to become a physician. After graduation Tulp rose to prominence both as a doctor and as a politician. By the age of 30, he had already obtained the title of magistrate in Amsterdam, and he became the Praelector Anatomiae of the Guild of Surgeons when he was 45.

In the 17th Century, doctors were far from the most respected and trusted individuals. The jobs of barber and surgeon were often held by the same individual until the 19th century. We still see the remaining vestiges of these barber-surgeons in the red and white barber poles of barber shops which represented the blood and bandages of their trade. Surgery during this time had an expectantly high failure rate, and they gained the reputation of being butchers. One story that Tulp described in his book Observationes Medicae describes how a blacksmith named Jan de Doot performed his own Lithotomy (the removal of a bladder stone). Not willing to suffer under the care of the barber-surgeons, Jan cut out his own bladder stone which was the size of an egg. No information is provided for how long he survived after the surgery, but it is evident that the people of 18th Century Amsterdam were suspect of the skills of their surgeons.

Jan Jansz de Doot by Carel van Savoyen, 1655. Courtesy of Leiden University Medical Center, Anatomical Museum, Leiden, Netherlands

Rembrandt’s painting is unusual for many reasons. Though it was allowed for a respected doctor to perform such an anatomy lesson, the dissection of a human body was not a common practice at the time. The Dutch Reformed Church found the disrespect of the dead to be deplorable, and they only allowed the corpses of convicted criminals who were considered to be outside the faith to be used for dissections. Despite this, the Dutch scientists studied under more favorable conditions to scientific pursuit than those within the Roman Catholic Church. Around this same time in Italy, Galileo Galilei was defending the Heliocentric understanding of the universe against the censorship of the Roman Catholic Church and, as a result, he was suspected of heresy and forced to recant. The Dutch scientists of this era were allowed to examine the inner workings of the human body even if that permission was granted only sparingly.

Typically, the surgeons performing the recently permitted anatomy lessons would begin by studying the vital organs in the chest cavity, as these were the most interesting and also the most perishable parts of the body. It is very peculiar for Rembrandt to paint Dr. Tulp performing a demonstration on the forearm. As the chance to observe the vital organs in such a well-preserved state would be quite rare, why would Tulp decide to dissect something so mundane as a forearm? Forearms did not provide the keys to understanding the degenerative effects of the newly popular practice of tobacco smoking, nor do they illuminate the underlying causes of migraine headaches – both topics on which Tulp studied a great deal. However in the 17th Century, the intricacies of the human hand were frequently used to portrait the detail and wonder of God’s creation. Rembrandt captured Tulp performing the most profound calling of a scientist – inquiring into the awe-inspiring complexities of God’s creation.

Nicolai Tulpii Amstelredamensis Observationes Medicae, 1641, Book III, 56th Observation. Most popular plate from Nicolaes Tulp’s book showing the earliest known western drawing of a chimpanzee.