Evolution of illustrations in anatomy: a study from the classical period in Europe to modern times

Anat Sci Educ. Mar-Apr 2015;8(2):175-88. doi: 10.1002/ase.1479. Epub 2014 Jul 22.


Illustrations constitute an essential element of learning anatomy in modern times. However it required a significant evolutionary process spread over centuries, for illustrations to achieve the present status in the subject of anatomy. This review article attempts to outline the evolutionary process by highlighting on the works of esteemed anatomists in a chronological manner. Available literature suggests that illustrations were not used in anatomy during the classical period when the subject was dominated by the descriptive text of Galen. Guido da Vigevano was first to use illustrations in anatomy during the Late Middle Ages and this concept developed further during the Renaissance period when Andreas Vesalius pioneered in illustrations becoming an indispensable tool in conveying anatomical details. Toward later stages of the Renaissance period, Fabricius ab Aquapendente endeavored to restrict dramatization of anatomical illustrations which was a prevalent trend in early Renaissance. During the 18th century, anatomical artwork was characterized by the individual styles of prominent anatomists leading to suppression of anatomical details. In the 19th century, Henry Gray used illustrations in his anatomical masterpiece that focused on depicting anatomical structures and were free from any artistic style. From early part of the 20th century medical images and photographs started to complement traditional handmade anatomical illustrations. Computer technology and advanced software systems played a key role in the evolution of anatomical illustrations during the late 20th century resulting in new generation 3D image datasets that are being used in the 21st century in innovative formats for teaching and learning anatomy.

Keywords: 3D interactive models; Fabricius; Gray; Vesalius; anatomical illustrations; computer technology; history of medical illustrations; review, Vigevano; software systems.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anatomy, Artistic / history*
  • Anatomy, Artistic / trends
  • Books, Illustrated / history*
  • Computer Graphics / history
  • Computer-Assisted Instruction / history
  • Diffusion of Innovation
  • Education, Medical / history*
  • Education, Medical / trends
  • Europe
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Medical Illustration / history*
  • Paintings / history