Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

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Title page from 1705

Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Surinamese Insects) is the main work of the naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), a collection of copperplate engravings and related texts, which describes the life cycles of insects in what was then the Dutch colony of Suriname depicted and described.

The trip

Maria Sibylla Merian around 1700

Maria Sibylla Merian began to paint insects and plants from nature when she was 13. Researching and visualizing insects remained an integral part of their lives. Around 1685 she first learned about the tropical flora and fauna of South America . In several natural collections in Amsterdam she deepened her impressions in the 1690s, but also noticed that the metamorphosis of the insects through the various stages of their life was hardly shown there. She began to prepare a trip to Suriname, although friends and acquaintances warned her about the extremely unhealthy climate . In June 1699 she went there with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria , who was then 21 years old , to research animals and plants.

Suriname, also known by the collective name of Dutch Guiana , was a Dutch colony in South America until 1975. In Merian's time, white plantation owners let their black slaves grow sugar cane , mainly in monoculture . In the interior of the country there were almost impenetrable primeval forests . Mother and daughter Merian temporarily lived with Labadisten , an early Pietist community in the remote settlement of Providence. It was on the right bank of the Suriname , about 65 km from the capital Paramaribo . Accompanied by some locals , they set out early in the morning on almost inaccessible bush paths into the woods to observe and collect insects on their respective host plants. In view of the exotic diversity, they expanded their original research program considerably. In the evening, the finds were prepared and drawn - the hot and humid climate forced rapid evaluation of all objects that could not be preserved. After a two-year stay, the now 54-year-old researcher was no longer able to cope with the exertion and fell seriously ill with malaria . On September 23, 1701, she and her daughter returned to Amsterdam.

The work

The edition

In the years from 1702 to 1705 Maria Sibylla Merian, still severely impaired in health, prepared her great work on the Surinamese insects. On the title page she had the following printed:

In which the Surinamese caterpillars and worms are depicted and described in all their transformations after life and where they are placed on the plants, flowers and fruits on which they were found. There are also frogs , miraculously toads , lizards , snakes , spiders and ants shown and explained, and everything was painted in America for life and life-size and described. By Maria Sibylla Merian.

At the end of 1702 the planning for the edition was completed, the 60 panels were available as parchment paintings . She was only able to engrave three of them in copper (nos. XI, XIV and XXXV), the rest were taken over by Pieter Sluyter (35), Joseph Mulder (21) and Daniel Stoopendael (1). Merian himself wrote the corresponding texts, scientific comments were added by her good friend Caspar Commelin, the director of the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam. Together with her two daughters, she colored the finished prints. For a few copies of the book she had the fresh prints made - the now reversed pages showed only faint contours and looked almost like pure watercolors after the application of color .

The work was published in the format folio large (size 2 °) with the dimensions 50 × 35 cm. The price was 45 guilders, which was attributable to the pressure 15, the coloring but 30 guilders . A German, a Dutch and a Latin edition were planned. The German was omitted because there were only 12 subscribers ; the others were self-published at the beginning of 1705 and by Gerard Valk in Amsterdam. The total edition can hardly have been more than 60 copies, measured against the small number of first editions that still exist today. In the introduction the author wrote:

“I spared no expense in carrying out this work. I had the plates cut by the most famous masters and I used the best paper for them, so that I give pleasure and joy to both those who love art and those who love insects and plants, as I will be delighted when I hear that I achieved my intention ... "

Images and texts

Plate XXIII: Boccaves fruit with a lizard

The introduction also states that around 90 observations of caterpillars, worms and maggots are shown on the 60 panels , which change shape and color when they skin and ultimately turn into butterflies . In addition, various other animals are shown, all of which I have drawn and observed from life in America, with the exception of a few that I have added to statements made by the Indians . In doing so, the author inevitably made factual errors. She had put together an insect from two parts that did not belong together, the fruits hang on a tree differently than in nature, caterpillars do not always sit on the right forage plants. Some knowledge gaps are closed by untenable hypotheses. Merian dealt with such and similar problems with ease:

“Because of its rarity, I added the beautiful black beetle, decorated with red and yellow spots and sitting on the fruit, to fill in and decorate the engraving, although I do not know its origin. I would like to leave his research to others. "

Such inaccuracies were criticized by the zoologists of the 18th and especially the 19th century. However, with this unhistorical approach, which measured a work of the past against the current state of knowledge, the critics misjudged not only Merian's scientific merits in her time, but above all her great artistic achievement. The sensitively drawn, carefully colored and artistically composed panels are still today considered graphic masterpieces, the first prints as bibliophile treasures.

In addition, there are also culturally and historically informative texts on the individual panels. Merian explained in the introduction:

“I could have made the text more detailed, but since today's world is very sensitive and the views of scholars are different, I just stuck to my observations. In this way, I provide material from which everyone can draw conclusions according to their own meaning and opinion. "

This material also included her comments on wild plants that were hardly used economically at the time: cherries, plums , figs and vanilla . She also reported on the problems, attitudes and habits of the Indian population. In addition, she complained about the narrow-mindedness of the white planters, who knew nothing other than the money they made from growing sugar cane , and who only ridiculed the “unworldly” researcher. The colonists also resented her comments about the living conditions of the slaves that were critical of society - she reports, for example, of the suicide of battered workers and their widespread hope of being reborn in a free state. A large part of her texts deal with the taste and preparation of the individual plants and fruits, as well as their use as medicinal products .

Further editions

After Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717, four more reprints were published in the 18th century using the original copper plates. None of them achieved the artistic perfection of the first edition colored by Merian himself. First, the Amsterdam publisher Johannes Oosterwijk bought the printing material and reissued the work in 1719, again in a Latin and a Dutch edition. Twelve more were added to the original 60 panels - ten were found in the artist's estate, two were newly created based on drawings from the natural history cabinet of the collector Albertus Seba . The Latin title was now: Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium . A reprint of the expanded work was published by Peter Gosse in the Hague in 1726 , now with the Latin and French text printed side by side in two columns and under the title Histoire des insectes de l'Amérique . In 1730 Bernard in Amsterdam published a Dutch edition with unchanged images and in 1771 a two-volume French version was published by Desnos in Paris in 1771, again of lower quality, which contained both the Surinamese and the European insects.

Reprint on the 300th anniversary of Maria Sibylla Merian's death

In December 2016, the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt published a limited edition of 1,499 copies. The basis of the reprint was an original copy from the Royal Library of the Netherlands in The Hague . In addition to the prints in original size, the output contains a great deal of additional information, including: a. Translations of the Dutch texts, the genesis and the artistic impact of the work.


  • The little book of tropical wonders . Colored engravings by Maria Sibylla Merian. Preface by Friedrich Schnack. Insel Verlag, Leipzig 1935 ( Insel-Bücherei 351/2)
  • Maria Sibylla Merian: The insect book. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main / Leipzig 1991, ISBN 3-458-34570-1 .

Web links

Commons : Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium - Merian  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Maria Sibylla Merian. The insect book. Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig 1991, p. 7
  2. Ibid., P. 8
  3. Ibid., P. 8
  4. Ibid., P. 64
  5. Ibid., P. 8
  6. Link to the German National Library with the bibliographical information of the reprint. Accessed on January 13, 2017