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The study of anatomy

Picking up from the ancients

Donatello, David, 1440s, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence)
We can see from Donatello's sculpture of David—with its careful depiction of bones and muscles and a nude figure—that the study of human anatomy was enormously important for Renaissance artists. They continued where the ancient Greeks and Romans had left off, with an interest in creating images of the human beings where bodies moved in natural ways—in correct proportion and feeling the pull of gravity.
Sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome reveal that classical artists closely observed the human body. Ancient Greek and Roman artists focused their attention on youthful bodies in the prime of life. Ancient sources indicate these artists used models to help them study the details of the body in the way that it looked and moved. These artists tried to show their viewers that they understood systems of muscles beneath the skin.
The Alexander Sarcophagus, c. 312 B.C.E., Pentelic marble and polychromy, found in Sidon, 195 x 318 x 167 cm (İstanbul Archaeological Museums).
An interest in human anatomy and ideal bodies can be seen in this ancient Greek sarcophagus. Hunting scene (detail), The Alexander Sarcophagus, c. 312 B.C.E., Pentelic marble and polychromy, found in Sidon, 195 x 318 x 167 cm (İstanbul Archaeological Museums).
In the Middle Ages, there was very little interest in the human body, which was seen as only a temporary vessel for the soul. The body was seen as sinful, the cause of temptation. In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve eat the apple from the tree of knowledge, realize their nakedness, and cover themselves. Due to the nudity in this important story, Christians associated nudity with sin and the fall of humankind. Medieval images of naked bodies do not reflect close observation from real life or an understanding of the inner workings of bodies.
The medieval approach to the human body can be seen in this manuscript illumination. Artist unknown, Adam and Eve from the Escorial Beatus, c. 950, tempera on parchment (Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial)
Leonardo da Vinci, Écorché (A Dead or Moribund Man in Bust Length), c. 1487, pen and ink over metalpoint on prepared paper (Royal Collection, London)

Dissection

The best way to learn human anatomy is not just to look at the outside of the body, but to study anatomy through dissection. Even though the Catholic Church prohibited dissection, artists and scientists performed dissection to better understand the body. Renaissance artists were anxious to gain specialized knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, which would allow them to paint and sculpt the body in many different positions.
The artists of the Early Renaissance used scientific tools (like linear perspective and the study of anatomy and geometry) to make their art more naturalistic, more like real life. The term "naturalism" describes this effort.
Scientific naturalism allowed artists in the Early Renaissance to begin to demand that society think of them as more than just skilled manual laborers. They argued that their work—which was based on science and math—was a product of their intellect just as much as their hands. They wanted artists to have the same status as intellectuals and philosophers, unlike the medieval craftsmen that came before them. 
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
    From what I understand, the Church banning dissection is a myth. Actually, it was far more taboo in ancient Rome - this is why physicians such as Galen only knew about the inner human body from dissecting animals such as pigs. Harvard's website had an article that says:

    "In medieval Christianity, dissection was often practiced." and "there was no religious prohibition against dissection."

    (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/04/debunking-a-myth/)

    Wikipedia also says:

    "Unlike pagan Rome, Christian Europe did not exercise a universal prohibition of the dissection and autopsy of the human body and such examinations were carried out regularly from at least the 13th century. It has even been suggested that Christian theology contributed significantly to the revival of human dissection and autopsy by providing a new socio-religious and cultural context in which the human cadaver was no longer seen as sacrosanct."
    (8 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user garzaspencer
    So where would these artists get these bodies to dissect? I assume that if dissection was banned then it must have been difficult.
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Francelys Nicole
    Does Khan academy have a course on Ap European History?? I'm taking my midterm exam on Tuesday and all I have to work with is the art of the different centuries.
    (2 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Q.T.
    Who got dissected? Was it outlaws, or people who obviously did not care about their bodies?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Kromovaracian
    How were these works received by the church at the time? Did they offer any comment on classical-style naturalism? Was it obvious at the time that these were going significantly against the medieval norm or is this something we have imposed through hindsight?
    (2 votes)
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  • winston baby style avatar for user Liotun Dahazrahazyeh
    why was the body illegal during the mideval ages?
    (1 vote)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user alissa clough
      Short answer: you're planning to dissect whom, exactly? Don't you know that's someone's brother? Or worse, someone's mom! Even the Romans were a bit squeamish on this point: we don't really see dissection a part of anatomical study until the 14th century or so, though those wily Byzantines might have squeezed in an occasional stiff, now and then. (They had a doctor fetish.) Anyway, planning to carve up a fellow human like a Christmas Goose would have put you, if not behind bars, than beyond the pale as a profoundly Creepy Individual. And that's not good!
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user misty_reifenrath
    Did artists dissect humans?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 😊
    what city-state was Renaissance born in?
    (1 vote)
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  • winston baby style avatar for user Liotun Dahazrahazyeh
    why did artist like the body so much?
    (1 vote)
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    • male robot johnny style avatar for user Kaori Segars
      You mean why did Leonardo Da Vinci like the body so much?
      I can answer that for you, Lenardo loved growing up in nature. He loved the trees, flowers, and anything that caught his sight. When he grew up to learn about art, in the same process he got accepted tok one a high school or college (im not sure yet) that was highly great in Physic and things about anatomy. So, from this he accepted the invitation and from there on he loved art, anatomy, and arithmitic. Any more questions I can help you out! What a great question!
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user victormirza20
    very good article about he fist processes of dissection.
    (1 vote)
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