Today, the New World, both real and Imagined. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The pall of the Spanish Inquisition lay over Belgium in 1570.
And the Protestant engraver Theodore de Bry was exiled to
Strassburg. Eight years later, he moved to Frankfurt and set up a publishing house.
By then, de Bry had become very interested in the explorations of the Western hemisphere
In 1590, he set out to describe all that those journeys had revealed. The project
extended far beyond his death in 1598, and was carried on by his sons Theodore and
Israel. They were joined by his son-in-law
Matthäus Merian, who finished
the work in 1634. (Like his father-in-law, Merian was also an artist in copperplate.)
And, oh, the images in that Great Voyages series. Most of the texts, and some
pictures, had been published earlier. But de Bry and his sons talked with explorers, then
drew their own images to go with the tales they heard. And remember, they were Protestants.
Their northern European explorers were shown as benign, but they showed the Spanish
inflicting terrible atrocities -- murder, torture, cannibalism. And, since they'd never
seen the Natives, they drew them with European faces and they built a pictorial mythology
Although Merian finished the series, the Grand Guignol theater of horrors in the books
largely reflects the work of the de Bry family. Merian went on to print other books of
images -- maps, city plans, and remarkable bird's-eye views of European cities.
Still, there's no lack of theater in another Merian book, his Iconum Biblicarum.
This huge set of copperplate illustrations of Bible verses is even better theater than
the Great Voyages books. Never did the walls of Jericho fall as resoundingly as
he shows them falling, or was Jonah spit up on shore by so fierce a fish.
Then came the third generation: Matthäus
Merian's son was also a
noted engraver. And, although Matthäus died when his daughter
Maria Sybilla Merian only
three, the story has it that he saw her early genius and predicted she would be the most
famous of all.
And so she was! Her mother, Matthäus wife, remarried to a painter, and under his teaching
Maria became a superb artist in oil and watercolor. She also became fascinated with flowers,
and with butterflies and caterpillars.
Maria's daughter, in turn, married a seagoing merchant. And, when Maria was fifty-two, they
convinced her to join them in a real voyage to the new world. They went to Surinam, on the
north South American coast. And there, Maria cemented her role as the world's first
entomologist with a stunningly beautiful book on The Metamorphosis of Surinam Insects.
Today, seventeen species of plants, butterflies, and beetles have been named after her.
With Maria Merian, it was no longer conquistadors and natives, chopping each other to bits.
She'd now come full circle. She had, at last, narrowed her lens and given us a wholly
different picture of our New World.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. Merian, Iconum Biblicarum, (Frankfurt: 1625/1630). Reprinted: (Wenatchee, WA: AVB Press, 1981)
B. Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of Illustrations of de Bry's GREAT VOYAGES.
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981).
A. H. Mayor, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. (New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1971).
The Age of The Marvelous. (Joy Kenseth, ed.) (Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art -- Dartmouth
G. B. Parks, Richard Hakluyt and the English Voyages. (New York: American Geographical Society,
1928): pp. 161-163. (De Bry traveled only as far as England, and he did so to meet with the English
For more on Maria Sybilla Merian, see L. Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1989.)
For examples of Maria Merian and her stunning artwork and additional biographical material, see, e.g.,
the following web sites.
or see this small reprint of her drawings of flowers with an introduction to her biography: M. S. Merian,
New Book of Flowers. (Intro. By Melanie Klier) (New York: Prestel, 2003)
Some might find it of interest that the lineage continued: Maria Merian's granddaughter's husband was the
great mathematician, Leonard Euler.
Supposed cannibalism among Native Americans, deBry, Great Voyages.
from this source may be found at http://digital.lib.uh.edu/cdm4/about_collection.php?CISOROOT=/p15195coll39
Joshua defeating the Amorites. Matthäus Merian's Iconum Biblicarum
A change of pace: Maria Sybilla Merian's image of the stages of an Emperor Moth: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.