Rijksmuseum Twenthe

Otto Marseus van Schrieck (ca. 1620-1678) and the discovery of Nature's Bible

Untill 3-11-2018 the fascinating world of insects, plants and snakes by Otto Marseus van Schrieck.

Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1620-1678) was fascinated by plants and animals that lived in the undergrowth. His dark woodland scenes include such creatures as insects, toads, lizards and snakes. It was the first time anyone had done this: these animals had a bad reputation, and were traditionally ignored by artists and scientists. They were on the bottom rung of nature’s ladder, created not by reproduction but by spontaneous generation from decaying waste.

All this changed during Otto Marseus’s life, as people began to appreciate the beauty and complexity of these seemingly unremarkable creatures. They regarded nature as God’s second book, alongside the Bible. The writings of the great biologist Jan Swammerdam were published under the title the Bible of Nature and he pointed out that God’s greatness was most clearly evident in these small, little-understood but highly sophisticated animals. He wrote: “I can show you God’s almighty finger in the anatomy of a louse.”

Otto Marseus was a close friend of Swammerdam. He did for painting what Swammerdam did for science. His sottoboschi, forest-floor scenes crowded with tiny creatures, gave a new direction to Dutch Golden-Age art.

Little-regarded creatures

It was long believed that nature was structured in accordance with strict rules laid down by God, and animals belonged to higher and lower orders. The Greek philosopher Aristotle introduced the idea of the scala naturae, nature’s ladder, with the gods at the top, followed by man and the animals, and with insects, amphibians and reptiles lurking at the bottom. They were worthless creatures associated with decay and transience.

The rise of science led people to start reading nature like a book, and to realise that every part of it followed the same laws. They showed a new respect for animals that traditionally had been ignored. Since these laws were dictated by God, is the distinction between higher and lower life forms still meaningful? Their beauty and complexity became apparent and the small creatures appeared increasingly often in paintings. At first they were secondary figures in still lifes, but Otto Marseus Van Schriek made them the protagonists.