Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis): Plate XII by Joris Hoefnagel

Joris Hoefnagel

Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis): Plate XII, c.1575–80, Watercolour and gouache, with oval border in gold, on vellum, 14.3 x 18.4 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Gift of Mrs. Lessing J. Rosenwald, 1987.20.5.13, Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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A Double Take

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Marisa Bass

On the second folio of Joris Hoefnagel’s Four Elements, we find the mole cricket in a rather compromised state. On the first folio, he appeared upright. He now lies inert and overturned on the parchment, his squat limbs and underbelly exposed. Beside him are two butterflies who have taken the place of their counterparts on the preceding folio—dark green fritillaries aptly named for the verdant tint of their hindwings. Keeping to the same compositional structure, but changing subjects and shifting pose, Hoefnagel animates his insects across successive frames. The manuscript transforms from a collection of studies into a microcosmic world that comes alive at the touch and before one’s eyes.

With the turn of the page, Hoefnagel also continues the exegesis of Psalm 145 which began on the previous verso. The tenth verse of the hymn now appears in the upper register of the verso:

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. (v.10)

We might interpret this line in relation not only to the trio depicted in the adjacent image but also to Hoefnagel’s own endeavour of making the manuscript itself.

The prostrate mole cricket exposes the process that underlay the workings of Hoefnagel’s inquiring hand. Only close study of dead specimens would have allowed him to capture his subjects in such precise detail. But only rarely do his miniatures so explicitly lay bare the labour and virtuosity required to re-enliven a lifeless body on the page.

To study nature in the sixteenth century meant to seek an understanding of the infinite design and astounding diversity implicit in a realm that God created. In this respect, Hoefnagel’s painstaking studies reflect a practice at once empirical and devotional. At every turn, his efforts compelled admiration for the divine artifex from whom he understood all his subjects, and his own artistic talent, to derive.