Insect Artifice: Art and Science in the Early Modern Netherlands

An interpretive framework for understanding human nature

“Art” and “science” meant something very different in the Renaissance than they do within the strict disciplinary divides of today’s academy. Beginning in the sixteenth century, inquiry into the workings of the natural world engaged the visual and literary arts (artes) as a means to pursue knowledge (scientia) of everything from the stars to anatomy to newly discovered species. My research at IAS this year explores a stunning example of this phenomenon from the sixteenth century: a four-volume series of manuscripts known as the Four Elements, which encompasses an encyclopedia of animals and plants from across the globe. Among them is one especially remarkable volume: the first illustrated book in European history exclusively devoted to the subject of insects.

Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600), the creator of the manuscripts, was among the great polymaths of the sixteenth-century Netherlands. He began work on the series sometime in the 1570s, just decades prior to the emergence of entomology as an independent field of study. The invention of the microscope in the early seventeenth century would catalyze the investigation into the nature and reproductive processes of insects, overturning centuries of misconception concerning their spontaneous generation. Hoefnagel was not privy to these advances. So the question that begs asking is what motivated him to paint the hundreds of specimens in his insect volume—many of them clearly based on firsthand observation—using only his naked eye and the precious manuscript media of parchment, watercolor, and gouache. One folio from the volume gets us closer to understanding what he was up to.

A gilded oval frames a scene of insects and arachnids that appears strangely empty on first glance, with only a grassy mound offering any sense of setting. Closer inspection, however, reveals that Hoefnagel has painted an intricate web attached to the oval border, which overlaps the mound where a cross spider (Araneus diadematus) is quietly resting. The brush that Hoefnagel used to paint the spun threads must have been exceedingly fine, only a few hairs thick at most. The web aligns with the surface plane of the page, yet it also invites us to peer through its strands as if through a window onto another world. In fact, on the left and right edges of the oval, Hoefnagel has depicted the hint of a wooden door or window jamb, implying that the web is suspended in the liminal space of a human dwelling.

A second cross spider occupies the web’s center point where all the radial lines of its weft converge. The signature cruciform marking on its back is even more prominent than on the arachnid below and punctuates the horizontal and vertical axes of the surrounding matrix. Hoefnagel shows himself a keen and informed observer in his depiction of the spiral web, a characteristic feature of orb-weavers like the cross spider and other members of the family Araneidae. Hoefnagel even distinguishes between the two protagonists by depicting the lower spider with a more rotund body characteristic of gravid females and the upper spider with the longer legs that individuate male members of the species.

Spiders are hunters, and webs are their snares. A meek housefly in the upper right, which fell victim to the trap, has been enshrouded in silk and saved for a later meal. Directly opposite is the spiders’ main antagonist, a European hornet (Vespa crabro) that has pushed through the web’s threads and left a gaping hole in its wake. For dramatic effect, Hoefnagel has chosen a species that dwarfs the adjacent spider in magnitude; European hornets can be as large as over three centimeters in length. The hornet’s wide wingspan, its fuzzy thorax, and the sheen of light on its abdomen all assert its liveliness in contrast to the vanquished fly. If we follow the logic of the image, the creature has thrust itself through the picture plane and is dangerously encroaching on our space as viewers. To heighten the play of scale—and our sense of the unstable boundary between the real and illusory worlds—Hoefnagel has positioned a diminutive bee in the lower right, safely avoiding the web as it crawls along the interior edge of the frame. Escaping a spider’s clutches is a matter not just of size and strength, but also of ingenuity.

The European hornet and the male cross spider are labeled with the numbers “1” and “2” that might lead one to expect an accompanying key identifying their species, yet the texts surrounding the painted oval are of a very different nature. The Roman numerals “XXXXVII” on the right merely indicate the place of this folio within the manuscript as a whole. Hoefnagel has selected the Latin texts above and below to echo the implied narrative of the scene, offering an interpretive framework for understanding how his empirically observed specimens—and the natural world at large—offer wisdom applicable to the human realm.

“Law/Lawless” (Lex Exlex) is a common sixteenth-century aphorism that derives from the ancient Athenian lawmaker Solon, who—according to his biographer Diogenes Laertius—had “compared laws to spiders’ webs, which stand firm when any light and yielding object falls upon them, while a larger thing breaks through them and makes off.” This acknowledgement that laws are biased towards the mighty and lay low the weak directly parallels Hoefnagel’s juxtaposition of the free-flying hornet with the captured fly. Numerous printed emblem books from the sixteenth century onwards picture the larger insect’s victory over the spider in precisely these terms, though none equal Hoefnagel in combining that message with such splendid visual execution. The inscription at the bottom of the page derives from one of the most widely read of all Renaissance authors: the great Netherlandish scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), whose book of Adages, or proverbial sayings, was a smash hit when first published and remained so long after his death. “You weave spiders’ webs; you are more anxious over something trifling” (aranearum telas texis; in frivolo anxius). As Erasmus explains, a spider’s web appears carefully wrought, even formidable, but it is actually fragile and meaningless. The web, just as Hoefnagel shows us, is easily broken by a powerful antagonist or eluded by a savvy one.

Both Latin inscriptions urge consideration of the boundary between reality and illusion on which the image itself so compellingly plays. Marveling at the intricacy of the silken threads, and Hoefnagel’s ability to paint them, should not deceive us in thinking that the constructs of nature and human civilization are always as just or effective as they purport to be. This is a message that would have resonated deeply in Hoefnagel’s contemporary context.

Hoefnagel lived in a time of intercepted letters and secret codes, scholars under arrest, and works of art openly smashed in the streets. The seismic religiopolitical forces of the Dutch Revolt, which emerged in the late 1560s out of conflict between Catholic Spain and local Protestant factions, wreaked economic havoc and inquisitional atrocities on the Low Countries. Hoefnagel’s hometown of Antwerp, where he began his career as a merchant, had been the most thriving metropolis and art market of Europe until the city’s occupation by Spanish forces in the early 1570s thrust it into turmoil, shattering prosperity and stifling creative progress. Hoefnagel was among the many who fled the region and emigrated abroad in hope of finding greater peace and stability.

Hoefnagel’s Four Elements manuscripts, begun in the midst of the Revolt, might seem on first glance a retreat from this violent context. Yet his urgent desire to comprehend the specimens of the natural world arose directly from his personal response to witnessing the unprecedented destruction and dispersal of humanist culture in his homeland. His belief that nature, as the product of divine creation, offered answers to navigating the human conflict unfolding around him led Hoefnagel to the study of insects. The miniscule scale yet infinite complexity of the insect and arachnid kingdoms attested to God’s agency in the visible world, even in the midst of war and spiritual discord. The seemingly indomitable spider at the center of Hoefnagel’s painted web—the cross on its back a blazon of the religious struggle that incited the Dutch Revolt itself—was only a false impediment, which could be overcome through inner strength and the pursuit of true understanding.

The seventeenth-century founders of entomology likewise perceived insects as wonders of divine creation. Yet the intimate and personal nature of Hoefnagel’s volume distinguishes it from the works of those later scholars. Hoefnagel’s singular manuscript was accessible only to a limited audience, unlike the printed entomological treatises that would be published in the decades after his death. Hoefnagel made the manuscript foremost for himself, sharing it only with a close circle of friends who were likewise interested in natural history and who found community and solace from war in the exchange of knowledge. For Hoefnagel, empirical study and virtuosic artifice were not independent ends but instead the means to achieve an understanding of human nature through nature itself. Through his erudite and masterful pictures, Hoefnagel demonstrated that the humanistic arts were vital to advancing knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

Marisa Anne Bass, Member in the School of Historical Studies, is writing a microhistory of the Dutch Revolt and its impact on the art and intellectual culture of the later sixteenth-century Netherlands. Bass is Assistant Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.