Maria Sibylla Merian: illustrating the natural world

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) was a remarkable woman in many ways. She was a very talented scientific illustrator and had a passion for insects. According to David Attenborough, she contributed immensely to taxonomy in entomology and the understanding of metamorphosis, and she was the first person who travelled on purely scientific grounds.

Though she was sometimes a little too creative with her images, the quality is astonishing – imagine sitting in tropical humidity in Surinam in 1699, painting. She was the first to create scientific images that in effect cross both space and time, and are essentially images of biotopes.

This means that in the same image, the different states of the subjects over time is depicted, so you have the same species in different stages of development and seasons. Caterpillars and butterflies, flowers and fruits in the same image, spring, summer, winter and autumn. In addition, she shows how one species acts on another: caterpillar-munched leaves (again indicating what trees the caterpillar lives on). In essence, this means that from one single image, you can identify several species at any time of the year, from multiple viewpoints. It is extremely efficient, and if a field guide should contain the same visual information, you would need dozens of photographs. I doff my hat, Mrs. Merian!

Eat your heart out, Photoshop.

One thought on “Maria Sibylla Merian: illustrating the natural world”

Have an opinion!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.