Since the Greek kouros, sculpture has depended on at least a basic understanding of human anatomy. Anatomy was in fact studied by ancient civilizations independently of its relevance to rendering the human body in two dimensions or three for art. The fusion of anatomy and art reached its first peak during the Renaissance, when artists in Europe longed to deepen their technique and enhance the realism of their human forms and figures. Some artists went so far as to paint anatomy lessons in a display of dramatic irony that brings the viewer face-to-face with the reality that art depends on a solid understanding of the human body. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn painted "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp," which depicts the titular doctor and his cadre of students with a corpse. Dr. Tulp uses a pair of scissors to slice into the musculature of the dead man's arm, and several students look on intently:
Part of the reason for the increased interest in anatomy was to improve the quality of art, but there was more to it than that. As religious fundamentalism fell out of favor, science rose to the fore as the prime means of gaining truth and understanding reality. With the shift toward science, the human body was wrested from the province of religion and placed firmly into the hands of the people. Artists and scientists both cultivated deep respect and admiration for the human body, as can be witnessed on the faces of the men in Rembrandt's painting. "As technology advanced, both scientists and artists explored the body as a site of knowledge and beauty, turning the most familiar of territories into a strange and complex enigma," (Frank 1). Aesthetics and "theological understanding" were fused with common medical illustrations ("Historical Perspectives on Art and Anatomy"). Prior to the Renaissance, looking at and studying the human body in the kind of detail exhibited in the Rembrandt painting was practically taboo. Knowledge about the human body was considered esoteric. After the Renaissance, artists were liberated to explore the infinite detail of the body and used this knowledge to improve renditions of the body in three and two-dimensional forms. Michelangelo and DaVinci undertook anatomy studies but even during the Renaissance, opportunities for dissection were limited (Bambach 1). Eknoyan describes Michelangelo's "lifelong interest in anatomy that began with his participation in public dissections in his early teens," and by the age of 18 he was performing them himself (1190). Michelangelo would eventually publish a book on anatomy for artists, starting a revolution in the ways artists would from then on render the human form. Leonardo DaVinci was an even more accomplished anatomist than Michelangelo. Bambach describes DaVinci as "without doubt the most significant artist-anatomist of all time," (1).
Understanding anatomy yields a more "lifelike" rendition of the human body (Bambach 1). When viewing Egyptian sculpture, the body seems rigid, and there are few naturalistic elements such as visible musculature or ligament. The ancient Greeks improved sculptural traditions, which is why Renaissance artists did invoke classical sculpture. However, Renaissance sculptors took the Greek understanding of human anatomy a step further to create forms that were shockingly lifelike to viewers. Michelangelo's "David" is a product of the artist's deft understanding of human anatomy. Veins bulge from the statue, which is larger than a man but has the commanding presence of a live human being. The hands are particularly powerful indicators of the artist's understanding of human anatomy:
Michelangelo shows the hand of David gripping the sling shot with just enough intensity: the grip is neither too forceful nor too light. Each finger is independent, and the veins of the hand are apparent. Without an understanding of anatomy, a realistic rendition of the hand is practically impossible. Comparisons with sculpted hands prior to the Renaissance shows that anatomical correctness reached a peak during the Renaissance because of an increased use of anatomy lessons.
Artists using nude models, even without anatomical training, were able to envision the body in new ways after the groundbreaking work done during the Renaissance. One of the reasons why an understanding of anatomy is of particular use to the sculptor is that movement is often implied in the form. With "David," the subject stands poised with a weapon and ready to strike; his bulging veins suggest strength, power, and readiness to fight.