Maria Sibylla Merian’s Art & Science

As we look toward the quadrivium, we are blessed to have examples from history of individuals who have not accepted our culture’s artificial separation of the sciences and the arts and humanities. These are people who see the beauty and harmony of mathematics, the structure and order of music, and the rhythm of the stars and planets.

I am fascinated by Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman who merged art and science in an age when women’s opportunities for study were generally limited to domestic matters.

Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany. (For my timeline enthusiasts, she lived during the Age of Absolute Monarchs, the Baroque Period of the Arts, and the Age of Enlightenment. The slave trade was flourishing when she was a young woman).

Merian’s father published natural history textbooks, and her stepfather was trained as an artist. He took Merian under his tutelage and taught her to draw, paint, and make prints. Merian in turn became a teacher, gathering a “company of maidens” to instruct in art and observation (Chrysalis, Todd).

She published several illustrated books on flowers before writing a two-volume study of caterpillars: Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers. According to an exhibit in the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Merian’s interest in insects was stimulated by the practice of silkworm breeding that was introduced by Frankfurt’s silk trade. She began to observe caterpillars, moths, and butterflies, and by the age of 13 she had already observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm—a discovery that pre-dated published accounts by almost ten years.”

In addition to her prowess as an artist, Merian was an astute observer and a keen scientific thinker. “Merian’s work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.”

Merian spent five years living with a religious community in the Netherlands, and she saw both her art and her scientific research as a reflection of God’s creation.

From 1699 to 1701, she lived and worked in the Dutch colony of Suriname (South America). The resulting book, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, contained observations of plant and animal life, but also commentary on the Dutch slave trade and the local climate and customs of Suriname.

Before Merian died in 1717, Czar Peter the Great of Russia was so impressed with her work that he purchased her watercolor collection from The Insects of Suriname. Thanks to her daughters’ efforts, Merian’s work was published in multiple editions and went on to leave a lasting mark on the field of entomology (the study of insects).

Her creativity and focus are a model of integrated learning. Merian had little formal schooling, but she trained her brain to see the wonder of the world in even the smallest (and, according to some, the ugliest) of God’s creatures. What a beautiful picture!

Categories Classical Education | Tags: , , , , , | Posted on January 23, 2012

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