Anatomy and art: Developing anatomical research during the Renaissance

Plan Author

  • Cassandra Anderson, 2016

Fields of Concentration

  • Visual Arts

Sample Courses

Project Description

Installation and performance art pieces that illustrate an understanding of sculptural movement and body aesthetics.

Faculty Sponsors

  • Tim Segar

Outside Evaluator

  • Olivia Bernard, Tufts University and School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


This Plan is an exploration of art and anatomy both through an exhibit of sculptural works and through a paper exploring Renaissance artists who used scientific means to analyze and produce art. The blending of humanism and classical Greek philosophy during the Italian Renaissance was a prime setting for the mixing of the arts and sciences, and the paper uses both anatomical analysis and visual analysis to interpret images from Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The paper seeks to investigate how the study of anatomy influenced Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s approach to the body and symbolism, and how and why they diverged from their own scientific knowledge to better communicate the content of the images.


Leonardo’s study of the shoulder girdle, created some 30 years before the painting of St. Jerome, shows Leonardo’s understanding of the structure of the muscles and bones in relationship to each other, simplified and exposed to show the mechanistic function. Leonardo’s interest anchored on mechanical function and this study would have aided his process and eventual creation of the aforementioned painting. The ridges in the muscles are quite visible in the image of St Jerome in the neck and shoulder areas and correspond to the shapes rendered in the earlier sketch but are exaggerated to show greater dynamics.

Fittingly, like Leonardo, Michelangelo used his strengths to compose his image, but in a reverse way, relied on gesture to deviate from anatomical verity. He blended the gesture of the figure with the history of the melancholic and anatomical reference to embody the oddly simultaneous qualities of suffering and inspiration. The angel in the image demonstrates extreme anatomical irregularities, such as the unrealistic rotation in the spine, size of the feet, and the small size of the head in proportion to the body, but here these visual distortions serve the composition of the image. The angle of the angel’s face is more like what the viewer would see if they were in the position of the melancholic, not outside of the image frame. Michelangelo used these perspectives and dynamic angles in the figure to dramatize the context of the image while the proportional distortions further describe the behavior and attitudes of the figures. The small size of the head of the angel helps to direct the eye of the viewer to the face of the melancholic.These particular decisions, now described with an anatomical terms, better identify why these images describe so eloquently their narrative contexts.