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Episode 10

The National Gallery Podcast

In the August 2007 podcast, Professor Chris McManus explains what happens in our brains when we look at a painting. Hear about Rembrandt's famous painting of surgeons dissecting a corpse in the 'Dutch Portraits' exhibition. Also learn how Croydon GPs have been using the Gallery's masterpieces to diagnose illness.

15 min 35 sec | August 2007

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is a podcast from the National Gallery, London. This month’s episode is devoted to things of the flesh, as we examine, dissect and diagnose the relationship between art and the body.

James Heard: Do you agree with that diagnosis, Ronnie?

Ronnie Montgomery: It could be that he’s got a stroke, although his left arm – he’s actually holding that up against his thigh, so it looks as if he may well have some power in that arm which might not fit together with a stroke. It might just be that he’s got an isolated facial nerve palsy.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The doctor will see you now. A group of GPs from Croydon give the bodies on display in two of the Gallery’s masterworks a check-up. And, what happens in the brain when we look at a painting? Professor Chris McManus takes me on a neurological tour of the Gallery to find out.

Anatomy lessons with Rembrandt

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with a trip to the ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition. One of the highlights of the show is Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’. The celebrated work depicts a doctor and members of the Surgeons Guild gathered around a corpse. One of its arms has been flayed from the elbow down, and the doctor is demonstrating the working of the hand. Not, perhaps, what we’d expect to see in an expensive portrait. But would Rembrandt’s contemporaries have felt the same? Leah Kharibian asked Curator Quentin Buvelot from the Mauritshuis in The Hague and modern-day pathologist, Professor John Lee.

Leah Kharibian: I’m here with Quentin Buvelot and we’re standing in front of the ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’ and I think many people, Quentin, might find it a bit grisly as an image, but do you think the Dutch would have viewed it in the same way?

Quentin Buvelot: Well for us it may be a bit shocking to see such a painting, but at the time you could even witness such an anatomy lesson by yourself – you just could buy a ticket and see such a lesson in Amsterdam. And what we don’t see in this painting – of course we see the surgeons of the guild, the members of the Surgeons Guild – but in fact it was witnessed by dozens of visitors. They didn’t pay of course for the portrait so they were not included by Rembrandt.

Leah Kharibian: But would they have gone there as an entertainment?

Quentin Buvelot: Oh yes, I would like to compare it with a night out in London – there’s so much to do. You go to the theatre or you go and see a movie, or you just want to relax at home. In my opinion, he’s telling a story, it’s not just a group portrait of men, surgeons, witnessing an anatomy lesson because other artists in Amsterdam had already made such portraits, but normally you would see like a soccer team, like two rows of men and you would have a body somewhere, but he actually depicted an anatomy lesson.

Leah Kharibian: Well, we’ve heard from the historians but what are anatomy lessons like these days? To find out, John Lee, Professor of Pathology at Hull York University has kindly agreed to come to the exhibition. And, Professor, looking at Rembrandt’s masterpiece is there anything you recognise from your own experience?

John Lee: Well yes, I mean obviously the interest in looking at the structure of the body and a dissector demonstrating part of the anatomy of the body is something that I think is universal to all teaching situations.

Leah Kharibian: And the flaying of the arm? Is that something that you would have studied when you were learning medicine?

John Lee: Yes, well when I did it, it was slightly different. We had a body, a cadaver, to dissect between six people and over the course of a year we deconstructed the body and the order that we did it was different from that shown in the picture there because we started with the heart and lungs and the abdomen and we moved onto the arm and then we moved onto the leg, whereas in the picture here he’s just demonstrating one particular part of the body.

Leah Kharibian: That’s quite interesting because apparently it would have been quite likely that in fact, actually, the cadaver would have had his internal organs removed immediately because otherwise of course they would cause the rest of the body to rot. So in fact Rembrandt did take a bit of artistic licence here.

John Lee: Yes, in modern usage we have different ways of preserving bodies and particularly bodies for anatomisation. They will be fixed which means a preservative is put inside the body and that kills all the bugs and stiffens the tissues so that they can be kept indefinitely.

Leah Kharibian: That’s really interesting because obviously in this picture people will notice that everyone’s wearing their outdoor clothes and in fact actually they’re dressed up quite warmly because anatomy lessons were done in winter because obviously the corpse would start to rot in the summer months. From a viewpoint, as a medical person, do you find this sort of painting interesting, or does it throw any light on your own work, or is it something that you just find a curiosity?

John Lee: Well, no, I think it is interesting – it’s interesting to see how these things have changed over the years. I mean what’s fascinating about the thing that we see in this painting is that in the 17th century when that painting was painted, what he was doing there was cutting-edge research. People didn’t have a clear view of how the inside of the body was put together, so that was cutting-edge research then. And moving on into the 19th century, doing autopsies looking at the internal organs – the heart, the lungs and the liver – that was cutting-edge research figuring out how disease worked. I mean, these days what we’re really trying to do is maintain the standard and let the next generation remember what we’ve already learnt. But in those days that was really top rank stuff so it’s fascinating to see what they’re doing.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian dissecting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’ with Professor John Lee. Rembrandt’s painting is on display at the Gallery – along with many other masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age – until 16 September. You can hear more from curator Quentin Buvelot on the audio guide that accompanies the show. For tickets, visit

A medical guide to the National Gallery

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next… while dissecting bodies may be a familiar part of modern medical training, looking at paintings certainly isn’t. But as a group of GPs from Croydon discovered, a trip to the Gallery can have some useful side-effects. I joined them on a workshop to find out just what Crivelli’s ‘The Virgin and Child’, and Goya’s ‘Don Andres Del Peral’ have to do with being better doctors.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m in the Sainsbury Wing together with James Heard from National Gallery Education together with Sharon Woodward, Dr Irunika Ekneligoda and Dr Ronnie Montgomery to find out how medics today have been using the National Gallery collection to improve their diagnostic skills. James, you’ve been running these workshops for some time. Tell us a little about what’s about to happen today.

James Heard: Well these workshops have been going on for four or five years, something like that. And we were actually approached by this group from Croydon and it was our job to then take this group of very knowledgeable doctors around the National Gallery. Because I reckon that doctors have tremendous visual skills when they’re diagnosing whatever disease we might have. So it’s very interesting to look at paintings and we chose paintings where we think there might be an interesting problem if you like, and we’re looking at a painting by an artist called Carlo Crivelli. He was a Venetian and this painting was made in 1491, but what is really interesting to us is there are two saints and one saint in particular and that is Saint Sebastian who is on the right. When it was discovered he was a Christian he was to be taken out, tied to a tree and shot to death by arrows. But that wasn’t actually the end of the story because it seems that no arrow pierced a vital organ and he survived. But what is interesting is looking at the body seems to be filled with arrows. Now I’m going to ask the doctors if they think he could have survived.

Ronnie Montgomery: I think it’s very unlikely. The arrows are showing that he’s got one throw the trachea, two through his lungs, one that’s probably just gone through his stomach, might have actually gone through the heart one of them, three in his abdomen, one through the bladder, so it’s extremely unlikely that he would have survived, from blood loss rather than anything else.

James Heard: So this tells us that Crivelli really didn’t know much about the workings of the human figure, but it is interesting this is just at the time when Leonardo is beginning to dissect corpses and therefore that artist would have known but Crivelli – no, he doesn’t seem to know much about the human body.

Miranda Hinkley: James, tell us a bit about the next painting that we’re going to look at, without giving too much away because I wonder if our doctors want to come up with a diagnosis?

James Heard: Ok, well we’ve arrived in Spain – we’re in the Spanish room – and we’re looking at paintings by Goya. There’s a very famous one behind me, the Duke of Wellington, but it’s the painting really on the left… It’s a gentleman who we know was a friend of Goya – we know that he was in the arts trade himself. He was a gilder. And he’s looking towards us sat in a chair but there’s something odd about his face that disturbs me and I think I’m going to ask one of the doctors about that.

Irunika Ekneligoda: When you look at this picture, this man’s face is not symmetrical and one corner of his mouth is dropped and one eye is wide open so maybe there is a nerve palsy on the face. And one hand he keeps very awkwardly – it looks like a man with a stroke.

James Heard: Do you agree with that diagnosis, Ronnie?

Ronnie Montgomery: It could be that he’s got a stroke, although his left arm – he’s actually holding that up against his thigh so he looks as if though he may well have some power in that arm which may not fit together with a stroke – it might just be that he’s got an isolated facial nerve palsy.

James Heard: It’s very interesting actually to see a painting that actually reveals somebody with this sort of condition – in other words the painting’s not idealised and I suspect because it was Goya’s friend, they were both painters – and it’s a very straight record of what’s happened to this rather delightful old man.

Miranda Hinkley: So there’s something about reading an image that is important for the diagnostic process somehow?

Ronnie Montgomery: I think the observation skills are the key really because when a patient walks into a consulting room you’re noticing things as soon as you see them. You’re starting to look at their face, their expression, the way they move. So you’re using similar skills when you’re looking at a painting. The other thing is that in medicine there’s something called narrative based medicine where you put the patient, the illness, their disease in context of their whole life story and in their story, within their family, within society. And you do a similar sort of thing when you’re looking at a painting – you’re looking at the characters, the different things that are illustrated and trying to put a picture together, a story together around it, so they’re quite similar skills.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): James Heard with Sharon Woodward, Ronnie Montgomery and Irunika Ekneligoda.

How the body responds to art

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): So if art helps us understand the body, how does the body help us understand art? That’s the question I put to Professor Chris McManus of University College London, an expert in the psychology of aesthetic experience.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche which is a painting that is full of sadness and also full of movement and here to investigate with me a bit more about what exactly happens in our brains when we look at art is Chris McManus.

Chris McManus: Hi there.

Miranda Hinkley: Tell me a bit about what might be going on here when we look at this.

Chris McManus: Well, I think there are all sorts of questions we can ask, but one of them is why is this a successful painting and it’s full of emotion. It’s a very sad painting, it’s poignant, it’s actually almost overly sentimentalised in a very Victorian way. But the emotion comes out and it comes out in much the same way that the emotion comes out in a Hollywood blockbuster or something like that. And so we’ve got to ask what’s actually going on.

But of course it’s not speaking to us – it’s silent, it’s flat, it’s still and yet still we have these feelings. And of course the feelings are centred around Lady Jane Grey herself. She’s blindfolded, and she’s being led forward to her execution. And it’s still, but we can feel the movement there – and much comes from those hands which are stretching out. When we’re blindfolded and we’re being led forward – she’s having to kneel down – and you can feel those hands moving out and we can also feel the fear and the almost terror that she’s feeling. And similarly if we look at the hands of the man who’s helping her – they’re very strong, but they’re not quite touching her. He’s being very gentle and concerned and so on, and so the question is where do the emotional feelings we get in a picture like this come from?

And one of the most exciting things in neuroscience in the last four or five years really is that we’ve begun to understand much more about the way action occurs and how we respond to it. We’ve known for what – a century and a half – that when we move our bodies – if I were to reach my hands out as she’s reaching her hands out – there’d be activity in various parts of my brain. What we’re now realising is that when I look at somebody making those same movements, those actions go on in my brain in exactly the same way, even though my body’s still. And of course there’s something else as well. Some paintings are much better than others at doing this – others seem still and flat, whereas this one doesn’t and the artist must have got it just right and that’s extremely interesting.

Miranda Hinkley: So there’s obviously something about the way that we empathise with the characters in the painting when we’re looking at art. And it’s not just about putting ourselves in their situation – how would we feel if we were about to be beheaded – but it’s about putting ourselves into that physical arrangement.

Chris McManus: That’s right. We’re understanding their bodies in a literal sense. And of course, we all, whenever we make actions we remember the body postures as well as the feelings we had – the two go together. We don’t have a disembodied head that has pure emotion or pure thought. We’re embedded in our bodies and the embodied mind is something we can’t get away from.

Miranda Hinkley: So is it fair to say that when we’re looking at art a similar kind of neurological response is conjured up as if we were looking at a group of people playing out the same scene?

Chris McManus: Yes, I think you’re right in every way. I think it’s more than just the same response, I think it’s a purified, distilled exaggerated response. What the artist has done is to take every hand and make it into the most perfect hand of somebody who’s blindfolded - and what he’s done is to conjure up the very essence of it. And what a great artist does is to purify it, so that now we see those hands and we think about the movements of a blindfolded person in a way we actually wouldn’t even with a real blindfolded person. It’s…he’s taken everything there and got its essence if you like and that’s why it works so well. So I guess what he’s done is to almost put a probe into those bits of our brain and just stimulate them perfectly. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Professor Chris McManus.

That’s it for this episode. You can find information on all the events and exhibitions taking place at the Gallery in August at

Until September: goodbye!