Universiteit Leiden

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

Nicolaes Tulp (1593-1674) studied medicine in Leiden. He attended lectures in the Academy Building and was taught anatomy in the former Faliede Begijn church, now the ‘Old Library’ (Oude UB) building, for a long time the location of the anatomical theatre. Shortly after his move from Leiden to Amsterdam, Rembrandt painted this portrait of Dr Tulp, who by this time was himself teaching anatomy, together with seven surgeons from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons.

Medical student

Tulp, whose real name was Claes Pieterszoon, studied in Leiden from 1611. He attended lectures in the Academy Building, in the room that is now the Senate Chamber. As a medical student, he would have attended anatomy lessons at the University’s anatomical theatre – as may have Rembrandt, given that anatomy lessons were public at the time. Tulp also took lessons in the medical garden of the Hortus botanicus, where he would have been able to see the tulips flowering.

Rembrandt, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Anatomy lessons

Rembrandt was only 25 or 26 when he painted this dynamic group portrait. Seven surgeons, arranged in the shape of a pyramid, watch the anatomy lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. This renowned physician taught in the Waag (weigh house) in Amsterdam, where the corpses of criminals were dissected in the name of science. The body was of Aris Kindt, a criminal who coincidentally came from Leiden and had been hanged for theft in Amsterdam. There is a symbolic undertone to this group portrait: the surgeon at the top, Frans van Loenen, looks straight at us while pointing to the corpse. The underlying message seems to be that we should be aware of our own mortality. Tulp is the only person wearing a hat, which emphasises that he is the most important person in the painting.

Tulip as trademark

After obtaining his doctorate in 1614, Tulp left Leiden for Amsterdam. This is where he changed his name to Tulp (Tulp is Dutch for tulip) because he had adopted the flower as his trademark: a tulip graced his carriage and the sign hanging outside his house on Keizersgracht. In 1654, this ambitious doctor rose to the position of mayor of Amsterdam. His daughter Margaretha married art dealer Jan Six, who had studied law and liberal arts in Leiden. Six was Rembrandt’s patron, and Rembrandt painted his portrait too. And there is yet another example of how the connection with Leiden and its university was never far away: in 1656 Rembrandt painted another anatomy lesson, this time with Dr Jan Deijman in the leading role, accompanied by eight surgeons. Deijman also studied medicine in Leiden.

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