Blasphemous anatomy...?

The 1543 publication of De humani corporis fabrica. Libri septem was a milestone in the study of human anatomy. These volumes represent the most important work of Flemish physician and anatomist Andries van Wesel (1515-1564), better known by his Latinised name, Andreas Vesalius. The son of the court pharmacist of Maximilian of Austria and Charles V, Vesalius studied anatomy in Louvain, Montpellier and Paris.

Clash with the church

Until well into the 16th century, the theories of Claudius Galenus (130-ca. 201), which date back to late classical period, were considered the indisputable truth. Vesalius, however, took a clear stand against several aspects of these theories.

Published in this work for the first time, Vesalius’ ideas were based on autopsies that challenged the way people viewed human anatomy, generating considerable controversy in both the medical and theological world. He was accused of such offenses as vivisection and blasphemy. To escape the inquisition, he ceased giving anatomy lessons at the University of Padua, where he worked as a professor, and went on to become the court physician of Charles V and Philip II, whom he followed to Madrid.

After travelling to Jerusalem at the orders of Philip II, Vesalius died on the Greek island Zakynthos after a shipwreck as he was returning home.

First standard work on anatomy

Vesalius’ seven volumes detailing the structure of the human body are considered modern medicine’s first standard work on anatomy.

In 25 full-page and countless other smaller images, the books reveal the structure of all human organs as they appear in a living, breathing human being in a natural pose. It is likely that several unnamed artists were involved in creating the woodcuts in addition to Vesalius himself and Jan Steven van Calcar, who belonged to the school of Titian.


In contrast to the charming Italian-style landscape in the background, the skeletons and skinless corpses are depicted with painstaking precision – down to the tiniest anatomical detail. Under Vesalius’ supervision, the woodcuts were designed and created in Padua and then sent to the printing office of Johannes Oporinus in Basel.


Despite the uproar in traditional medical circles, Vesalius’ work was an unprecedented overnight success, remaining popular until well into the 18th century, as demonstrated by the 1725 reprint by Herman Boerhaave and Bernard Albinus.

For those with limited means, Oporinus published Epitome, the first in a long series of abridged versions of the Fabrica, in 1543, which included some of the same prints. Epitome consisted of 14 unbound broadsheet charts which could be hung on the wall as a convenient study aid for medical students or aspiring artists.

The pictures could also be cut out and glued to a piece of cardboard and laid on top of each other to practice working with the various layers and organs of the human body.

A rarity

Designed for use as charts or to be cut into separate pieces, the unbound broadsheet pages of Epitome have rarely been discovered together in one complete edition. Only one and a half pages are missing from the University Library’s copy, which has been bound in a modern cover of mottled paper on cardboard (MAG: M fol 92 Lk (Rariora)). The library either purchased De humani corporis fabrica and Epitome or received them as gifts between 1608 and 1670.

Further reading

LKB (ed. MvE), 2011
Title page De humani corporis, Andreas Vesalius, 1543
Page 18 De humani corporis, Andreas Vesalius, 1543 (detail)
Page i De humani corporis, Andreas Vesalius, 1543 (detail)
Page 190 De humani corporis, Andreas Vesalius, 1543 (detail)

De humani corporis fabrica (MAG: M fol 92 (Rariora)); Basel : Johann Oporinus, 1543