In the acknowledgements of our brochure 2014, Andreas Vesalius confesses that he’s contagious, infecting everybody who touches him with a virus. In 2005, in a poll searching for The Greatest Belgian, Andreas Vesalius was chosen 6th in Flanders and 19th in Wallonia. What could be the explanation of such an epidemic? How does a medieval scientist end up in the company of Eddy Merckx and Jacques Brel? Why is Vesalius an inspiration for so many artists and scientists, of yesterday and today?
For many, Vesalius, the man, is synonymous with the images of his dissected cadavers as shown in his seven books about the structure of the human body: the Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, published for the first time in 1543, (when he was only 28). Professor Steeno showed me his duplicate of the Fabrica. Just touching and going through this heavy-weight book is a physical and emotional experience. The dense texts and studies of the human body are overwhelming: musclemen, skeletons, organs and bones. Scientists view this differently but we, common mortals, are simultaneously disgusted and attracted by his work. What we see are not merely human beings but an expression of their mortality. Vesalius’ dissected humans move casually in landscapes and interiors and we thus easily recognize our own decay. What we see is our destiny.
“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you”: Ernest Hemingway.
Like every good story, Vesalius’ history is one of death. And that’s a first explanation of his success.
In 1991 the British film director Peter Greenaway made M is for Man, Music and Mozart, a visual and acoustic cocktail of animation, theatre and dance. A woman sings a chain of words, alphabetically. Reaching M, the 13th and central letter of the alphabet, the gods decide to create man. Now that man can move, he needs Music, and according to Peter Greenaway, Mozart is the perfect music.
Although the movie is set in a medieval dissection theatre, Peter Greenaway doesn’t reflect on Vesalius as a metaphor for death but as a metaphor for life. Based upon a dissection inspired by Vesalius, a new man is constructed. Death and life are the heads and tails of a flipped coin.
I’ll complete my equation: like every good story, Vesalius’ history is one of death and of life, as in “the meaning of life”, for Peter Greenaway translated in “Music and Mozart”, figuratively speaking: “Arts and Science”. In 1969 the British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies also confronts a facsimile of The humani corporis fabrica. He selects fourteen anatomical studies and re-creates them as the fourteen Stations of the Cross. His theatre work for dancer, solo cello & instrumental ensemble, Vesalii Icones, becomes a Via Dolorosa.
As does Greenaway, Maxwell Davis serves a cocktail of medieval religious music and early twentieth century popular music, shaken but not stirred with his own idiom. Dance movements are inspired by poses sketched by Vesalius. The anatomist has become a choreographer, directing a contemporary Jesus Christ. Vesalius’ studies have become religious icons. The climax of this ballet is of course the resurrection, but to our surprise or even shock, it is not Christ but a medieval antichrist who emerges from the grave. “Some may consider such an interpretation sacrilegious,” Davis has written: “but the point I am trying to make is a moral one. It is a matter of distinguishing the false from the real, that one should not be taken in by appearances”.
Religious or sacrilegious, Davis has seen the spiritual dimension we all imagine in Vesalius’ history.
I’ll complete my equation a third time: Vesalius’ history is attractive because his story offers, through Arts and Science, an answer to our fears about the finiteness of life.