Sebald's Anatomy Lesson

In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s description of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp leads us to but breaks off before reaching the heart of the allegory. Sebald draws our attention to features of the painting a casual observer might miss. Sebald makes points which demonstrate the picture is not merely a depiction of an event dutifully recorded for his commissioners but a critique of that event, under their noses, though they must have had the time and inside knowledge to see the purposeful flaws and other clues to the critical allegory.

Sebald points out that the dissected hand is larger than the other hand, that it is should be the left hand but is in fact a right hand drawn in the wrong place. It looks like it is naively copied from an anatomy text book, almost as if it is a paper cut out laid over the real arm. This is no mistake, Rembrandt was a master of photo realism. That it is no mistake but is intended to have some special meaning is confirmed when we note that nobody in the picture is looking at the dissected hand. Strange given that the point of dissection is to see with one’s own eyes, and to judge, to form conclusions, based on observation of the real world. We might have assumed this to be a simple allegory of scientific empiricism if not for these subtle hints.

Instead, the teacher looks at the students, two students gaze at the painter or out of the painting at the viewer, and the rest look over the corpse to the open anatomy text book. Art and literature of this period typically deals with elaborate conceits, based around metaphors and frequently playing on the contrast of opposites and paradoxes – life and death, growth and decay, love and loss, sacred and profane, and so on. On of the major controversies in philosophy at this time was over abstract ideal formal knowledge self evidently true to the mind, in contrast to empirical knowledge obtained from the senses. Contrary to the supposed empirical process of science, the text is transposed onto the object of study - the anatomy text book is more important than the body. The abstract idea of anatomy obscures the tangible real arm. The arm is not an arm, but an anatomical drawing, and the students continue to see the abstraction of the book, not the body before them, which they ‘overlook’ as the source of truth and reality.

Sebald also points out that contrary to the Enlightenment ideal of having moved beyond the cruel and superstitious past, that it is the hand which is dissected, the hand of a thief, and that the dead man is able to used by these scientists precisely because he was a criminal, and so able to be denied a Christian burial. Sebald notes that a dissection would normally begin with the gut so beginning with the hand can be no coincidence, whether the actual dissection proceeded this way or Rembrandt chose to depict it this way. The thief’s punishment is traditionally to have a hand cut off, and here it is flayed in the interests of science - science has not progressed from superstition and brutality to detached reason. The punishment upon punishment of the theif is not only to be denied a Christian burial, but to be reduced to an object of science.

The Enlightenment has more recently been much criticised along these lines, that despite it’s lofty ideals of objectivity and progress, those ideals lead as much to injustice and cruelty. In particular it is now common to point out that detached, rational objectivity is a myth and that this Enlightenment myth, even if it is pursued in good faith and with good intentions, serves those in power. The myth of object observation and rational conclusion about the true nature of things is deployed to avoid criticism, to mask abuses of power, to deny subjective assumptions and to sidestep ethics. We see this critique already in Rembrandt, as the Enlightenment was beginning.

It is rich patrons who have the privilege of being Enlightened at the spectacle of the theives body opened up to their gaze and knowledge. There is a marked contrast between the rich, enlightened possessors of knowledge and the man reduced to theft, robbed of life, his body desecrated for the edification of these masters. With this in mind, the gaze of the two members looking out at the viewer is disturbing. One looks directly at us while the other is in the middle of turning to look at us, as if interrupted – it’s as if we’ve stumbled on a group of cannibals preparing for a feast and having caught sight of us they are sizing us up, looking through our skin at our sinews, considering whether we shall be next on the table. It’s a moral warning, just as depictions of hell are, just as a public execution is, just as a hanged man at a crossroads is – "Thieve not", the picture says, the gaze of the students says, "or your fate too may be dissection." We fell ourselves already being prepared for dissection by those detached yet hungry eyes.

Sebald notes that the people in the picture are ignorant of that humanity that Rembrandt sees and depicts in the shadow of the corpse's mouth and eyes. What Sebald doesn’t go on to remark, which seems to be the most telling part of this allegory, is that the shadow falling over the eyes of the deceased is cast by one of the students. Again, this seems no mistake. The picture is all about the gaze, and the shadow falls specifically and exactly over the dead man's eyes. In this iconic picture of Enlightenment, the corpse is robbed of sight, the light is taken from his eyes. But not only this - the light of the Enlightenment is taken from his eyes, precisely because the student is leaning over him to read the book, to see and know, to be enlightened. All human dignity has been taken from the corpse, all life, all subjectivity, as he has been reduced absolutely to an object of scientific study, an object of knowledge. The criminal victim cannot see, only be seen. Not only can he be seen but opened up for the most intrusive and complete scrutiny. It’s a complete violence, as the denial of Christian burial denies respite for the soul, the objectification of science denies all humanity – a brutal and savage annihilation. Enlightenment has blinded them to the violence before their eyes.

William Pascoe and Kaspar Paseko, 2017


The image annotation software is a modification of Abhishek Dutta, Ankush Gupta, and Andrew Zisserman's VGG Image Annotator (VIA)