Behind The Scenes, 8 March 2020: A woman of science and art

Behind The Scenes, 8 March 2020: A woman of science and art

8 March 2020

Last week we shared the exciting news that a new window had been installed in St Luke’s church. It’s a stunning fused glass work by Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes. She took her inspiration from the marbled endpapers in a book in the Cottonian Collection. The book is a rare 1726 copy of Maria Sibylla Merian’s survey of the insects of Surinam.

Endpapers from Maria Sybilla Merian's survey of the insects of Surinam
A close up of the fused glass in Leonor Antunes' stained glass window at The Box, Plymouth
Maria Sybilla Merian endpapers close up
Close up of Leonor Antunes' stained glass window for The Box, Plymouth

Merian (1647-1717) was both a pioneering scientist and artist. She was one of the first entomologists (insect specialists) to study and record the plant and insect life of South America. She travelled there with her eldest daughter Johanna in 1699 where they collected, recorded and sketched specimens. Upon their return to Germany, they turned the drawings into engravings. Merian published her findings in 1705. Many editions, such as the one in our Cottonian Collection, were hand-coloured by Johanna and her younger sister Dorothea, who continued with the production of the book after their mother died.

Merian's fascination with insects began during her childhood. As a teenager she began collecting caterpillars and recording their changes. At the time there were several competing theories about the origin of butterflies. Did they hatch from eggs? Some thought they were born from mud!

Despite not being able to attend formal schools and academies because of her gender, Merian was closely connected with the greatest scientific minds of her generation. Many scientists and explorers even sent her insects and caterpillars from abroad for her collection. She earned an income from trading in rare insects and from teaching embroidery to the daughters of wealthy clients in her home town. Some of her botanical illustrations also served as embroidery patterns.

Illustration of frog and spawn by Maria Sybilla Merian
Plant illustration by Maria Sybilla Merian
Illustration of bird eating spider by Maria Sybilla Merian
Illustration of a pineapple by Maria Sybilla Merian

Although she was respected by her peers, it took some time for Merian to be recognised more widely for her scientific and artistic achievements. One of her greatest contributions to scientific illustration was to show the interaction between an insect and its plant environment. She depicted each life stage of the insect (egg, larva, pupa and adult) alongside the life cycle of the plant it relied on for its food and habitat. For centuries before this, scientific texts had only highlighted one or the other.

Each of Merian's illustrations were based on her first-hand observations. The texts that accompanied her illustrations provided amazing details about the insects, plants and their predators as well as her observations of their use as food, dyes and medicine by the indigenous peoples of Surinam. In the frontispiece for 'Insects of Surinam', she can be seen with a net collecting butterflies or other insects.

Illustration of Maria Sybilla Merian in the field from 'Insects of Surinam'

As for her scientific contributions, look no further than Carl Linneaus (1707-1778), the famous Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician. Known as 'the father of modern taxonomy', he founded the system of biological classification that is still taught in schools today. He used Merian's 'Insects of Surinam' to inform his knowledge - particularly of species he would never see in his lifetime, like the tarantula.

After her death Merian became renowned in the scientific community. Butterflies, a bird-eating spider, a moth, a lizard, a toad, a bird, a snail and a genus of flowering plants are all named after her.

Charles Rogers, the principal collector of our Designated Cottonian Collection purchased Merian's book in 1784 for his library, much of which was about art and travel. Even though the Cottonian Collection includes some amazing books and volumes, her pioneering work would have been a luxury. The edition is large and Rogers would have paid grandly for its binding, gilded stampwork and sumptuous endpapers.

Merian's work was a dramatic window into a faraway part of the world and a micro-view of the world of insects, some common and some spectacular.

Close up of Leonor Antunes window and tracery in St Luke's at The Box, Plymouth

It's very fitting for the endpapers in her book to serve as the basis for Antunes' window in St Luke's. Antunes often highlights other female artists in her work and the church, which once served as the library service's book-binding department, is now a space where The Box can explore how contemporary artists respond to the world around us.

To find out even more read our press release about Leonor Antunes' window commission.

with thanks to Terah Walkup, Art Curator