Framing Fields: Scientific Illustrations and Changing Worldviews
A curatorial intervention by Louisa Smieska, Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, this fabled dichotomy has since been used to describe the worldviews of many great philosophers and writers. Isaiah Berlin summarized hedgehogs as those who view the world as unified by a single defining idea, and foxes as those who experience the world through a variety of divergent pursuits. What would it mean to apply these categories to scientists? This spring, an “intervention” in the 17th century Dutch painting gallery at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art explores the origins of scientific disciplines by contrasting two giants of seventeenth and eighteenth-century natural history: the enigmatic polymath Athanasius Kircher and the famous naturalist Carl Linnaeus. This temporary miniature exhibit employs artworks from the Johnson Museum permanent collection and scientific illustrations from the Kroch Library Rare and Manuscript Collections to reframe seventeenth-century still life painting as a crucial period poised between two dramatically different intellectual eras. Works on view include a sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript page, a nineteenth-century botanical illustration, and many images from texts by Kircher and Linnaeus. For the duration of the installation, the public is invited to cast their votes on which scientist they find most engaging.
My intervention, titled “Framing Fields: Scientific Illustrations and Changing Worldviews,” reflects personal interests in the history of science through an art historical lens. I was inspired by the “cabinet of curiosities” display in the seventeenth century Dutch gallery: as a precursor to modern museums, the cabinet of curiosities is a form of curatorial practice. How objects are displayed, both in museum displays and within art itself, profoundly influences what is seen and understood. I became interested in studying how changing visual representations of the natural world through the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries both defined and were shaped by the concurrent emergence of early modern scientific disciplines. I find that the eighteenth-century Linnaean enterprise of ordering the natural world has surprising roots in the 17th century aesthetic of wondrous, all-encompassing variety.
“Framing Fields” consists of two works from the Johnson Museum collections, a sixteenth century illuminated manuscript page and an early nineteenth century botanical illustration, as well as two images reproduced from books in the Kroch Rare and Manuscript Collections. These works surround the seventeenth century Otto van Schrieck painting, “Still Life with Thistles” (Figure 1), across from the cabinet of curiosities.
The intervention is intended to reframe seventeenth century Dutch still lives and their narrative of Western trade and with the development of a nature/science dichotomy whose development can be traced to the present day. I will summarize the arrangement of the intervention as a whole, then discuss the works I have chosen to highlight in detail within their art historical contexts.
Curatorial practice considerations
I strategically selected and placed the objects in “Framing Fields” to create thematic interrelations within the intervention and throughout the galleries. The intervention is arranged to frame the still life painting by Otto van Schrieck, with a focus on flora on the left (the illuminated manuscript and the Andrews print) and fauna on the right (the two snake reproductions). Each side of the painting also contains an image that falls chronologically before (the illuminated manuscript, the Kircher snakes) and after (the Andrews print, the Linnaeus snakes) the van Schrieck painting. The intervention is meant to be read from left to right on the wall, which corresponds to the way I observed most visitors moving through the seventeenth century Dutch gallery.
There are several instances of subject matter correspondence within my intervention and throughout the galleries. The illuminated manuscript treats many of the same subjects as the van Schrieck painting, including butterflies, snails, and flowering plants. Likewise, the adjacent placement of the Kircher and Linnaeus snake engravings emphasizes the subtly painted snake in the van Schrieck still life. The inclusion of a page from a Books of Hours relates the intervention to similar works on display in the previous Medieval art gallery. On a broader scale, the intervention is also related to the Beyond Earth Art exhibit, where artists are seeking to redefine standards for visual representation of objective data and to renegotiate the human relationship to the natural world. In a sense, the more interrelated the world appears, the nearer we may be re-approaching a seventeenth-century universal (even Kircherian?) worldview ourselves.
Although it draws on a relatively large number of artworks, “Framing Fields” functions as an intervention by framing an object in the permanent collection in a new way. The intervention juxtaposes Museum and Kroch Rare and Manuscript Collection materials that would not normally be seen together. Van Schrieck’s Still Life with Thistles is singled out for its ability to engage a facet of visual history not strongly addressed in the Johnson Museum—that of scientific illustration. “Framing Fields” attempts to reach a counterpublic of scientists who may normally feel alienated from or uninterested by what the Museum has to offer. The press release for the project will be sent to a range of departments in the sciences, and I hope to learn from the touchscreen feedback whether this attempt was successful in attracting a new audience.
The glory of God’s creation
Representational artworks immediately preceding the early modern period in Europe tended to reflect the social and intellectual prominence of the Christian faith. Depictions of the natural world often served as reminders of God’s power and generosity through the wonders of creation and as points of symbolic access to religious practice. Many surviving examples of visual artworks from this period are found in Books of Hours, popular prayer books intended for the non-ordained citizens of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, whose illustrations ranged from the simple and mass-produced to the elaborately detailed. In the case of the sixteenth century “Illuminated Manuscript Page with Naturalistic Border of Birds, Insects, and Flowers” (Figure 2), the plants and animals illustrated around the text act as objects of meditation for Christian devotion.
The text on both sides of this page contains prayers for the dead, including the recognizable refrain “Requiem eternam dona eis domine et lux perpetua luceat eis (Eternal rest, grant them, O Lord, and light perpetual shine upon them).” The presence of this supplication in the text could indicate that this page comes from the Office of the Dead, a series of prayers found in nearly all Books of Hours. Indeed, most of the subjects of the illuminated border might be interpreted as symbols of rebirth, signaling a hope for a divine afterlife. Not only are the caterpillars “reborn” as butterflies, but the birds and plants can also be seen as life that arises from inanimate eggs and seeds. However, these subjects are also repeated on numerous other manuscript pages that correspond less directly to divine reincarnation, such as depictions of the Pieta (Figure 3) or the Adoration of the Magi (Figure 4).
The best interpretation may be simply that these illustrations frame God’s grace with his immensely varied creativity and generosity to mankind.
The human relationship to nature implied by this type of illustration is thus one of humble awe of divine abundance and potentiality. However, the relationship of natural elements to one another in these images is generally arbitrary in scale and hinges on their shared symbolic content. The realistic plants and animals cast shadows on the page, but there is little sense of their natural sizes. This style of representation does not take a strong interest in the interrelation between elements of the natural world, but rather displays the wonders of creation to enhance the adjacent text or illustration.
The cabinet of curiosity
Rapid expansion of Western exploration of and trade with the East and the New World during the early modern period brought thousands of exotic natural and man-made objects into European hands. For those with the means to acquire these objects, the assembly of collections became a true fascination. As the replica cabinet of curiosity display in the seventeenth century gallery illustrates, these collections generally contained examples of fine artistic craftsmanship as well as unusual botanical and zoological specimens[5, 6]. The wonders of nature and human creation together could also serve the function of enhancing the meaning of text and illustration. In Figure 5, trompe-l’oeil shelves of finely decorated vessels holding peacock feathers, fruit, and fresh flowers surround an Adoration of the Magi scene. Here, it is as if the owner of this Book of Hours is making his own rich offering to the infant Christ alongside the Magi. Man-made and natural objects together could be used to express a carefully curated balance of affluence and piety.
The influx of new artifacts and creatures also added urgency to the philosophical inquiries of the early modern period, which included questions of the origins of life and the organization of the natural world. Visual representations of the natural world during this period reflect these questions by exploring the interrelationships between diverse and exotic elements of nature. In this intervention, the van Schrieck painting at the center most directly represents the seventeenth-century examination of the origins of and connections between plant and animal life. The genre of sottobosco, or forest-floor painting invented by van Schrieck is thought to express support for the theory of spontaneous generation of “lower” forms of life, including the snails, insects, lizard and snake depicted in this example. These chthonic creatures were thought to spring from the earth fully formed, but could also easily be absorbed back into the fertile soil. In contrast with the illuminated manuscript borders in Figures 2-4, these subjects of the painting are represented in realistic style and scale relative to one another. Although the dense arrangement of various species exaggerates actual biodiversity, the animals in the painting interact with their botanical setting and are arranged to signify an Aristotelian natural hierarchy. A butterfly, or Greek psyche, is placed at the top of the composition, indicating the supremacy of the soul over the lowlier creatures and the baser drives they represent. The triumph of the soul’s capacity to develop over other less “pure” organisms is connected to alchemical ideals of spiritual purification and affirms human development as the pinnacle of divine creation. A progression of thistles in various stages of growth from left to right might signify the lifetime in which this spiritual development must be accomplished. Van Schrieck’s painting remarkably balances the tension between a scientific interest in the origins of life with a classical and spiritual perspective on the hierarchy of nature.
The engraving of snakes (Figure 6) reproduced from Athanasius Kircher’s text, Arca Noë, is not clearly visually related to the eclectic universalism generally associated with cabinets of curiosities.
Instead, the snakes are depicted realistically and placed outside of a natural setting for comparison to one another. However, like van Schrieck’s painting, Kircher’s scholarship exemplifies the unification of scientific inquiry and spiritual development. Kircher was a German Jesuit polymath who worked in Rome for most of his life on projects as diverse as magnetism, the interior of the Earth, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Arca Noë is concerned with the narrative and logistical details of how Noah’s ark was built and stocked with enough animals to regenerate the world’s pre-flood biodiversity. In the text, Kircher organizes the animals into three groups: “insects,” or lowly terrestrial creatures; quadrupeds, including amphibians; and birds; within these groups, he arranges the animals in order of decreasing weight. The organization of the Ark is illustrated in Figure 7; the three stories of cabins filled with animals, people, and supplies echoes the visual language of the cabinet of curiosities.
In addition, realizing that not all species would fit on the Ark, Kircher makes two important scientific assumptions. The first is that all the “insects” except snakes reproduce by growing from seed deposited in the earth, something like van Schrieck’s spontaneous generation, so that these creatures must have been left off the Ark and instead obtained from seed in the droppings of the other animals on the Ark. The second assumption is that hybrid and climate-specialized animals could be left off the Ark, and simply be obtained later by crossbreeding or acclimatizing other creatures. Kircher’s hybrids included mules (horse and ass), leopards (lion and panther), armadillos (hedgehog and tortoise), and the fantastic cameleopard (panther and camel). Although we would disagree with large parts of these assumptions, Kircher’s organization of species into hierarchically ordered groups and the realization that new species could be produced by adaptation to a local environment are plainly precursors to the later famed work of Carl Linnaeus and even Charles Darwin. However, Kircher’s enthusiastic efforts to align his scientific studies with his Catholic alliance and Hermetic mysticism led to inconsistencies that other scholars found impossible to accept.
The seventeenth century in Europe witnessed violent upheaval in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) as well as an enormous expansion of the “known” world. An intense interest in understanding the new world order was reflected not only in cabinets of curiosity, but also in still life painting and scholarly texts. For a brief period, ancient and modern views of the world coexisted in a heady mixture, and it was possible to imagine a purely unified worldview- as Kircher does in the frontispiece to his work on magnetism, Magnes (Figure 8). This illustration shows medallions representing different facets of knowledge, such as geometry, music, and poetry, linked together and inscribed with the message, “The world is tied with secret knots.” In spite of this unifying passion, the short-lived popularity of the sottobosco genre and the decline in Kircher’s reputation by the end of his life indicate the difficulty most scholars found in harmonizing objective experiment, spiritual dedication, and a universal worldview.
Even the great universalist Kircher and his contemporaries were interested in organizing the natural world, as discussed above; however, the drive to categorize and order nature was taken to new extremes in the early eighteenth century, especially in the field of botany. The use of naturalistic drawings and grids to arrange botanical information was common throughout the seventeenth century, but the organizing principles behind such systems were not standardized, ranging from alphabetic to geographic depending on author preference. These systems were generally serial (i.e., lists) and use-driven rather than hierarchical, created to supplement the study of medically interesting plants in nature and in medical teaching gardens. During the later seventeenth century, however, morphology became increasingly important as the key factor in distinguishing plants from one another. Veracity, rather than artistry, became the essential characteristic of illustration.
It was in this atmosphere of growing accuracy in visual representation of morphology that Carl Linnaeus developed his taxonomic system of classifying the natural world using binomial nomenclature within three broad kingdoms, publishing the first edition of his Systema Naturae in 1735. It could even be argued that the organization of text on the pages of the Systema Naturae has its origins in the seventeenth century table and grid systems. Linnaeus’ tables may have been intended primarily as helpful memory tools for naturalists in the field. However, it is difficult not to see his system as inherently hierarchical, placing man first before the rest of nature, animals, plants, and rocks included.
Although Linnaeus did not invent binomial nomenclature or the idea of grouping classes of organisms together, his system was the first to be so widely adopted by naturalists throughout Europe, perhaps in part because it provided a framework for the incorporation of newly discovered species into the records of Western scholarship. The image listing the genera within the class “amphibia” is reproduced for my intervention from the seventh edition of this volume (Figure 9). The visual similarity between it and the image of snakes from Kircher’s Arca Noë is striking. In both cases, the animals are depicted naturalistically outside of a natural context, but their sources are radically different in worldview. I mentioned above that Kircher seems to have anticipated Linnaeus in the classification of the natural world; indeed, it seems that Linnaeus was familiar with at least some of Kircher’s scholarship, mentioning him by name in correspondence.[17, 18]
Linnaeus stated in 1751 that, “the best pictures should show all the parts of the plants, even the smallest parts of the fruit-body. The most numerous and outstanding differences, which do most to distinguish a species, lurk in the smallest parts.” The chart in Systema Naturae depicting the Linnaean sexual system for plant identification set the standard (Figure 10).
Greater attention to detail with little to no emphasis on a natural setting characterizes much post-Linnaean botanical illustration. An early nineteenth century print in my intervention of the Cape heath Erica grandiflora by Henry Charles Andrews exemplifies this new style (Figure 11). Andrews published this image, and many like it, in a series of bulletins titled “Coloured Engravings of Heaths,” whose title page boasted:
The drawings taken from living plants only. With the appropriate specific character, full description, native place of growth, and time of flowering of each; in Latin and English. Each figure accompanied by accurate dissections of the several parts (magnified where necessary) upon which the specific distinction has been founded, according to the Linnaean System. The shrub is illustrated in bloom, and the parts of its flowers are depicted below, numbered from one to five and generally increasing in magnification from left to right. As more plants were being imported into Britain from abroad, amateur gardeners demanded affordable guides for their own personal use. One fashion was even to plant gardens according to the Linnaean taxonomic system (Figure 12), effectively turning the physical world into a sort of cabinet of curiosities.
With the Linnaean enterprise to catalogue the natural world according to purely objective morphology, the depiction of the natural world seems shifted irreversibly towards the secular. Yet the Systema Naturae concludes with verse 24 of Psalm 104: “O Jehovah! Quam ampla sunt Tua opera! Quam ea omnia sapienter fecisti! Quam plena est terra possessione Tua! (O Lord, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.)” Although the visual language for the representation of the natural world is somewhat changed, post-Linnaean illustration and medieval illumination share a style that tends to isolate natural elements from their settings and a sense of wonder in the divine creation. However, the post-Linnaean world would likely interpret Kircher’s idea that “Nothing is more beautiful than the knowledge of everything,” as referring to the minutia of a specific field, not a universal understanding. The Linnaean focus on morphology as an indicator of identity led to closer and closer looking, driving future scientific inquiry into more and more finely divided subfields.
Are you a Kircher or a Linnaeus?
The final portion of the intervention is a touchscreen component located below the two prints of snakes (Figures 6 and 9), intended to engage visitors by asking them if they feel a particular affinity for either Kircher or Linnaeus. The touchscreen runs a website powered by wix.com, located at http://lmb327.wix.com/linnaeusorkircher. The head of the site asks, “Are you a Kircher or a Linnaeus?” Below the name of each scholar are the years of their lives and an epithet- “The last man who knew everything” (Kircher) and “The father of modern taxonomy” (Linnaeus)- followed by slides that can be viewed at leisure, presenting other images from Kircher’s and Linnaeus’ works. At the bottom of the page, viewers can anonymously submit the name of their preferred scholar.
The touchscreen allows the intervention to contain a much greater number of images than gallery space would otherwise allow. It also provides a visual elaboration on the biographies and philosophies of Kircher and Linnaeus, figures who may not be immediately familiar to visitors. By asking visitors to identify with these historical figures, I hope to underscore the differences between the worldviews behind the two snake images on display and to surprise viewers when they realize the contrasting sources for these images. I also hope that by prompting a sense of affinity for a system of visual representation, visitors might feel a bit of the same sort of invitation that a cabinet of curiosities might have generated- perhaps it will offer, as Elizabeth Honig puts it, the feeling that generating meaning is an individual process of imaginative performance.
The subject of scientific illustration is entirely too large to be fully addressed in such a small intervention. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the number of works in the Museum’s collection that could be related to this topic, and also by how well these pieces work together despite their disparate acquisitions. Further exhibits on this subject would do well to explore the extensive visual information available in the Kroch Rare and Manuscript History of Science Collection. The research for this intervention also brought up several fascinating subtopics within scientific illustration that would be interesting to study in greater depth, particularly the issue of authorship of images. Many illustrations within the history of science were executed by unknown or poorly acknowledged artists, while credit for the images is linked to the scholar who generated the accompanying text. I suspect that graduate students in the sciences would be interested in a critical comparison between the historical situation and their own generation of quantitative figures for the advancement of a primary investigator. In the mean time, I hope that this intervention has reinforced the importance of visual representations of the natural world in the development of scientific fields as they are known today.
 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991): 29.
 Jennifer González, From Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 65-119.
 Lawrence R. Poos, “Social History and the Book of Hours,” in Time sanctified: the Book of hours in medieval art and life. ed. Roger S. Wieck (New York: G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988): 33-34.
 Roger S. Wieck,Top of Form
Roger Time sanctified: the Book of hours in medieval art and life (New York: G. Braziller in association with the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1988): 124.Bottom of Form
 Daniela Bleichmar, “Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern Collections,”in Collecting Across Cultures, ed. Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011): 15-16.
 Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, “Commerce and the Representation of Nature in Art and Science,” in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2002): 6.
 Karin Leonhard, “Pictura’s fertile field: Otto Marseus van Schrieck and the genre of sottobosco painting,” Simiolus 34 (2009): 105-106.
 Leonhard, 97.
 Leonhard, 109.
 Joscelyn Godwin, Athanasius Kircher: a Renaissance man and the quest for lost knowledge (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979): 25-27.
 Godwin, 26.
 Claudia Swan, “From Blowfish to Flower Still Life Paintings: Classification and Its Images, circa 1600,” in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2002): 122.
 Swan, “From Blowfish to Flower Still Life Paintings,” 113.
 Claudia Swan, “Illustrated Natural History,” in Prints and the pursuit of knowledge in early modern Europe, ed. Susan Dackerman (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Art Museums, 2011): 190.
 Isabelle Charmantier, “Carl Linnaeus and the Visual Representation of Nature,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41 (2011): 390.
 Charmantier, 403.
 Carl Linnaeus to Kungliga Svenska Vetenskapsakademien, December 1760, The Linnaean correspondence, linnaeus.c18.net, letter L2826 (consulted 14 April 2014).
 Carl Linnaeus to Johan Ernst Gunnerus, 1 December 1766, The Linnaean correspondence, linnaeus.c18.net, letter L3839 (consulted 14 April 2014).
 Carl Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica, trans. Stephen Freer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003): 284.
 Henry Charles Andrews, Coloured Engravings of Heaths vol. III (London: Published by the author, No. 5, Knightsbridge, printed by Taylor and Co., 1802): 1. http://www.botanicus.org/page/1901767 (consulted 15 April 2014)
 John Hill, The gardener’s new kalendar, divided according to the twelve months of the year, And under each Month into the separate Weeks. Illustrated with elegant and useful figures. Containing The whole Practice of Gardening, under the four general Heads, 1. The Pleasure Garden, 2. The Kitchen Ground, 3. The Seminary, 4. The Fruit Garden, and Orchard. And Directing What is to be done every Week; and the Manner of doing it: With the general Culture of hardy, Greenhouse, and Stove Plants; the raising tender Annuals, and the Management of Flowers. The system of Linnæus is also explained in this Work, and illustrated with Figures; Exhibiting The Characters of all the Classes. And the method of designing, and laying out a garden in the modern taste; With a Copper Plate Figure, elegantly engraved, from a Drawing of Mr. Wale, After a Design laid down in the Compleat Body of Gardening (London: printed for T. Osborne, in Gray’s-Inn; T. Trye, near Gray’s Inn Gate, Holborn; and S. Crowder and Co. on London Bridge, 1758): 63.
 Godwin, 9.
 Elizabeth Alice Honig, “Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 34 (1998): 183.