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Where Beauty Meets Truth: How Maria Sibylla Merian Took on the world

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Orton Academy and Research was born of a love of both knowledge and beauty. Dr. Orton investigates the Enlightenment entomologist who refused to choose between the two.

Why should beauty undermine credibility? When I was designing the Orton Academy and Research website, the aesthetic element was very important to me. I wanted it to be a beautiful and inspiring place to visit - like stepping out of the lush English countryside into a calm library, surrounded by captivating works of ancient scholarship, yet with access to current, rigorous debate.

There’s no reason that truth should not be aesthetically compelling. Maria Sibylla Merian’s intricate depictions of the life cycle of insects are certainly beautiful, but they also contain important entomological insights. Yet their revolutionary contribution was initially overlooked, and her work ridiculed by the establishment. Much has been written about how she was dismissed because of her gender, but I’ve always felt that it was also the beauty of her work that made the experts of her day sceptical of its scientific worth.

In a time in which knowledge was thought to mean the classification of the world – dividing things into categories rather than seeing connections – Merian’s approach was unconventional. Whereas plants and animals were displayed in isolation on the pages of books of her day, Merian depicted insects throughout their life cycles, along with the plants that provided their food and habitats; an organic vision of the natural world.

Slowly, Merian was vindicated: Linnaeus and his cohorts came to rely heavily on her work, and many of the claims that were initially dismissed have since been proven to be true. Today, her work is appreciated for its ecological compositions and the understanding that insects – indeed, all living things – are connected within a system of ecological communities.

Challenging the Greats

By the middle of the seventeenth century, scientific thought on the mystery of life was dominated by the one and a half thousand year old theory of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Animals such as metamorphic insects, thought Aristotle, sprang into being spontaneously from non-living matter in what was termed ‘spontaneous generation.’

Science as we know it today was in its infancy. Francis Bacon had published his Novum Organum, in 1620, setting out the empirical method of experimentation and observation still used by scientists today. Scientists of the seventeenth century sought to use these tools to address the question of spontaneous generation. Jan Baptista van Helmont supposed that mice could emerge from a combination of a dirty shirt and some wheat; frogs were believed to generate spontaneously from mud on the banks of the Nile.

It wasn’t until 1668 that this was publicly refuted by Francesco Redi, who performed an experiment showing that maggots would not generate on meat if flies were prevented from having direct contact with it. Maggots were not the product of spontaneous generation: they were the offspring of flies.

However, Redi was not the first person to challenge the theory of spontaneous generation empirically; rather, he was the first person with a voice in the scientific community to do so. Eight years earlier, a thirteen year old girl from Frankfurt came to the same conclusions as Redi, based on her own observations.

Maria Sibylla Merian began collecting and raising insects as a girl, observing in 1660 that eggs developed into caterpillars, which would themselves develop into moths. Merian also recorded the metamorphosis of frogs from frogspawn into tadpoles thirteen years before Antoni van Leeuwenhoek more famously made the same observation.

Merian would later move to a Nuremburg, then without her husband to a Labadist commune in Wieuwerd, Holland. Her divorce in 1690 was unconventional enough, but her lifelong love of entomology inspired her to take an even more unorthodox decision.

Merian moved to Amsterdam with her two daughters in 1691 and, in 1699, in her 50s, she and her daughter Dorothea sailed to South America. They were destined to a Dutch colony in Surinam, in order to research Merian’s magnum opus, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

An Enlightenment Adventurer for the Twenty-First Century

Merian and Dorothea took a house on the coast, but they visited sugar plantations where they came face to face with the brutality of slavery. They ventured into the jungle to collect and observe insects, where Merian was delighted by the creatures she found.

Anyone who has travelled to the tropics will be familiar with the oppressive heat and the worrying possibility of tropical diseases, but Merian’s love of beauty drove her investigations regardless. In her description of the Jasmine Tree, Merian describes the “heavy and thick flowers, which give off a delicious scent” and urges the reader to observe the clouded butterfly associated with it in detail “since no pen could describe its beauty.”

Merian was living in the Enlightenment, a period in which scientific, political and philosophical discourse characterised European society. The Enlightenment has been criticised by post-modernist thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who made the point that the other cultures around the world were treated as irrational. This has been a problem in Anthropology even in recent times, which I have written about here.

However, in this regard, Merian was also ahead of her time, showing a great respect for the indigenous knowledge of local people and also seeking information from African slaves. In her depiction of the Peacock Flower, Merian noted with disapproval the poor treatment of indigenous people and slaves by the Dutch colonists.

Beauty and Tragedy

Poor health forced Merian to return to the Netherlands, but she used the opportunity to publish a folio of her work, with sixty colour plates and text in Latin and Dutch. Although initially ridiculed, her publication gained her great notoriety. Merian described insects previously unknown to science, along with plants which would become economically important, such as the sweet potato and pineapple.

Tragically, Merian didn’t manage to publish her planned second folio on Surinam’s reptiles, or to translate her work into German and she died in poverty in 1717, two years after having a stroke. She never benefitted from the large sum of money from Peter the Great when he purchased a set of her drawings shortly after her death and she never lived to see her reputation exonerated after it was slated by the Victorians.

Merian’s depiction of a tarantula devouring a hummingbird is a case in point. Reverend Lansdown Guilding called it an ‘entomological caricature’, sneering that that ants cannot construct a bridge with their bodies, and that a ‘bird-eating spider’ was ridiculous.

In fact, Merian did make mistakes, incorrectly conflating army and leaf-cutter ants and painting four eggs rather than two in the hummingbird nest. In other ways, she was unfairly criticised: ants do construct bridges with their bodies. It was none other than Charles Darwin’s friend Henry Walter Bates who vindicated Merian’s depiction of the tarantula eating a hummingbird by describing the same phenomenon in 1863.

Perhaps her greatest crime in the eyes of the Victorians was to prioritise beauty and a wholistic appreciation of the natural world over sterile categorisation. Merian wanted to avoid repetition, so she sometimes placed an insect on a plant other than its host.

However, her regard for elegant arrangement did not come at the expense of precision. Where she sacrificed accuracy for the sake of composition, Merian would include notes to address this, for example describing where pupae would be found in nature when she depicted it in an unnatural location.

An Opportunistic Love of Beauty

Maria Sibylla Merian saw opportunity in obstacles. Unlike other naturalists of her day, Merian was not financed by a government or patron but this gave her independence. She went against convention but this allowed her to innovate – and her opportunistic love of beauty is a lesson for us all.

While living in Nuremberg, Merian had once found seventeen fat maggots festering in some birds she had been about to cook for dinner. Instead of being repulsed, Merian was delighted. She recorded her observations of the maggots’ metamorphosis into brown pupae, out of which came “many pretty green and blue flies” which she immediately attempted to catch. Inconvenience, Merian taught us, often has potential for beauty.

Sometimes beauty exists in the most fleeting moments, Merian also found. Merian’s depiction of the sphinx moth captured the creature during the brief period in which its proboscis (tongue) is split, just as it emerges from its pupa.

Merian’s compositions – for that’s what they are – and her approach to life show us that beauty is compatible with tragedy. Beauty is compatible with revulsion. Beauty is compatible with the transient, with the mundane, with decay.

Beauty, Merian showed us, is compatible with truth.

Find out more

For those wanting to know more about the Enlightenment approach to knowledge, take a look at our Intellectual History course on the Enlightenment, or to see where Merian’s work fits into the scientific revolution, take a look at our History of Science course. To learn more about the importance of working with local people in fieldwork, you might enjoy our Anthropology courses, Introduction to Anthropology, Philosophy of Anthropology, or Social and Cultural Anthropology. Finally, why not look at our Interdisciplinary course, Culture and Conservation, to see the magic that happens when biologists, anthropologists, folklorists and local people collaborate?

These are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!

Contact us to find out more!

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