Arts, Anatomy, Leonardo and Queen

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen – Leonardo da Vinci.

This post is the conclusion of my overseas journey during the summer of 2019 with a team of anatomists and physiologists, professors, and medical professionals. I went to get a taste of London, Paris, and Amsterdam from an anatomical artist’s perspective rather than as a tourist. If you missed my first post with details about the Apothecary Museum and Gordon Museum of Pathology at King’s College, start here!

Before we traveled, the part of the itinerary which attracted me most was the visit to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Leonardo da Vinci’s original art, part of the Royal Collection, was on display there to mark the 500 year anniversary of his death. Most people know Leonardo as one of the greatest artists of all time; as an anatomist I know him as a great scientist and designer whose creations from 500 years back will still awe a scientist of the modern era.

Though Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man in the Renaissance Era was well-known for his concept of symmetry in humans and nature, most of Leonardo’s anatomical sketches remain unnoticed and unappreciated. Frustrated, Leonardo never published those masterpieces of anatomy-oriented art. 

Entrance to Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, London
Introduction to the exhibition at the Gallery Hall
Introduction to the exhibition at the Gallery Hall 

His original art was acquired by the Queen of England and was displayed for the public, and I think we are fortunate to get the opportunity to see the original drawings of Leonardo. Two hundred of his original pictures were on display which included the bulk of his anatomical sketches which I was waiting eagerly to see. It was indeed a great idea by Dr. Petti to design his study abroad course around the time of the exhibition.  It was amazing to see how Leonardo’s curious mind unveiled minute anatomical details. 

Leonardo’s passion led him to perfectly portray the intricate complexities of human anatomy. All the red walls with these paintings and sketches attracted our group members like magnets and the same thought came over and over, that this will be truly a lifetime memory to cherish forever. There were sketches of horses, a human skeleton, a human heart, and the list could go on and on.

We stopped at one corner, where we saw a framed piece, but there was nothing on that piece of paper (see below). A mystery no doubt! That paper which apparently looked like everything was washed out to the naked eye under normal light showed amazing details when exposed to high-energy fluorescent rays and we came to know about an amazing technique. 

Adoration of Magi - Picture framed on left apparently invisible in normal light; on right - Sketches revealed with Fluorescent technology.
Adoration of Magi – Picture framed on left apparently invisible in normal light
On right – Sketches revealed with fluorescent technology

That framed blank picture was from the Adoration of Magi series by Leonardo. He used a pen with a stylus made of copper and over the period the metallic copper chemically changed to copper salt with exposure to air showing no marks. When exposed to high-energy fluorescent rays, energy rays were absorbed by the paper and revealed the sketches with amazing details once drawn by Leonardo, and the mystery was solved too!

For thousands of years, humans showed advancement in designing sophisticated tools which is a reflection of higher brain function. Recent use of imaging techniques like MRI not only mark advancements as one of the most important diagnostic tools in different medical fields, but certain imaging techniques are now helping us to unveil the past. One such modern use of contrivance is C14 and potassium 40 dating for fossils and rocks to determine their age. Carbon dating has been known for years, but when it comes to the handwritings or sketches as mentioned above, luminescence technique using UV rays provides some hidden facts.

More information about the display and other technology used to create and decode Leonardo’s art can be found here

Every corridor, every room of the gallery displayed an extravaganza of artistic expression and anatomical excitement and I left wondering how advanced a person could be for his time to create all those beautiful artworks which paved the foundation of the knowledge of human anatomy almost 500 years back.

Leonard’s anatomical sketches
Leonardo’s anatomical sketches

Author bio: Dr. Soma Mukhopadhyay did her Masters in Zoology and her Ph.D. in Nuclear Medicine in Calcutta, India, and subsequently did postdoctoral research in Cellular Physiology at the College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati. She is a Lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences, Augusta University, and has also taught at Pennsylvania State University, University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, University of South Carolina. Her areas of research are cardiovascular physiology and molecular evolution as it relates to human anatomy & physiology. Her passions are music, art, and photography.

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