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

Joris Hoefnagel

Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (Ignis): Plate XIV, 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, 1987.20.5.15, Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Words and Deeds

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Marisa Bass

Among the remarkable aspects of Joris Hoefnagel’s insect volume is its attention to a category of living organisms in which Renaissance naturalists had only just begun to take an interest. The first published treatise devoted to insects was not published until after Hoefnagel’s death in 1600. In creating the other volumes of the Four Elements, Hoefnagel was able to borrow models from existing illustrations of birds, fishes, reptiles, and mammals. But when it came to insects, Hoefnagel had to rely almost exclusively on his own scrutiny of specimens first-hand.

At the same time, the combination of text and image through the manuscript makes clear that Hoefnagel was not pursuing the construction of a clear taxonomy, or engaging with his subjects as would an entomologist today. Nowhere in any of the volumes is there a key identifying the names of the particular species depicted, even despite the occasional numbers that appear alongside them. The texts that Hoefnagel chose for inclusion in the volumes instead form a commentary of a very different sort. They reflect the lessons that might be derived from the investigation of the natural world, and a conviction that even the tiniest insect that exists has something to teach us.

‘The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds’ (v.13) reads the line from Psalm 145 that Hoefnagel selected to accompany the three butterflies arranged within the ovular frame shown here. Their symmetry on the page—as on the pages treated elsewhere in this exhibition—puts the uniqueness of each individual specimen into greater relief. By displaying all three in profile, Hoefnagel allows for observation of the distinctions not just in the colouring but also in the shape of their wings.

Pairing words of divine praise with examples of God’s wondrous deeds, we simultaneously read and see the faithful investment in every living thing that the verse proclaims.