AIMS/BACKGROUND: The connective tissue system of the levator palpebrae superioris muscle (LPS) consists of the septa surrounding its muscle sheath, the superior transverse ligament (STL) commonly referred to as 'Whitnall's ligament' and the common sheath which is the fascia between the LPS and the superior rectus muscle (SRM). The anterior band-like component of the common sheath is called transverse superior fascial expansion (TSFE) of the SRM and LPS. It mainly extends from the connective tissue of the trochlea to the fascia of the lacrimal gland. A detailed description of the relation between the LPS and its connective tissue is presented. Furthermore, the course of the LPS in the orbit is described. The study was conducted to provide a morphological basis for biomechanical and clinical considerations regarding ptosis surgery. METHODS: Postmortem dissections were performed in 16 orbits from eight cadavers. The microscopical anatomy was demonstrated in six formalin preserved orbits from six cadavers which had been sectioned in the frontal and sagittal plane and stained with haematoxylin and azophloxin. Surface coil magnetic resonance imaging in the sagittal and coronal plane was performed in five orbits from five normal volunteers using a T1 weighted spin echo sequence. RESULTS: The STL and the TSFE surround the LPS to form a fascial sleeve around the muscle which has attachments to the medial and lateral orbital wall. The TSFE, which is thicker than the STL, blends with Tenon's capsule. The STL and the fascial sheath of the LPS muscle are suspended from the orbital roof by a framework of radial connective tissue septa. MR images show that the TSFE is located between the anterior third of the superior rectus muscle and the segment of the LPS muscle where it changes its course from upwards to downwards. In this area, the LPS reaches its highest point in the orbit (culmination point). The culmination point is located a few millimetres posterior to the equator and superior to the globe. CONCLUSION: Whitnall's ligament can be considered to consist of two distinct parts--the TSFE inferior to the LPS and the STL superior to the LPS. Since the medial and lateral main attachments of Whitnall's ligament are situated inferior to the level of the culmination point of the LPS, the ligament itself is unlikely to suspend the levator muscle. However, a suspension of the LPS may be achieved by the radial connective tissue septa of the superior orbit. The TSFE in connection with the globe may have an additional supporting function. The elasticity of Whitnall's ligament and its connections with highly elastic structures including Tenon's capsule, may provide the morphological substrate for the previously proposed passive (that is, without orbicularis action) lowering of the lid during downward saccades.