History of Anatomical Illustrations

Grade Levels: 10–12

Academic Topics

  • Anatomy
  • Visual Arts
  • Language Arts


Students consider the development of the science and art of human anatomy, exploring selected anatomical illustrations in Dream Anatomy created by anatomists and artists of the Western worlds. They examine and compare anatomical illustrations from different periods to learn about changing knowledge of human body through history. Students incorporate visual and language arts skills to their analysis of selected historical illustrations of human body.

Teachers are encouraged to preview the online exhibition to help guide students through two lessons in this class resource. In addition to the exhibition introduction, Dream Anatomy presents anatomical images and the technologies in the following three thematic sections:

  1. Anatomical Dreamtime focuses on the early modern era. In the 1500s and 1600s artists employed visual metaphors and iconographic references to depict human anatomy making use of all the artistic styles and genres available to them. The images, playful and rich in social meaning, featured fanciful scenes and bizarre juxtapositions.
  2. Getting Real examines the movement to dispense with metaphor and fancy. Between 1680 and 1800, anatomists began calling for a more realistic, "scientific" anatomy. They argued that metaphor, death imagery, and theatrical gestures did not belong in anatomical illustration. Realistic scientific illustration no longer employed bizarre juxtaposition, metaphor, and theatricalism, but had its own dreaminess: it used intense color, sumptuous textures, radical partitioning of the body and sometimes blatant ugliness.
  3. Visionary & Visible looks at fanciful anatomical images in the period from 1800 to the present. In fine art, popular science and popular culture, anatomical representation continued its long association with death imagery, allegory, and aesthetics. Currently, artists and scientists are exploring and rethinking the boundary between art and science. Advances in the technology of anatomical imaging, most notably the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project, are inspiring new anatomical visions.

Teachers may review the following words to identify those that students may need to learn during research activities or class discussions: metaphor, anatomy, Padua (reference article in PMC), visualization, chemical industry, digestive, respiratory, treatise, iconography, Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica.


  1. Lesson 1 Anatomical Metaphors

    Read More

    Students view anatomical illustrations from two different time periods to examine the metaphors that show the understanding of the human body at each time. Close

  2. Lesson 2 Anatomical Illustrations

    Read More

    Students learn about Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern anatomy, then examine early anatomical illustrations that reflect knowledge of the human body's interior. Close

Learning Outcomes

After completing this class resource, students are expected to:

  • View and evaluate metaphors used to understand the human body and its various functions.
  • Expand knowledge of the human body and its function.
  • Create a metaphorical illustration of the human body, demonstrating accurate knowledge and understanding of human body and its function (e.g., drawing a human brain as a computer and its wires as a nerve system).
  • Learn about and evaluate the "pre-Modern" and Vesalian anatomical illustrations and their narratives online.
  • Compare the illustrations and note the similarities and differences between the two categories of illustrations.
  • Identify specific contributions of the anatomist, Andrea Vesalius.