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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Early anatomical illustration

Woodcut illustration of thoracic and abdominal organs, with names of various organs and body partsWoodcut illustration of thoracic and abdominal organsThe dawn of scientific enquiry – the methodical and objective observation of natural phenomena and their detailed and accurate recording – that followed the Renaissance was reflected in book illustration.  As long as understanding of the natural world was simple and the recording of close detail of minor concern, so illustrations could be simple and schematic. As observation became more detailed and scientific enquiry developed its own terminology and practices, so illustrations had to accommodate this new complexity.

Gregor Reisch (d 1525), a lecturer at the University of Freiburg and prior of a Carthusian monastery nearby, intended his Margarita philosophica (‘Pearl of philosophy’) as an introductory textbook for undergraduates, covering the main disciplines to be encountered in the medieval university curriculum and reflecting the current state of knowledge, as it was then taught at most European universities. As such, the book can be seen as coming at the end of the medieval scholastic tradition; it does not reflect the new learning beginning to emerge.

Nevertheless, Margarita philosophica is not without significance in the story of medical illustration. It contains what is probably the earliest diagram of the human eye in print, as well as one of the earliest printed depictions of the thoracic and abdominal organs, which are shown here.

The woodcut illustrations are simple and schematic, with broad outlines and scant detail. The names of various organs and body parts are given on or beside the part in question, a method which was adequate as long as the names were short and the parts to be labelled few and large, but which would prove insufficient as soon as the growth of scientific observation made precision, accuracy and more complex nomenclature mandatory.

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