Rembrandt’s hand – in praise of God or Man?

Monday, June 25th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Terence Doyle writes…

‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaas Tulp’ is an enigmatic painting. Firstly, Tulp was not the praelector’s real name and secondly, whatever else this is, it is not a usual anatomy lesson. Many interpretations of it have been given but none, as far as I know, have suggested the one which I am about to offer.

At the age of 26, Rembrandt was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to paint the picture in 1632. It shows Dr Tulp lifting the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle of the cadaver forearm and at the same time flexing the fingers of his left hand to demonstrate the effect of contracting this muscle. The flexor digitorum profundus muscle can be seen deep to Tulp’s forceps and importantly the insertion arrangement of the two tendons at the fingers is shown in superb detail. Inspection shows how the superficialis tendon inserts on the middle phalanx after splitting and passing on either side of the profundus tendon, which carries on to insert into the distal phalanx. But why is the painting paradoxical?

Nicholaas Tulp was born in 1593 Claes Pieter or Nicholaus Petrus, son of Pieter Dirks, a prosperous Amsterdam merchant. As part of a successful medical career, Tulp became Praelector in anatomy in 1628 to the Surgeons Guild in Amsterdam. He seems to have adopted the name Tulp (tulip in Dutch) early on for reasons that are not clear. The individuals in the painting, including the cadaver, are all known. The spectators are Amsterdam surgeons – none medically qualified – who are named on the list held by the one to Tulp’s right. The surgeon standing upright at the back originally wore a hat, the outline of which can just be made out, and the figure to the far left of the group was added later by a hand inferior to that of Rembrandt (note the different skin tones). The inner three are looking at Tulp’s hand but the outer four are not.

Members of the Surgeon’s Guild, in England as well as in Holland, were required to attend anatomy demonstrations as part of their continuing education. However, this is not a usual anatomy demonstration for several reasons. Dissection always followed a set pattern of the abdomen being examined first since its organs putrefied rapidly, then the chest and brain for the same reason, and finally the limbs. In the painting, only the forearm has been dissected – with the fingers shown in great detail and the flexor muscles in just enough detail to show their function. The dissected hand is noticeably larger, and the left arm longer, than the right. Finally, the only spectators are surgeons (and only half of them are watching the ‘lesson’), whereas there would commonly be other prominent persons who came to witness the spectacle for a fee. We might therefore suppose that this painting is largely to do with surgeons and the hand.

The idea of Man as microcosm was common in the Early Modern Period and thus the study of anatomy was a study of the works of the Almighty – cogitio sui and cogitio Dei. Moreover, the hand was emblematic of such miraculous works. This was a view of Aristotle who considers the hand the physical counterpart of the human psyche, being an instrument for using other instruments. Galen, in book XVII of On the use of the parts, says of the tendons: ‘their insertions in the bones and their relations with each other are amazing and indescribable.’

The anatomist John Banester says of the hand: ‘no member more declareth the unspeakable power of almighty God in the creating of man.’ (John Banester. The historie of man, sucked from the sappe of the most approued anathomistes, London, 1578, p. 61).

Helkiah Crooke, in his ‘μικροκοσμογραφία [mikrokosmographia]: a description of the body of man . . . collected and translated out of all the best authors of anatomy especially out of Gasper Bauhinus and Andreas Laurentius’, London, 1615, considers that the hand ‘may justly be compared to the soule . . . By the helpe of the hand laws are written, temples built for the seruice of the Maker’ (p. 729). The hand is ‘the most Noble and prefect organ of the body;’ and Laurentius, whom he refers to as ‘one of the outstanding Doctors and teachers of divine wisdom’ noted the wonderful artistry ‘with which nature perforated the tendons of flexor superficialis in order to provide the passage for the profundus tendons’ (p. 730). This encomium on the hand comes from the chapter de praestantia manus in Laurentius’s Historia anatomica humani corporis, Frankfurt, 1599, pp. 61-3.

I think the painting is an allegory on the word ‘surgeon’. In this period, the word was often written (even in Dutch) something like ‘cheirurgeon’ which derives from the Greek χείρ (hand) ἔργον (work). Since the painting is so clearly about surgeons and hand function (as Tulp is demonstrating), the connection seems to me compelling. Perhaps it also suggests that those individuals are metaphorically closer to God by association – they did pay for the painting after all. An interesting area for future research might be the use of the hand as emblem of the Divine in Early Modern period.