In June of 1699, a 52-year-old Maria Sibylla Merian departed on a cargo ship for South America’s Suriname with only her 22-year-old daughter Dorothea Maria for company. It was a hundred years ahead of Alexander von Humboldt‘s more famed travels, and not an era in which many German women worked outside the home, let alone took solo natural history expeditions. Merian was interested in one thing: butterflies. Not just their beauty, but their whole life cycle, from caterpillar to chrysalis to winged insect.
A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald, out now from Prestel, is a compact biography on Merian’s natural history contributions, accompanied by her meticulous and colorful illustrations. Unlike many of her predecessors, she didn’t depict the caterpillars and butterflies separately. Instead, each was a scene of life, with the foraging plant alongside the butterfly in its different life stages.
Butterflies might seem like an innocuous research subject for a woman, although in the 17th century universities were still exclusively male. However, aside from the silkworm (Merian’s first focus) which was revered for its contributions to luxury cloth, the butterflies and creeping caterpillars were seen as lowly beings, or worse, demonic. “For some people, these creatures were the work of the Devil, and those who interested in them were surely up to no good — why, they might even be witches, who must be put to death,” Friedewald writes in A Butterfly Journey. He notes that according “to popular belief, witches possessed the power to change themselves into butterflies in order to curdle cream and butter.” Thus the name “buttervögel” in German and “butterfly” in English.
Friedewald doesn’t go too in-depth into the trials of working as a woman in science in the 17th century, or her influence on women naturalists who followed. However, the book does show how she personally progressed from a young girl curious about the natural world, to one of the first researchers to examine butterflies in such detail. At the time, spontaneous generation was still considered by many to be the butterfly’s mode of reproduction.
Merian was very much driven by her faith. In her 1679 Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformations and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers, published in German so it could be read by everyone (Latin was the dominant academic language), she affirmed her Christian mission alongside the natural history descriptions. Friedewald writes:
For Maria Sibylla […] the ‘caterpillar book’ is not a medium for showing off her artistic skills and scientific knowledge at a time when a woman’s most important duties were those related to running the household. In fact, she saw her work solely as a song of praise for the Creator. In her preface she confesses: “Do not seek herein my glory / but that of God / to praise / Him / as Creator of even these small and most humble worms; / for they spring not from themselves / but from God.”
He adds that to Merian “the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges from a lifeless hull and joyfully flies heavenward, is a hope-giving symbol for the resurrection of the soul from the dead physical shell of the Christian’s body.” Yet by the time she published the 1705 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensum on her research in Suriname, where long-haired caterpillars in the rainforest sometimes swelled her hands up with poison for days and she had to cultivate exotic plants herself to keep caterpillars alive through their life-cycles, there’s no mention of God. Rather, she starts by confidently describing her own life and personal journey, concluding that she has “kept simply to my observations.”
Despite her long career, her influence on contemporary natural knowledge, her vivid descriptions of distant Suriname, and her intrepid spirit, when she died in 1717 the city of Amsterdam’s register of deaths described her simply as a woman “without means.”
A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald is out now from Prestel.