The Scientific and the Divine: Representation of Death in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp and Caravaggio’s Deposition

In Deposition and Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Caravaggio and Rembrandt both represent dead figures that transcend their humanity by occupying the realms of the spiritual and the scientific.

In the Deposition and Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Caravaggio and Rembrandt make the dead figure the focal point of their paintings; this is achieved through the use of light, colour and composition. Both paintings feature a strong light that functions almost like a spotlight; the light in Deposition is coming from the left, while the light in Dr. Tulp is coming from above. This bright source of light in both paintings, which is in contrast to their dark backgrounds, directs the viewer’s eye to the dead figures in the foreground. With the use of a primarily dark palette in both paintings, the eye is drawn to what is light and white. In Deposition, the eye follows the diagonal composition of the painting as the white sleeves of the figure in the upper right lead to the white cloth framing the Virgin’s face, which leads to the white cloth around the body of Christ. In Dr. Tulp the eye follows the semi-circle of grouped figures as their bright white collars frame and lead to the corpse on the table who is also wearing a white cloth around his lower body. What is interesting when comparing the treatment of these focal points is that the corpse in Dr. Tulp is rendered in the same “visually privileged manner” (Mitchell 147) as Christ is in Deposition, both are flooded with light and stand out as the dominant figure in the foreground.


Both dead figures are also represented in a realistic manner. Caravaggio has rendered the ribs, bones, muscles and veins of Christ, along with a green complexion. Christ’s body also seems heavy, not light and ethereal, as Nicodemus and John the Evangelist hunch over to support his weight. For the Deposition, Caravaggio does not experiment with proportion but creates a figure with realistic dimensions and details. Likewise, Rembrandt creates a pale, greenish skin tone for the corpse; the body seems stiff,  the mouth and eyes are slightly open and the face is devoid of expression. As the scene depicts an anatomy lesson, the left arm of the corpse has been cut open, revealing a map of intricate tendons. The realistic representations created by Caravaggio and Rembrandt serve to humanize both of the bodies, but in different ways.  Caravaggio chooses not to idealize the figure of Christ but rather creates a “humanization” of someone sacred (Chorpenning 154) by creating a Christ that looks like a real person. Rembrandt manages to “rehumanize, rather than dehumanize” (Mathiasen 1); as the corpse is realistic, but not grotesque; it is exposed but not exploited.  

It is also important to look at what surrounds the two bodies: the setting and the background figures. The setting in both paintings is fairly nondescript. Caravaggio places Christ in front of a dark, almost black background. The only details that are revealed by the bright light-source is a slab of material that the figures stand on, and a plant in the lower right hand corner. Rembrandt also creates a dark background whose light source reveals a few minute details such as the table that the corpse lays on, the book at the lower right hand corner, and the faint image of printing on the back wall. These dark backgrounds serve to place the emphasis of the painting on the lighted figures within it; through tenebrism, Caravaggio and Rembrandt are both directing the viewer’s gaze towards the faces and figures of the people being rendered. 


What can the figures of the other characters in the paintings reveal about the dead bodies? The figures in Dr. Tulp are dressed almost identically, with black clothing and white frilled collars (and Dr. Tulp with a black hat); even their facial hair is similar with stylized moustaches and pointed beards. What sets these figures apart, are their faces; they are highly psychologized. The faces direct their gaze in different directions: to the right, to the left, towards the viewer, towards the book in the corner. The expressions are not empty but complex, they seem to convey thought as Rembrandt’s portrait delves “deeply into the psyche and personality of his sitters” (Kleiner 721) They look in every direction, except in the direction of their study: the corpse. The figure that has the most interaction with the corpse is Dr. Tulp as he demonstrates the “the flexor mechanism in a corpse’s flayed forearm and hand” (Mitchell 145). However, there appears to still be distance: Dr. Tulp uses an instrument to touch the corpse, and does not look directly at the corpse. 

This differs from the figures’ interaction with Christ in Deposition. As with Christ, Caravaggio has represented the figures of Nicodemus, John the Evangelist, the Virgin, and the two other figures in a highly realistic manner: ruddy noses and cheeks; deep expression lines around the mouth and on the forehead; visible muscles and veins. These figures are not idealized, but look like regular people in simple clothing. In contrast to Dr. Tulp and his pupils, the figures in Deposition are connected to Christ. The figure in the upper left corner raises her open hands in the direction of Christ, her arms visually embracing the clump of figures, including Christ; the Virgin and the figure beside her, lower their heads, their eyes meeting Christ’s body; Nicodemus wraps both of his arms tightly around the legs of Christ, as the knees of Christ tuck into his torso; John the Evangelist touches Christ’s skin, his abdomen, under his arm, a wound on his ribcage, all as he looks down at him. Although not all of the figures physically touch Christ, there is a sense of connection created through the direction of their faces and their hands. This is in contrast to the multi-directional gaze of the figures in Dr. Tulp and their resistance to gaze upon and touch the body of the corpse. 

The interaction of the figures with the corpses is important because it reveals something about the function of the painting. Dr. Tulp is a group portrait, meant to showcase the members of the surgeon’s guild: “The group portrait was an established, characteristic, Dutch Protestant manner of celebration of achievement, in contrast to the dominance of religious subjects in Catholic art of the period” (Kruger 85). This also explains the importance of the “separateness” of each “personality” and their well-groomed appearance: “One can read signs of vanity and pride–even a certain pomposity–in the body language of men who appear dressed and groomed to be watched” (Mitchell 151). The corpse is the main focus, not because the person (when alive) was revered, but because the exploration of human anatomy and scientific invesigation is important during this time in the Dutch Republic: “The history painting discourse of an anatomy lesson celebrates science’s secular values which permit violation of the body of an executed criminal for the general good to increase human knowledge” (Mitchell 152). 

Caravaggio’s painting, on the other hand, is a religious Counter-Reformation work meant to inspire piety in the members of the Catholic church. Caravaggio achieved this by appealing to the senses and emotion in order to “move us to participate in the scene, to raise our hands to receive the body, and to renew our sense of mystery in the presence of the Host” (Wright 39). In Deposition Caravaggio makes the “supernatural actual” and “establishes a direct rapport between the scene and the spectator, enabling the spectator to identify with the mystery being portrayed” (Chorpenning 154); he  represents “sacred scenes” as “human dramas” (Chorpenning 154). Rembrandt elevates science while Caravaggio brings religion “down to earth.”

These different approaches to the representation of a corpse in a painting emerge from their respective time and place. Caravaggio was working in Italy during the Counter-Reformation; a time in which the Catholic church was eager to inspire piety in its members. According to the Council of Trent, artwork needed to stir the emotions and connect with the viewer in order to arouse spiritual zeal. Deposition was originally commissioned by the Chapel of Pietro Vittrice at Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome, and was positioned above the altar there (Kleiner 703). To viewers in the chapel, Christ looked as if he was being placed on the altar:

This served to give visual form to the doctrine of transubstantiation (the transformation of the Eucharist bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ)–a doctrine central to Catholicism but rejected by Protestants. By depicting Christ’s body as though it were physically present during the Mass, Caravaggio visually articulated an abstract theological precept. (Kleiner 703)

The expression and emotion of the realistic figures, the tenebrism and the composition which places Christ in the viewer’s space, created a powerful, interactive image: 

Counter-Reformation meditative techniques prescribed that the mediator imagine a religious scene as if it were taking place before him ‘now’, or as if he were present at the historical moment, and then participate in it by means of the senses, or, more exactly, their analogues in the imagination. (Chorpenning 150)

While Caravaggio’s Deposition had a religious objective, Rembrandt’s Dr. Tulp had a secular objective. During the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was enjoying economic prosperity due to world trade; due to this properity and the “absence of an absolute ruler” political power “increasingly passed into the hands of an urban patrician class of merchants and manufacturers” (Kleiner 718). Because of this, the church was no longer the major patron of artwork in the Dutch Republic: professionals and merchants dominated as art patrons. This resulted in “reatively little religious art” produced during this time in the Dutch Republic (Kleiner 718). Also in the 17th century, there was a renewed interest in human anatomy and scientific investigation. Dr. Tulp is an amalgamation of these factors: it is a private commission, it represents scientific subject matter, and it does not deal with religious subject matter (not overtly at least). 

Mundane and secular paintings were being commissioned, but the Dutch Republic wasn’t non-religious: they might not have been Catholic, but they were still Protestant. Although a scene from the bible is not being depicted in Dr. Tulp, there are still spiritual undertones nontheless: “Tulp believed the practice of anatomy led to greater knowledge of God, since the body is a product of Divine creation” (Mitchell 146). It is important not overlook the fact that religion was still important in the Dutch Republic, just as it was in Italy. The main focus of Dr. Tulp, however, is something more scientific than divine. 

While Caravaggio and Rembrandt have rendered their dead figures in a similar way through realism, tenebrism and composition, Caravaggio’s subject matter was religious while Rembrandt’s subject matter was secular and scientific. The significance to the similarity in the represented corporeality of these two figures is the artists’ statements on death. With Caravaggio’s painting, there is hope for resurrection and eternal life; with Rembrandt, there is hope for the advancement of science. One painting represents mortal death and spiritual afterlife, while the other represents mortal death and scientific afterlife.  Both paintings, therefore represent the transcience of human life, but offer products of human life that are eternal. Even the paintings themselves represent eternal products of human life, as the artwork of Caravaggio and Rembrandt are eternal. 


Featured Image Credit: Caravaggio, Deposition, 1603

Body Image Credit: Rembrandt van Rijn, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632

Works Cited:

Carletti, Lorenzo, and Francesca Polacci. “Transition between Life and Afterlife: Analyzing in the Camposanto of Pisa.” Signs and Society 2.S1 (2014): 84-120. Web.

Chorpenning, Joseph F. “Another Look at Caravaggio and Religion.” Artibus Et Historiae 8.16 (1987): 149-58. Web.

Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya, Richard G. Tansey, and Helen Gardner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005. Print.

Mathiasen, Helle, and Cand Mag. “Vile Bodies: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” The American Journal of Medicine 123.5 (2010): 476-77. Web.

Mitchell, Dolores. “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp: A Sinner Among the Righteous.” Artibus Et Historiae 15.30 (1994): 145-56. Web.

Schupbach, William. “The Moral Uses of Anatomy.” The Sciences 24.4 (1984): 42-43. Web.

Wright, Georgia. “Caravaggio’s Entombment Considered in Situ.” The Art Bulletin (1978): 35-42. Web.

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