Seeing Is Believing: 700 Years of Scientific and Medical Illustration at the New York Public Library should appeal to two different audiences. On the one hand, the exhibit, which was organized by Jennifer B. Lee and Miriam Mandelbaum, will fascinate people interested in the origins of modern science. They can study the way early scientists – from Copernicus to Darwin – created images to convey revolutionary insights. Beginning with books that illustrate the scientific view of the medieval period, the show continues into the modern era, with illustrations from early astronomy, physics, chemistry, natural history, and medicine. Very educational.
On the other hand, the show will attract those who – like me – prefer mystery and peculiarities to a textbook education, especially when eccentric imagery can be called “science.” In particular, this exhibit has an extraordinary collection of pictures of the interior of the human body. For centuries, the man within – physically speaking – remained a great unknown. This was a region glimpsed and uncovered only in moments of horror. During the Renaissance, great explorer-scientists began to flay, cut open, and peel back the body. They hardly knew what they would find. They were not even certain they should be raising the veil of flesh. Did human beings have the right, for example, to look into the mysteries of childbirth? In the documentation of their research, art and medicine – and pedantry and poetry – come together in a remarkable way. In a work by Andreas Vesalius called De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543, the artist presents images of dissected figures posing in a landscape, as if they were on an outing to the Coliseum. A hand-colored lithograph from Jean Marc Bourgery’s Traité Complet de l’Anatomie de l’Homme, published from 1831 to 1854, shows a sensitive-looking young man who appears to be sound asleep – although he is sliced open for scholarly inspection. He has an impressive inner life: the organs, veins, and muscles look like the engine room of dreams.