Nature today | Underwater exhibited in the Rijksmuseum

To find out which species can be seen in the exhibition, the Rijksmuseum enlists the help of nature lovers. Ten paintings are posted on the Early Birds forum and you can indicate which insects, reptiles and other animals you recognize. There are two entry tickets to the exhibition available for the biggest crawler connoisseur.

Click on the names below to go to the correct record:

  • Cornelia de Rijck: Five leaves with Surinamese insects, approx. 1700
  • Balthasar van der Ast: Still life with fruit and flowers, 1620
  • Elias van den Broek: Cacti and lizards, c. 1685
  • JM Sartory: Forest still life with skull, reptiles, insects and plants, approx. 1720
  • Jan van Kessel: Insects and reptiles, c. 1660
  • Otto Marseus van Schrieck: Still life with insects, amphibians and reptiles, 1662
  • Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snijders: Head of Medusa, 1617-1618
  • Roelant Savery: Vase with flowers in a stone niche, 1615
  • Joris Hoefnagel: Still life with flowers and insects, 1589
  • Jan van Kessel: Still life of gooseberry, butterfly, moth, damselfly and others, 1659


According to Sterrin Smalbrugge, ecologist and snake expert, ‘creepers’ is a name these animals do not deserve. Because they are of great use in our ecosystem. Something that the curator of this exhibition Jan de Hond agrees with: “It is a title to ensure that people understand the importance of these small animals. It is also the line of this exhibition: where these reptiles are first associated with death and the devil, later artists and scientists such as Albrecht Dürer, Wenzel Jamnitzer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Maria Sibylla Merian came to appreciate their beauty. The exhibition Ondercreesels highlights the changing appreciation of these small animals in art and science.”

Changing image

In the Middle Ages, creepers are associated with death and the devil. They are believed to be born spontaneously from dead material such as dung, rotting plant remains and mud. In works of art, snakes, toads and lizards are a metaphor for evil and act as the devil’s minions. This image slowly changes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as artists become aware of the aesthetics of these creatures. They were seen as examples of ‘the beauty of God’s creation’. First appearing in the margins of medieval manuscripts, they gradually creep towards the center of the page. The first artwork with an insect as the main motif is a drawing of a deer in flight. Albrecht Dürer’s work from 1505 is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Collector’s items

In the sixteenth century, creepers became popular collectibles in art and wunderkammers at European courts. For example in the form of live cast, casts of real animals. The most talked about life casts and other highlights from the Habsburg emperor’s wunderkammer can be seen in the exhibition. Interest is also increasing among artists and scientists. Under-creeps are bred, exchanged, studied, recorded and collected in naturalists’ cabinets. The invention of the microscope gives the study of these creatures a new impulse. Scientists are surprised by a whole new world that is now becoming visible for the first time.

Among other things, this leads to the unraveling of their greatest mystery: their reproduction and metamorphosis. Art and science were not as strictly separated in this period as they are now. For example, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) travels to Suriname to study and draw the metamorphosis of insects. Some of her most prized drawings from Queen Elizabeth II’s collection are coming to the Rijksmuseum this autumn. Around 1650, the appreciation of creepers led to a genre of painting of its own: the sottobosco or forest with reptiles and insects. The inventor of sottobosco, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, himself cultivated reptiles, amphibians and insects. Art and science meet in the sottobosco, which can be seen in the last room of the exhibition.

Still life of gooseberry, butterfly, moth, damselfly and others, 1659

Spiders safe for vacuum cleaners

Appreciation for crawling has taken a new turn in recent decades. The relationship between humans and other animals is critically examined not only in science but also in art. The unbalanced relationship between humans and other animals is examined in the exhibition through the collaboration with the artist Tomás Saraceno. In the exhibition, a room is dedicated to the sculpture Gravitational lonely semi-social lonely lonely Choreography LHS 477, made by four spider species. In addition, Tomás Saraceno has prepared a letter together with the Arachnophilia Community: An Open Letter on the Rights of Invertebrates, with the request to recognize and respect the spiders in the Rijksmuseum. During the exhibition, the use of vacuum cleaners and feather dusters in several rooms will be restricted, so that spiders already living in the Rijksmuseum can freely weave their webs.

More information

  • The exhibition Ondercreesels can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam until 15 January 2023.
  • You can also listen to the report on Vroege Vogel’s website and you can help identify the ‘creeps’ in the paintings.

Text: Early Birds
Image: Jan van Kessel (main photo: Insects and Reptiles, c. 1660); Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snijders

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