Maria Sibylla Merian and her Love for Nature’s Details

Illuminated Copper-engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian

Illuminated Copper-engraving from
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium
by Maria Sibylla Merian

On April 2, 1647, the German naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian was born. Even though she is not very well known for her achievements, she made significant contributions to entomology through the observation and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly.

The fact that Maria Sibylla Merian is not well known throughout the scientific community is probably caused by the fact that the study of nature and entomology in general only slowly developed after the medieval era. During the middle ages, insects were seen as organisms that evolved from lazy mud and were unworthy of being studied scientifically. It was Francesco Redi in the 1660’s, who was able to disprove this general opinion. Until then, only about two known books concerning insects existed and they probably laid the foundations of entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian succeeded to convince her step father to study arts in early years and at age 11, she was already able to make her own copperplate engravings. She started to cultivate silk worms and other insects at her home. Merian began to create very detailed drawings of the studied organisms in a scientific, but also religious sense, since insects were seen as devilish vermins (“Teufelsgeziefer“) by most Christians back then.

During her time in Nuremberg, Merian taught women how to paint and draw plants and published her first books in order to support her teaching lessons. One of the books, and her most influential at this time contained her long time observations of nature and its plants and insects. It was seen as a significant contribution to entomology but Merian really intended to continue the search for God especially in the most “insignificant” animals on Earth.

In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian decided to visit Suriname for two years, since she was impressed by the many insects people from Europe had discovered coming from the hot and humid country. She traveled through the jungles where she observed, drew and arranged each butterfly in the superfamilies of Papilionoideae and Hedylidae, which still are valid up to this day.

Back in Amsterdam, Merian’s observations were revised and exhibited. She also published a book with carefully drawn plants and insects with an amazing level of detail. Despite her scientific success and her well deserved reputation, she could not afford living from her achievements, wherefore she continued teaching.

Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the first researchers to study insects systematically, knowing and writing about their metamorphosis. She was known for her unusual life style, especially the fact that a woman in 1700 traveled without a man’s protection through the jungle shocked society. Even though, Merian passed away as a rather poor person on January 17, 1717, she was honored numerous times posthumously for her scientific and artistic works.

References and Further Reading:

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