Bug Beauty
"A Branch of Guava with the Butterfly Thyridia psidii and the Moth Megalopyge opercularis", Maria Sibylla Merian, 1702–1703; photo: public domain

Bug Beauty

Michał Książek
time 6 minutes

Creatures that crawl, jump, and stride on long limbs can be found not only in the tall grass, but also on the canvases of the Old Masters.

They show up almost everywhere. They are present in many medieval representations of the Last Judgment, sin, or hell—for example, in the twelfth century frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on the Venetian island of Torcello. They have a permanent presence in sepulchral art of the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Sometimes they appear individually, sometimes in larger groups, other times . . . in parts.

Beetles, roundworms, larvae, lizards. Frogs, winged insects, spiders, snakes, and scorpions. These have all been portrayed in art for a very long time. They feature in transi tombs, monuments consisting of a sculpted figure showing the deceased in a state of decomposition, often full of worms and larvae, sometimes accompanied by reptiles and amphibians. One such example is a tomb carved from ivory in the early sixteenth century by the Parisian artist Chicart Bailly.

These creatures are also, understandably, present in various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century apocalyptic depictions. They feature in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Seven Deadly Sins . . ., and in the work of his followers, such as Ludwig Meidner’s  Apocalyptic Vision. They writhe and crawl around the head of Peter Paul Rubens’ Medusa, and are found in The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


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In the still lifes of Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626–1679), beetles, butterflies, snails, scorpions, mantises, and lizards are portrayed side by side. Where did this idea come from? The answer lies in a list mentioned by Jan de Hond, an employee of Amsterdam’s national museum, the Rijksmuseum, in the catalog for the 2022-23 exhibition Crawly Creatures. De Hond writes that in 1268, a certain Étienne Boileau, mayor of Paris, compiled a list of harmful creatures of the grass and undergrowth in his book Le livre des métiers (“The Book of Professions”). It included snakes, lizards, spiders, flies, and worms. He combined everything that lived in the same place—on the ground and in the thickets—into a single group with common features (and therefore, perhaps, a common status).

Jan de Hond also mentions that specimens of crawly creatures appeared in various collections, in all kinds of chambers of curiosities. Thus, Henricus d’Acquet, the 17th-century mayor of Delft, accumulated a fine collection including insects, snakes, lizards, and toads. However, the collection did not feature birds or mammals.

„Martwa natura z rybą”, Georg Flegel, 1637 r.; zdjęcie: domena publiczna
“Still Life with a Fish” Georg Flegel, 1637; photo: public domain

In the mid-seventeenth century, “bugs”—which had been gradually elevated in status and were frequently presented in still lifes—enjoyed a separate type of representation in paintings. It was called sottobosco in Italian: literally, “forest undergrowth.” Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619–1678), a Dutch painter of the Baroque era, is considered the father of this trend, and one of its most eminent representatives. The subject of his paintings is indicated by the titles of some of the works themselves: Flowers, Insects and Reptiles (1673), Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles (1670), Blue Morning Glory, Toad and Insects (1660).

Entomata, Insecta, Vermine

The first classification of animals was conceived by Aristotle, who divided them into “blooded” and “bloodless.” One group included mammals and creatures that lay eggs, i.e. amphibians, reptiles, birds, and fish. The other comprised crustaceans, mollusks, cephalopods, and a subgroup he called entomata. This subgroup included insects, arachnids, centipedes, and scorpions. Four centuries later, in his book Natural History, Pliny the Elder highlighted a separate category, insecta—from the Latin insecare (“to cut”)—because the bodies of these creatures were as if cut into separate segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. Bishop Isidore of Seville (sixth/seventh century), alongside his categories of pack animals, wild animals, birds, fish, and snakes, singled out vermin (vermine), which for a long time took over from Pliny’s insecta. However, insecta returned in full force in the mid-fifteenth century with the publication of Pliny’s monumental work, which was read throughout Europe.

Aristotle believed that some animals could come into existence spontaneously from inanimate matter—specifically, from a mixture of fire, air, earth, and water. Abiogenesis (as the concept is known), meaning spontaneous generation, could not take place without the action of pneuma—the active element (breath). In the Middle Ages, this “miracle of existence” was said to concern even more species than in antiquity—usually those occupying almost the last place on the ladder of being. Below them, according to Aristotle, there were only plants, fire, and stones. For centuries, although not always consistently, small animals have also been included in the group of creatures associated with death, decay, or plague (the plagues of Egypt).

From the Undergrowth to the Salons

Painted in 1505 by Albrecht Dürer, the stag beetle is not associated with poison, sin, or decay; on the contrary, it is a product of the Renaissance admiration for insects, which were frequently included in Dürer’s representations of the Virgin Mary and the Christian saints. Dürer was not the first artist “entomologist.” The stag beetle also features on the miniatures of Giovannino de’Grassi’s 1370 manuscript Offiziolo Visconti. The borders of The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, created around 1440 by an unknown Dutch artist, are decorated with butterflies, duck mussels, and crabs. Dürer’s painting, however, exudes something new. On the one hand, the realism achieved thanks to the oil paints and new painting techniques is striking; on the other, the subject of the German master’s work, the stag beetle, leaves the border and becomes the main object (hero!) of the painting. It is no longer just a margin filler.

„Jelonek rogacz”, Albrecht Dürer, 1505 r.; zdjęcie: domena publiczna
“The stag beetle” Albrecht Dürer, 1505; photo: public domain

Insecta weren’t always associated with sin, and they didn’t always provoke disgust and bad connotations. In the sixth century BC, the Greek poet Anacreon penned his Ode to the Cicada, and centuries later—at the end of the Middle Ages—it was believed that the smallest creatures manifested the power and splendor of their creator. Jan de Hond relates back to Pliny, who connected these creatures with the ingenuity of nature, and writes that it was easy for people to substitute nature for God. I am reminded of Psalm 148, whose author calls upon animals, birds, and—as a separate category!—amphibians to praise God. Moreover, in the Book of Wisdom, it is written: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” (Proverbs 6:6).

“Bugs” deprived of symbolic burden appear in the works of Dürer, but also those of Leonardo da Vinci. There are no negative associations with the still lifes of the sixteenth century, which transformed into a separate genre of painting, achieving in the illustrations of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) a double status: refined work of art, and scientific documentation. Merian, who carefully studied the subjects of her works, had no doubt that insects reproduce from eggs through pupation, while others still believed that they emerged from inanimate matter, i.e. from dirt.

Plato and Aristotle taught that art is, above all, imitation. The fact that artists learnt about and observed small organisms was undoubtedly facilitated by their desire to present or imitate nature as faithfully as possible. Revolutionary effects were achieved by Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), who mastered the art of glazing. This technique can be seen, for example, in the famous Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Later, this method turned out to be extremely useful for painting insects, plants, and amphibians. The layering of diluted, translucent oil paint enabled artists to achieve more delicate chiaroscuro, and thus, to capture even the smallest details of “beautiful abominations.” Glazing allowed for greater precision than the previously used tempera or wax paints.

The era of geographical discoveries and the fashion for collecting things led to the closer observation of tiny creatures. Exotic, amazing specimens of plants, insects, and animals began to arrive from the continents reached by European ships. These remarkable collections needed describing and cataloging, which could not have been done without drawings and various types of representations.

„Martwa żaba i muchy”, Ambrosius Bosschaert II, 1630 r., Fondation Custodia, Paryż; zdjęcie: domena publiczna
“Dead Frog and Flies”, Ambrosius Bosschaert II, 1630, Fondation Custodia, Paris; photo: public domain

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