how the insect world ended up painting from the dung

Jan van Kessel I, ‘Insects and reptiles’, c. 1660.Statue Juergen Vogel

In 1622, Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Princes of Orange and father of the astronomer Christiaan Huygens, gave himself a microscope. It wasn’t a bad buy. ‘It is’, the 26-year-old poet and scholar enthusiastically wrote in his diary the day after the purchase, ‘it really is as if you are standing in front of a new natural scene, on another earth!’ That ‘scene’, observed the young Huygens Sr. happy, teeming with insects.

Huygens was not the only one at the time who was fascinated by insects. Many 17th century artists and scholars were preoccupied with the ‘small animals’. You often see them on objects from that time. On still lifes buzzing around brightly colored floral arrangements. IN wunderkammers, prepared and ordered for eternity. Driven from silver on the base of a lapis-style cup or displayed full-size in luxury books, as in Maria Sybilla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.

Such objects and collections arose from Lust am Grauensure, but rarely of such desire alone. Wonder and curiosity, the promising exhibition at the Rijksmuseum argues, also played a role. creeps is the name of that exhibit, a zoologically dated but historically accurate name for often literally low-lying species such as ants, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, snails, toads, snakes, and small voles. A negative name. The negative is a conscious choice.

villain role

For a long time the creeps had an image problem. Since ancient times, they have been considered the ‘least valued animals’. On it Scala Naturae, the classification model with which Aristotle ranked the forms of life, they occupied the lowest place. And on renderings of Noah’s ark, they dabbled in the “stink vortex” of “piss and dung from (other) animals.” Elsewhere in the Bible they were not much better off. They often played the villain role. The animal that tempted Eve, the serpent, was a reptile. The diabolical foot soldiers dragging sinful souls to the fires of hell in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings were (partially) the same. Satan himself, with his scales and long tail, also looked suspiciously like a creeper. His opponent, God, was by no means a creep, although he liked to use them as punishment. A storm of grasshoppers, a shower of frogs: where the under-creepers appeared, someone had spoiled him.

For medieval people, there was another reason to distrust creeps: the eccentric way they would be born. Unlike large animals, according to the knowledge of the time, sub-creatures would not have arisen through reproduction, but through spontaneous generation. In hot, humid places, they would appear out of nowhere. They had it all figured out: bees arose from dead cows, while wasps were born from horse carcasses. An animal that ‘risen from waste’ or the rotting carcass of another animal that may be a devil’s animal. You’d better stay away from that.

The mood is recognisable. Even in our time, some people feel disgust when it crawls under a raised garden tile with centipedes and woodlice. Not because they think those creatures have arisen out of nowhere. What disgusts them is the strangeness of the little monsters. Underwaters is, as curator Jan de Hond notes in the catalogue, ‘the ultimate duck’. They are not cute or soft, like cats or rabbits, but hard or soft – their cuddle factor is exactly zero. They are also not traceable. You never know which way they twist, the nerve tendons. Of course they are indispensable to our ecosystem, without insects there would be no pollination and plant life, but that doesn’t mean we like having them around. And at the same time, their creepiness arouses undeniable fascination. In the 16th century, people became equally fascinated by it.


Eric Jorink writes in the catalog that this change in mentality is partly due to a religious explanation: it was related to the rise of Protestantism. Protestant scholars such as Antwerp’s Conrad Gessner regarded not only the Bible but also creation itself as a revelation from God. All of Creation. Also the part that no one could ‘love’. According to them, the frog, the water spider and the aphid also bear witness to the ingenuity of the great watchmaker in the sky. From that thought grew interest in nature in general and the life of creepers in particular. Artist-scientists resorted to their drawing tools to depict them faithfully. They were venturing into unknown territory. Mosquitoes, beetles or toads had hardly been depicted alive until then.

'Lidesmede', in Joris Hoefnagel, 'The four elements', part 1: Animalia rationalia et insecta (Ignis), ca.  1575–1580.  Picture

‘Lidesmede’, in Joris Hoefnagel, ‘The four elements’, part 1: Animalia rationalia et insecta (Ignis), ca. 1575–1580.

Joris Hoefnagel, uncle of the aforementioned Huygens, was perhaps the most fanatical practitioner of the genre. Hoefnagel is best known for his copy (and improvement) of Albrecht Dürer’s phenomenal drawing of a stag (now owned by the Getty Museum), but in reality he captured the entire animal world, including that of insects. The ‘Fire’ part of the Hoefnagels for the elements ordered series. was the most thorough inventory of the animals to date. Hoefnagel gave the term ‘lifelike’ a whole new meaning. He completed his watercolor drawing of three dragonflies, for example, by sticking real wings on the parchment with gum arabic – a trick that Otto Marseus van Schrieck would repeat later, in the 17th century, with butterfly wings.

For the Amsterdam scholar Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), such sophisticated illusionism did not go far enough. Swammerdam, who had mastered the art of dissection as a student in Leiden, and who illustrated his findings in unusually skillful drawings, wanted to get to the bottom of the creepers. Inspired by Descartes, for whom nature was a big, soulless machine, Swammerdam carried out a thorough empirical research into their ‘manufacture’. He published the result of this in 1669 i Historia insectorum generalisa study that sowed the seeds of entomology.


The book was full of surprising insights. For example, Swammerdam provided evidence that the ‘smallest animals’, like the ‘largest’, had a complex internal structure, and he relegated the idea of ​​spontaneous generation to the realm of fables. ‘Insecta’ (which Swammerdam also included spiders and scorpions) did not appear out of thin air, according to the naturalist. Like birds and fish, they hatched from an egg. Swammerdam had come to that conclusion by dissecting larvae, mayflies and bees, among other things. His study of the latter is particularly famous. The bee world was lovingly presented in Christian iconography as a direct reflection of man, complete with serfs and a sovereign monarch. But when Swammerdam took that king apart, he discovered something amazing: he had ovaries. The king turned out to be a queen. The patriarchal bee society was actually matriarchal. These discoveries, Jorink writes, caused a paradigm shift: ‘from symbol to structure, from wonder at the unusual to wonder at the everyday.’ All animals, large and small, it was concluded, belonged to one and the same ‘building plan’.

Otto Marseus van Schrieck, 'Woodland with blue winds and path', 1660. Sculpture Elke Walford/SSGK Staatliches Museum Schwerin.

Otto Marseus van Schrieck, ‘Woodland with blue winds and path’, 1660.Sculpture Elke Walford/SSGK Staatliches Museum Schwerin.

Such progressive insight did not preclude an all-embracing religious worldview, on the contrary. Scientists such as Swammerdam saw in the complex internal structure of creepers the existence of ‘the inscrutable Creator, astonishing and incomparable in works of art’. Nor did it put an end to fictionalized depictions of nature. For example, Swammerdam’s friend Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1613-1678), the inventor of the sottobosco or forest still life, made countless paintings in which snakes enthusiastically chase butterflies – scenes that give a fantasy rather than a realistic impression. The toad plucking a butterfly out of the sky with its tongue, as seen in Schrieck’s most famous painting, was not an invention. It really happens. There are videos of that.

Under creepers, 30/9 to 15/1, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Wood ants

creeps also includes recent artworks by Tomás Saraceno and Rafael Gomezbarros, two artists who were inspired by the insect world. The Colombian Gomezbarros made Casa Tomada, an installation consisting of hundreds of wooden ants almost a meter long. The work (named after a short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar) is installed in the Philips Wing and is a metaphor for migration. It depicts the industrious man who is forced by political or climatic circumstances to find a new place of existence.

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