During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a scientific revolution began to take place that would end up giving rise to modern science. It was the time of the great expeditions that traveled the seas in search of knowledge. Adventures in which women were excluded, as was the case in academia. An important aspect in terms of documentation is that, at that time, and since photography did not yet exist, the only way to convey the ins and outs of nature was with the brush. In other words, to be a scientist, in addition to knowing, you had to be skilled in withdrawing.
The artist who loved butterflies
In 1647 Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, daughter of the well-known and virtuous Swiss engraver Matthaus Merian, owner of a flourishing publishing house specializing in illustrated books. When Maria was just three years old her father passed away and, not long afterward, her widow – Johanna Sibylla Heim – married Jacob Marrel, a well-known still-life painter. In this way, Maria Sibylla grew up in a favorable environment, where she had the opportunity to learn different drawing techniques, to learn the secrets of color mixing and the process of engraving on copper plates. In addition to having the opportunity to publish your creations at your fingertips.
His talent for art was joined by his concern for nature in general, and insects in particular. We know that during his adolescence he developed a hobby that he would keep for the rest of his life: collecting and raising caterpillars, to observe their transformation. Later, after marrying the architect and painter Johann Andreas Graff, she moved to Nuremberg. There he classified the butterflies into nocturnal and diurnal, a categorization that is still valid today, they had originally been baptized as butterfly-chapels and butterfly-owls. Maria captured the different stages of the life cycle of these insects in drawings and watercolors while writing down in detail in her field notebooks the changes they were experiencing. In one of its pages, he wrote. “The only reliable approach to the study of natural phenomena is through observation.
Against spontaneous generation
It should be borne in mind that her work acquires greater relevance if we take into account that at the time this scientist lived, it was thought that insects were the result of spontaneous generation from rotting mud, to the point that the Church He christened them “beasts of the devil.” This theory was strongly rooted since Antiquity, it had been described by Aristotle and supported by great swords of science, such as Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, or Jan Baptiste van Helmont. In 1699, after divorcing, Maria moved to Suriname, in Dutch Guiana, to study in detail the plants, fruits, and insects of the region and thus be able to enrich her research and graphic work.
Unfortunately, this woman, who we could describe as intrepid, curious and passionate, had to suspend her activity after falling ill with malaria, having no choice but to return to Amsterdam. In the Dutch capital, he published his most important work: ‘Metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam’. Despite all his contributions to science, at that time his work was considered an eccentricity and for a long time, his figure was cornered in the attic of the forgotten. Fortunately, since the end of the 20th century, her figure has been valued and nowadays nobody disputes that the artistic legacy of Maria Sibylla, where butterflies, snakes, spiders, and tropical beetles are mixed in equal parts, contributed significantly to the enrichment of botany and entomology. Before the appearance of the euro, this scientist was entertained by the German state by ordering her portrait to be printed on the 500 German mark notes and the 0.40 mark stamps.