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Maria Sibylla Merian
Cabinet Exhibition

13 Jan 2017 — 9 Jul 2017

Life and Work

Three hundred years ago a fulfilled and exciting life came to an end in Amsterdam. Maria Sibylla Merian was born on April 2, 1647 in the free imperial city of Frankfurt am Main. At the age of three she lost her father, the publisher and printer Matthäus Merian (1593—1650). The publishing house and printing company continued operating under the painter Jacob Marrel (1614—1681). Maria Sibylla learned her exceptional skills from both of them. So she is regarded not only as a co-founder of modern, enlightened science, but also as an eminent artist and illustrator. Ever since she was a child she was interested in animals and plants, their modes of life and classification. Encouraged by her environment, she used her artistic talents in an ideal way to acquire knowledge, and changed the world accordingly. Firmly rooted in the society and religious faith of the 17th Century, the Age of Discovery and the beginning of the emancipation provided her with great opportunities for development, which she knew how to exploit. The exhibition in the Wiesbaden Museum on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of her death cannot adequately represent the life and multifaceted work of Maria Sibylla Merian. However, there are numerous biographies and scientific essays available for this. In Wiesbaden her original preserved animal specimens from South America, which for the sake of their preservation are only rarely taken out of storage, can be examined close-up. The majority of her illustrations of native insects are still kept in St. Petersburg. In their place, the taxidermists Malte Seehausen and Felix Richter have created nine dioramas to enable us to carry out our own research.

The Metamorphosis

In Merian’s time it was generally assumed that lower animals were produced by spontaneous generation (abiogenesis) from inanimate matter. It was not until 1668 that Francesco Redi (1626—1697) succeeded in proving in an experiment that only the deposition of eggs gives rise to the population of a piece of meat by maggots. Knowledge about further processes involved in the transformation of a maggot into an adult form was extremely limited. One of the first contributors to the subject of metamorphosis was the Dutch painter and entomologist Johannes Goedaert (1620—1668), who, very much in the spirit of enlightenment, placed great importance upon examining his research specimens himself, rather than simply copying the presumed knowledge of others. He documented his long-term breeding observations on 125 plates, which were also known to Maria Sibylla Merian (Schmidt-Loske, 2007). Merian’s interest in Nature, and especially in insects, clearly had to do with her environment. Born into a liberal-minded and educated household, free from financial restraints, she could make journeys of discovery in her parents’ garden while still a child. Even today, such an interest is usually evident as early as in childhood. Those who have caught the entomology bug tend to remain faithful to this subject throughout their lives. Lepidopterans, however, were an important matter in Frankfurt am Main for other reasons as well, because it was the centre of the European silk trade. There were several silk worm breeders in the region, and so thirteen-year-old Merian decided to study the silk worm. In contrast to other insects, this one did not have a bad reputation and could be bred safely. Throughout her lifetime Merian committed her findings to her study book. In so doing she even succeeded in making complex and highly peculiar observations, such as the development of parasites. Metamorphosis is the basic theme of her three books entitled Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung — The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food (1679, 1683, 1717). To this day, it remains unclear whether Merian also connected the fact of metamorphosis with those
insects which, unlike lepidopterans, pass through an incomplete (hemimetabolic) transformation. For example, the juvenile forms of locusts are only slightly different from the adult stages (imagos). There is some evidence that the discovery of the transformation of lepidopterans was also applied by Merian to other animal groups which undergo completely different “metamorphoses”. She assumed, for example, that the bird spider changes into a cocoon and remarked: “sie häuten sich von Zeit zu Zeit wie die Raupen, aber ich habe nie fliegende gefunden — they shed their skins from time to time like caterpillars, but I have never found them flying”.

About Ecology

Ecology is the study of the interactions of living organisms with each other and with their physical environment. The first definition was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834—1919). Nowadays ecology is subdivided into the fields of population ecology, ecosystems and community ecology. The latter were also topics of interest for Maria Sibylla Merian. In particular, Merian devoted herself to studying the interactions between individual species and their environment. Biological systems are, in most cases, highly complex and therefore difficult to investigate. For this, a foundation must be laid. Even today, some of the most basic knowledge is missing, in particular about the modes of life and lifecycles of individual species — no matter how often we may come across them. In Merian’s time such things were of absolutely no interest to anyone, especially as far as economically unimportant organisms were concerned. Studying and breeding caterpillars made it necessary to discover different species. This gave rise to Merian’s awareness of the fact that it is not just any plant which provides caterpillar’s basic nutrients, but that there is in most cases a close relationship between them. The caterpillars of the peacock butterfly are found on stinging nettles, those of the spurge hawkmoth most frequently on toxic milkbushes, and the European goat moth on various broad-leaved trees and shrubs. Merian added to this knowledge to a considerable degree, even if she made several mistakes. The journey to Suriname enabled her to apply her skills in tropical habitats, where biological complexity is particularly evident. Merian’s knowledge grew, and during the course of her own research she even succeeded in describing parasitism involving individual species. The topic of her research is still far from being fully understood and will require the work of future generations, who will profit from it in an intellectual and occasionally even an economic sense.

The Collection in the Wiesbaden Museum

With the establishment of the Museum of Natural History, one of the largest and oldest collections of invertebrates came to Wiesbaden, courtesy of author, collector and diplomat Johann Isaak von Gerning (1767—1837). His father Johann Christian Gerning (1745—1802), a merchant and Frankfurt-based banker, had gathered more than 40 000 specimens from around the world which had been preserved in the 18th Century. The animals were mounted in small glass boxes and protected against pest damage using plenty of mercury. According to Hüsg en (1790), Maria Sibylla Merian’s preserved animal specimens found their way – with the help of Remigius von Klettenberg (1694—1766) and Johann Nikolaus Körner (1710—1773) — into Gerning’s collection. The latter was assistant to August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof (1705—1759), a naturalist and copperplate engraver who not only continued Merian’s artistic legacy with his work Insecten-Belustigung — Insect Amusement, but, as a co-founder of experimental biology, was also able to prove that flies emerge from eggs — and not, as had been generally assumed, spontaneously from rotting substrates. Only very few preserved specimens were labelled according to their origin, and so knowledge about Merian’s scientific collection fell into oblivion. A crucial component of our recent work has been the restoration of a large part of the Gerning collection. Mrs Karin Müller devoted herself to this work for over five years in a voluntary capacity. Only on account of this has it been possible to study the collection. Thanks to the initiative and research of Joos van de Plas, individual specimens could be attributed to Merian for the first time. It is important to note that we can be only reasonably sure of this, because unambiguous documentation is missing. A catalogue of Mrs van de Plas’s findings was published on the occasion of the reopening of the permanent exhibitions in 2013. In its day the Gerning collection was well known in Europe, so many researchers worked on it. Besides Johann Christian Fabricius (1745—1808) and Johann Wolfg ang von Goethe (1749—1832), it is especially important to name the lepidopterist Eugen Johann Christopher (1742—1810). In his richly illustrated work — Butterflies drawn from Nature with descriptions (1776—1807), he was the first to depict numerous species scientifically. The specimens referred to in it still exist today as part of the Wiesbaden collection, and rank among the most important nature specimens. Likewise, the Frankfurt-born artist Marie Eleonora Hochecker (1761—1834), commissioned by Gerning, painted more than 3 000 specimens in the collection. Thanks to her, the standard reference work entitled Papillons d’Europe, peints d’après nature by Jaques Louis Florentin Engramelle (1734—1814) was produced in Paris. For the first time it was possible to document, on 350 copperplates, the diversity of European lepidopterans. An exceptionally magnificent edition of the eight-volume work from Gerning’s estate is on display in Wiesbaden’s museum.

The nine Caterpillar Dioramas

In Merian’s day almost nothing was known about conservation methods for preserving and displaying biological specimens. The only method used was to dry the insects. The preserved specimens also had to be protected against dirt and insect damage. It was not until the following century that this issue was dealt with more thoroughly. Therefore, it is amazing that the insects from Merian’s final years of collecting have survived. It is due to an exceptional stroke of luck that the nine caterpillar dioramas, exhibited for the first time, could be created at the beginning of the 21st Century. Protected under glass domes, they combine the life-cycles of European lepidopterans, which had aroused Merian’s interest and filled her study books. The basis for this was the knowledge of biologist and butterfly breeder Matthias Sanetra, who dreamed of creating animal displays like this when still a child. Thanks to the taxidermist Detlev Gregorczyk, the caterpillars could retain their lifelikeness after being freeze-dried in a vacuum. Three out of the nine plants were prepared for the museum by Sebastian Brandt. Finally, the two taxidermists of the museum, Felix Richter and Malte Seehausen, were able to produce more preserved plant specimens, and to combine the various components during a time-consuming process. The dioramas are mounted on Corten steel tables from the workshop of Siegf ried Huhle. Thus, nine of the life-cycles described and illustrated by Maria Sibylla Merian have been recreated in three-dimensional depth and can be examined by visitors to the museum.

Exhibition Catalog

The Collection of Maria Sibylla Merian in Museum Wiesbaden
Museum Wiesbaden (Editor)

48 pages, 20 color pictures, text: english/german, 14,8 x 21 cm
ISBN: 978-3-89258-110-9