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

Joris Hoefnagel

Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis): Plate XI, 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, 1987.20.5.12, Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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An Unusual Encounter

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Marisa Bass

The first book devoted to the representation of insects in the history of art and science might seem an unlikely place to find a quotation from the scriptures. Yet inscribed on the verso shown here is the ninth verse of Psalm 145:

The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (v.9)

This opening belongs to a stunning late sixteenth-century manuscript created by the Netherlandish polymath Joris Hoefnagel. It forms part of his project known as the Four Elements: a visual encyclopaedia of nature’s creatures spread across four volumes, which together contain some three hundred illuminated folios and over one thousand inscriptions. The small scale and oblong format of the manuscripts indicate that they were meant to be held and studied up close. It is precisely this kind of sustained contemplation that Hoefnagel’s insect volume rewards.

On the recto opposite the excerpt from the psalm, a congregation of specimens suggests just how far God’s compassion extends. The two butterflies seem at first to be engaged in conversation. On closer inspection, the disagreement in the shadows that they cast places them realms apart. The small tortoiseshell at centre stands in profile within a space of implied depth, while the red admiral below seems to be resting on the surface of the page. Both are labelled with the number ‘1’ as if to indicate their affinity.

Nonetheless, the distinct spatial worlds they inhabit further compel us to observe the subtle differences in their colour and patterning, which appear all the more marked beside the third and final insect within the frame. How to account for this lumbering little beast with its burrowing claws, pointy snout, and beady eyes? If God is good to all his creatures, then even the inelegant mole cricket exists by divine grace.