How Maria Sibylla Merian opened our eyes to nature
Google celebrates the 366th birthday of German artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, whose observations of insects and their habitats stood at the dawn of the scientific revolution.
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Ms. Myers notes that "Descartes published his 'Discourse on the Method' ('I think, therefore I am') in 1637, a decade before Merian's birth. The Protestant Reformation came to a close in 1648, a year after she was born. Isaac Newton was only a few years Merian's senior and published the "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica," outlining his three universal laws of motion, in 1687."Skip to next paragraph
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But Merian also lived era of widespread superstition. In 1663, the mayor of Magdeburg, Germany, devoted himself to assembling a unicorn skeleton. A year later, Pope Alexander VII reiterated the Church's ban on books that claimed the earth orbited the sun (a proscription that would remain in some form until 1822). As Merian was peering at caterpillars in Nuremberg, other cities were burning women for witchcraft.
Later naturalists largely overlooked Merian's scientific acumen, with some dismissing her observations as fantastical. In a 2010 paper, Ms. Etheridge quotes the Reverend Lansdown Guilding, an early 19th century naturalist who specialized in the flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Mr. Guilding called Merian's description of the fauna that lives on guava trees – including spiders that capture hummingbirds in their webs and ants that build bridges out of themselves – as "entomological caricature." Of course, today we know that these observations were spot on.
But it may have also been the sheer beauty of Merian's artwork – Russian tsar Peter the Great was among its admirers – that ultimately overshadowed her contributions to entomology. Even today, the full text of the observations accompanying her images is hard to come by in English.
"Ironically," writes Etheridge, "it may be that the focus on Merian’s consummate artistry has diverted attention from the scientific content of both her images and text, and has been a factor in her being overlooked as a significant early modern naturalist."
But for Merian, science and artistry were inextricably bound. Myers of the The LA Times was taken by a quote by Merian displayed on one of the walls at the Getty exhibition: "Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line: that which is conquered, conquers at the same time."
Merian clearly embodied this synthesis, and perhaps it can occur for all of us who love the natural world, as long as we follow her example and remember to keep our eyes open, appreciate the small things, and, most of all, never underestimate girls who collect caterpillars.
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