They were traditionally looked down upon with disgust: insects, spiders, lizards and toads. But in the 18th century, scientists and artists suddenly began to pay attention to it. The exhibition Hideouts in the Rijksmuseum tells you why.
‘Some insects do not spawn from peers, but arise spontaneously. From the dew that falls on leaves, for example, usually in spring. Others originate from mud or manure. Or from wood, still green or already dry. Or from the hair of animals or from their flesh.’ The Greek Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a great thinker on politics, ethics and logic, but what he had to say about biology sounds too ridiculous for words today.
Even more amazing is that his views were held to be true hundreds of years later, throughout the Middle Ages. It is typical of Aristotle that he managed to give the instinctive, everyday aversion to pests a philosophical anchoring. Precisely because they were not sexually conceived, the teeming arthropods belonged to the lowest rungs of nature’s ladder, Scala Naturaethe classification model according to which Aristotle ranked all forms of life.
Later, the church adopted Aristotle’s ladder with some adjustments to fit the Christian worldview. At the foot of the animal sector (and below the insects) Aristotle placed the jellyfish, while in the Middle Ages you could find the serpent there, which was relegated to that position because of its evil role in the earthly paradise.
Home in the stench
Gradually, more outcasts of creation ended up there. The exhibition Crawling in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam illustrates this with an old print unfolding the layout of Noah’s Ark. On the upper deck are Noah’s and his family’s living and sleeping quarters. One floor below that are the storage areas and stables for four-legged friends. At the very bottom, on the very lowest level, are the crawlers who have been banished to the ‘stank’ or cesspool. Snakes and toads, lizards, spiders, centipedes, worms and beetles squirm in the gunk that flows together there. In the caption it is subtly stated that it is about ‘vermin that breed from garbage’. It is scum that has come to life in dung and dirt that can enjoy a place in the ship’s deepest caverns.
No, the creeps didn’t call. In medieval art they are invariably portrayed as instruments (or even accomplices) of the devil in tormenting sinners. Judging by the countless scenes of hell, one would almost suspect that this is their natural habitat.
From the 12th century is the figure of it femme aux snakes on. It is about a naked woman, already in decay, who is ravaged by snakes that bite her breasts or nest in her crotch (sometimes a toad or lizard helps). With this, lewd people were shown how they would be punished in the afterlife for the lewd caresses they indulged in during life.
A little less exaggerated, but just as morbid and again with undercuts in a leading role, they were transition: this is the name of the funerary monuments that were in great demand in the 15th and 16th centuries, and which depict the dead as a half-decayed corpse, eaten by worms. The intention was to confront the relatives with the transience of mortal life, summed up in the Trappist proverb memory mori: ‘remember that you too must die’.
And then everything changes. Halfway through the eighteenth century, the grim image of sub-crews melted away. They suddenly come to the attention of artists and scientists without that aura of curse and damnation.
This turn is illustrated in the exhibition with work by the Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1613-1678). He painted still lifes, but of a very special kind. He shows what happens on the moist soil in the forests, between thistles, mushrooms and mosses. Snakes, lizards, toads, beetles, dragonflies and butterflies chase each other.
The genre he invented with the, the sottobosco (‘forest floor still life’), is long forgotten, a dead end in art history, but in its time it was quite successful and was followed.
Marseus took his craft seriously: he worked from a living model. On a piece of fenced land, according to a contemporary, he kept “a thousand lower animals, whose nature he studied and painted brilliantly”. In his penchant for accuracy, he went so far as to insert the scales of real butterflies into the still-wet paint.
Marseus’ woodland is important for two reasons. By putting the lowest animals in a leading role, he turned nature’s hierarchical ladder upside down à la Aristotle. At the same time, his work shows that something had changed in the view of nature. Allegorical or biblical meanings and all the ballast that had come with them from ancient times mattered less. Observation became more important than narration. Art and science went hand in hand. Knowledge became more visual and as a result prints and drawings took on a more prominent role. Conversely, many artists have incorporated the new scientific insight into their works.
The Fifth Gospel
The new way of seeing the world was also expressed in the book Micrography (1665) by Robert Hooke. Hooke made spectacular engravings of what he saw through the better microscopes of his time. The enlarged parts of insects, such as the compound eyes of a fly and the sting of a bee, made an indelible impression on readers. It looked like a louse and a flea foreigners from an alien planet.
It is tempting to attribute this sudden attention to the improvement of microscope lenses. That attention was there before. It is precisely the interest in the small that gave the development of the microscope a boost.
Then of course the question remains, where did this interest in the small come from. Historian Eric Jorink attributes this in a contribution to the catalog to the Protestant climate of thought. Protestant divines loved the notion of the five gospels: four of them were written down by the evangelists, the fifth is nature created by God. They regarded not only the Bible but also creation as a revelation from God. All creation. Also the frog, the water spider and the aphid.
Both the great and the ugly creatures, both the beautiful and the ugly, therefore deserved equal respect. In other words, the zeal with which Protestant theologians scrutinized every syllable of the Bible had its counterpart in the way artists rendered the feet of a fly or the scales of a snake’s skin.
For the good of all
Ants crawl over the walls of the Rijksmuseum. You can’t miss it, there are hundreds of them and each one is as long as an arm. It is an installation by Colombian artist Rafael Gomezbarros. It is called Casa Tomada (‘the house is taken’) and initially depicts the hundreds of thousands of Colombians who fled their homes during the years of civil war.
There is something special about the ant. Throughout history, it seems to stem from the contempt for sub-crews. The bee does not suffer from this either, but it can still be explained because of its usefulness to humans. For the ant, the matter is of a different order. She has been admired for her diligence from ancient times to the present day (see The cricket and the ant, Aesop, 6th century BC), concord (Voltaire: ‘Cprivate haque travaille pour le bonheur de tous’ 1769) and sense of organization (The ants by sociobiologist EO Wilson, 1991). In short, the ant has traditionally been a rewarding projection surface for values and political ideas.
Gomezbarros follows that tradition and, as usual, accuses his underlings with allegories, virtues and stories. Upon closer inspection, the heads and abdomens of his ants appear to be casts of human skulls, as if they were a modern memory mori. And while ants are known to be hard and dedicated workers, their arrival is often seen as an unwelcome invasion. This gives Gomezbarros’ work a current layer of meaning, about refugees worldwide and migration in general.
And so this exhibition invites the visitor to take home an overarching idea: to take a new look at that which arouses disgust and revulsion.
Creeps. From horror to wonder. Until 15/01 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.