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The art of natural history in the age of discovery

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Branch of Water Lemon with Snout Moth, Brush-Footed Butterfly larva and Flag-Footed Bug 1702-03

RCIN 921175

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A watercolour of a sprig of Water Lemon (Passiflora laurifolia) with Snout Moth (Azamora), Brush-Footed Butterfly Larva (Heliconius) and Flag-Footed Bug (Anisoscelis foliacea). This is an adaption of plate 21 of Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. The passion flower is so-named because it supposedly symbolises the Passion of Christ. The three stigmas represent the nails, the five stamens the five wounds and the corona the Crown of Thorns. It is native to Central America, and was imported to Europe in the 1560s. The function of the brightly coloured flanges of the flag-legged bug at lower centre is not certain. Some species wave their legs to scare off predators, whereas others seem to use them as decoy devices that induce an attacking bird to peck at the 'flag' rather than at the body of the bug.

Maria Sibylla Merian was the daughter of the printmaker Matthias Merian, and the step-daughter of the still-life painter Jacob Marrel. She was a talented artist, who was trained in flower painting by Marrel. From an early age, she was fascinated by insects and their life cycles, and undertook research into the phenomenon of metamorphosis, which was then only partially understood. She published her findings in a series of books, illustrated with beautifully-composed plates in which each insect life-cycle was illustrated on the appropriate food plant. In 1699, having encountered exotic insects in the cabinets of natural history collectors in Amsterdam, Merian and her younger daughter Dorothea set sail for Suriname, in South America, which was then a Dutch colony. There, they studied the life cycles of Surinamese insects until their return to Europe in 1701. Merian published her Surinamese research as the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname) in 1705. The book was very well-received, and by her death Merian was well-regarded throughout Europe as both an entomologist and an artist.

This is one of a set of luxury versions of the plates from Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, published in Amsterdam in 1705. To make these versions, Merian (probably assisted by her daughters) appears to have inked sections of each etched plate and run it through the press to create a partial print. While the ink of that print was still wet, she placed a sheet of vellum against it, transferring a reverse image onto the vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then worked up and coloured by hand. The Royal Collection plates are partially printed and partially hand-drawn, the printing mainly being used for the insects. As Merian was only transferring selected areas of the printed image, she could vary the arrangements of the plates, with the positions of the butterflies and moths subtly altered to create unique compositions.