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Nature's Bible
Insects in European art, science, and religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Nasci. Pati. Mori. by Jacob Hoefnagel, after Joris Hoefnagel
Jacob Hoefnagel, after Joris Hoefnagel, from Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnageli, 1592. Image source: Service Commun de Documentation, Université de Strasbourg, France, http://www-sicd.u-strasbg.fr. All rights reserved.

A research project by Brian W. Ogilvie


To modern readers, Jan Swammerdam’s book The Bible of Nature, or the History of Insects reduced to distinct classes contains a paradox: the natural history of insects hardly seems to comprise Nature’s Bible. This book project aims to resolve the paradox: to examine how the intense interest that early modern Europeans took in insects, from the late Renaissance to the Enlightenment, was not merely an episode in the prehistory of entomology but, in fact, drew together powerful currents in what we now think of as the distinct realms of science, art, and religion. Beginning with sixteenth century natural history and the revival of interest in the works of Albrecht Dürer, I examine how insects, knowledge about them, and the symbolic meanings elaborated from them circulated throughout early modern culture. From Joris Hoefnagel’s emblematic miniatures of insects to Maria Sibylla Merian’s life-sized watercolors, from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s insect encyclopedia of 1603 to August Johann Rösel’s Monthly Insect Entertainment of the 1740s and 1750s, from Jan Swammerdam’s insect anatomy to F. C. Lesser’s insect theology, knowledge about insects circulated across nascent disciplinary boundaries, inspiring readers and collectors to focus their attention on these perceptually marginal creatures. In short, insects were good to think with.

Publications related to this project

  • Brian W. Ogilvie, “Attending to insects: Francis Willughby and John Ray,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 66, no. 4 (2012): 357-72, doi:10.1098/rsnr.2012.0051.
  • Brian W. Ogilvie, “Nature’s Bible: Insects in seventeenth-century European art and science,” Tidsskrift for kulturforskning [Journal of Cultural Research, Oslo, Norway] 7, no. 3 (2008): 5-21.

Forthcoming publications

  • Brian W. Ogilvie, “The pleasure of describing: Art and science in August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof’s Monthly Insect Entertainment,” in Visible Animals, edited by Liv Emma Thorsen, Karen A. Rader, and Adam Dodd, accepted by Penn State University Press in the series “Animalibus: Of animals and cultures” (in production as of November 2012 with publication anticipated in October 2013).

Works under consideration

  • Brian W. Ogilvie, “Order of insects: Insect species and metamorphosis between Renaissance and Enlightenment,” under consideration at Annals of Science (submitted November 12, 2012).

Works in progress

  • Journal article: "Insects in John Ray's natural history and natural theology"
  • Journal article: "Insects in French literature from La Puce de Madame Des-Roches to Le Spectacle de la nature."
  • Book chapter: “Beasts, Birds, and Insects: Folkbiology and early modern classification of insects.”
  • Book chapter: “Maria Sibylla Merian et la mouche porte-lanterne de Suriname : naissance et disparition d’un fait scientifique.”
  • Monograph: Nature's Bible: Insects in European Art, Science, and Religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.



Research on this project has been financed by a sabbatical leave from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a residential fellowship at the Institut d'études avancées - Paris.

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