Summary

In 1632, at the age of only 26, Rembrandt finished a large (85.2 in × 66.7 in) oil painting that was destined to become one of his best known works and certainly one of the linchpins in the nexus between the graphic arts and the medical humanities. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts the dissection of the flexor tendons of the left arm of a cadaver by the eponymous doctor while an attentive audience of his peers, identifiable members of the medical and anatomical community of early 17th century Amsterdam, looks on. Nina Siegal's novel tells her imagined back story of this richly illustrated anatomy lesson which, once you read her captivating novel, will make you ask yourself, as I did, why no one has thought fit to do so heretofore.

Using multiple first person narrators, Siegal examines the characters (some historical, others wholly fictional) and events leading up to the anatomy lesson and Rembrandt's artistic rendering of it. Inventing a life for Aris Kindt (born Adriaen  Adriaenszoon), the historically real career criminal whose recently judicial hanging provides the body we see in the painting, Siegal provides him with Flora, a lover who is carrying his illegitimate child at the time of his public - and quite raucous - hanging. Growing up in Leiden, in the same neighborhood as Flora and Rembrandt himself, Kindt was the physically and emotionally abused son of a leather worker and, in Siegal's imagination, a petty but persistent thief hanged for his inveterate and irremediable life of crime. As was the custom of the day, his body was legally assigned to an anatomist for public dissection. With a non-linear narrative, organized into brief chapters entitled for body parts, Siegal traces the beginnings of three of the protagonists - Kindt, Flora, and Rembrandt. She constructs  how their lives intersect not only before, during and after the hanging, but also in more philosophical strokes, namely the medical, theological and artistic tapestry on which this image rests. There are several minor characters, like Tulp and his family; Jan Fetchet, the "famulus" responsible for securing and preparing Kindt's body immediately following the hanging; and even René Descartes, who seems to have been in town during this momentous occasion pursuing his own polymathic research, which included anatomy at the time.  Siegal adds a few reports dictated by a fictional modern- day conservator offering her interpretation of many of the details of Rembrandt's masterpiece, details that serve to highlight aspects of Siegal's narrative, such as the possible artistic re-implantation of Kindt's amputated right hand.

Commentary

This is an historical novel, in the genre of Girl with Pearl Earring or I, Mona Lisa, i.e., a fiction based on a well- known work of art. 

The Anatomy Lesson is Siegal’s second novel, inspired by a copy of the painting in her father's office.  It is the result of six years of study and several writing fellowships  and will be of great interest to students of the medical humanities. There is much here for those interested in history of medicine (grave robbing; public dissection); anatomy and anatomical illustration; literature and medicine (issues of live bodies versus cadavers and the use of the latter for the living, only 200 years before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein); and, of course, art and medicine.

The title of The Anatomy Lesson is deceptive. Rather than anatomy, or lessons, or dissection, it concerns itself more with the relationship of the living to the dead, and the nature of one's soul in both conditions.  Siegal's novel delves deeply into these questions: How are the dead related to the living? Do they share a soul in common? Can one capture that bond in art? In literature?

Indeed, after Fetchethas put a white sheet over Kindt's cadaver, which he has just washed and prepared for the evening's dissection, he "let him lie there in the open air. I like to leave them like that for an hour or two till the soul of the dead man has time to ascend. Or descend, depending on how it goes." (pages 122-3) Indeed , the soul, and its location (Tulp surmises that it resides in the heart or the liver), are at the heart - or, more precisely, the soul - of this novel. Although Dr. Tulp desperately cares about Aris Kindt's forearm and anatomy, Rembrandt and Descartes both see dissection as the path to much higher, more abstract knowledge about that aspect of man, the soul, which cannot be dissected, demonstrated, or passed around the room, as Kindt's heart is. But before any of the protagonists can explicitly deal with the soul, they must first be clear about its residence in the body. To ascertain that, at least for Dr. Tulp, one must dissect and explore its anatomy which is no longer in the province of the uncontested ancients.

Siegal's description of dissection-before-others as a quasi-religious ceremony is marvelous. When we read about Tulp's dissection in the Waag (weigh house) before invited anatomists, physicians and the cognoscenti of Amsterdam, we are reading about a select group of celebrants congregating together by invitation only for communal observation, instruction and re-affirmation of a body of esoteric knowledge, a rite that is officiated by an elevated member of their group, a high priest as it were. The exact nature of this event as the highest form of a religious service, communion, becomes clear when Dr. Tulp initiates the sacrificial rite of passing the heart amongst the devoted, with instructions to adhere to solemnity and respect, at least for the service if not the human whose heart it is.

After the dissection, which becomes raucous because the public has profanely burst into the chambers of the esoteric elite, Rembrandt and Tulp discuss the commissioned portrait of Dr. Tulp demonstrating his dissection to his faithful guild members with the forearm. Rembrandt gently insists on the whole organism approach and plans a group scene, not an individual portrait glorifying Tulp. It is in this passage, when Tulp and Rembrandt discuss in Rembrandt's house, how each approaches the topic and "exact location" of the soul, that Siegal's agenda and prose enter the precincts of fine literature. For she deftly positions the debate across the divide of anatomy, the general versus the particular, science versus theology, the art of cutting/dissecting to get at the truth (Tulp) versus the art of re-assembling to reach it (Rembrandt). The "truth", as Siegal limns it, is a protean concept, probably not limited to either/or methodologies. In her novel, one approaches a fictional recreation of just how the various seekers of it fared in 1632 Amsterdam. It is a rich story, richly told.     

Publisher

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Place Published

New York, New York

Edition

2014

Page Count

271