Feature of the Month: remembering Maria Sibylla Merian

The naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian died 300 years ago this month, on 13 January 1717. We commemorate her death by featuring her work on European insects here.

De europische insecten
Many consider Merian's De europische insecten to be her first important scientific work.

De europische insecten
Maria Sibylla Merian
Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1730
[Rare] V2 [Merian] elf

Even in her own time, the naturalist and scientific artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), the 300th anniversary of whose death falls on 13 January 2017, was celebrated as a remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life. More recent accolades include her portrait on the German banknote for DM 500, and a “Google doodle” feature in 2013 which was picked up by The Telegraph and The Guardian.

To many who know her, Merian’s name will be associated first and foremost with her work on the insects of the Dutch colony of Surinam, the first work on the natural history of that Dutch colony (Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705). That book resulted from two years of travel, observation, and botanising. It is De europische insecten, however, which is her life’s work. It began with a childhood interest in insects, raising silkworms. It ended after her death, with the last of the three volumes being published posthumously in Amsterdam in 1717.

When Merian published the first part of Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-Nahrung (‘The wonderful metamorphosis and particular floral diet of caterpillars’), to use the original title of De europische insecten, in Nuremberg in 1679, she had already produced the first two volumes of the tripartite Neues Blumenbuch (1675-1680), her first major work. To Merian herself, the works were not unrelated. Both showed the appreciation of God through small things, and the prevailing belief of early science that one might reach Him through investigating the wonders of His creation. Both, moreover, were in part pattern books, with illustrations intended to provide designs for embroidery.

To others, De europische insecten is Merian’s first important scientific work. It included fifty copperplate engravings in each of the three volumes together with Merian’s written description of her observations of the breeding habits, behaviour and transformation of the creatures depicted. Contemporaries scorned it for having been written in the vernacular instead of in Latin, and because Merian had gathered samples rather than relying on scholarly gifts and exchanges. But it is a trailblazing work. It relies on Merian’s own observations, describing the habitat, appearance and behaviour of the caterpillars for which she had searched and which she had gathered in and around Nuremberg in the late 1670s. Whilst insects were an accepted subject of study by the time she was writing (see, in an English context, Hooke’s Micrographia of 1665), and Merian was not the first to depict the stages of insect development, she was innovative in illustrating the life cycles of butterflies, moths and caterpillars alongside the plants on which they fed. She often placed a moth or butterfly in an upper corner of her illustrations to demonstrate the relationship between the insects and the plants. A practical streak emerges in her dedication of the work not just to natural scientists, artists, and lovers of gardens, but to gardeners.

This book, a Dutch translation of all three volumes, came to the University of London, together with the Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, from the London Institution after its closure in 1912. Both volumes feature in a list of 76 “items of special interest and value” from the London Institution given in the University of London Library’s annual report of 1925. For such a large and eminently collectible item, it seems to be surprisingly scarce in British academic and research libraries, with Copac listing only five other libraries containing this edition.


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