Symbolic Nature: Matthaeus Merian and the Fruit-Bearing Society

    Shannon Zeltmann, ’21

    Matthaeus Merian the Elder, (left) “Member 200: The Crowned One” and (right) “Member 201: The Nourisher,” in The Fruit-Bearing Society Names, Intentions, Paintings, and Words, 1646, handcolored engraving, 7 5/8 x 6″. Purchase made possible by Betsy A. and Bruce R. Stefany, ’71, Gettysburg College Special Collections & College Archives. (Click the titles of the prints to view a larger version)

    Maria Sibylla Merian had many influences, including her father Matthaeus Merian, a famous engraver and publisher of the seventeenth century. Matthaeus engraved a multitude of subjects, such as topographical maps, biblical scenes, and Greco-Roman myths.[1] Matthaeus studied etching and engraving in Zurich, Switzerland and moved around Europe for a few years before eventually moving to Frankfurt to work alongside Johann Theodor de Bry, whose publishing house was known for maps and illustrations of the Americas and Native Americans.[2] Merian married de Bry’s daughter, Maria Magdalena de Bry, and eventually took over the de Bry publishing house when his father-in-law died in 1624.[3]

    Portrait of Matthaeus Merian the Elder. Matthaus Merian Wikipedia.

    The prints in the exhibit come from the 1646 book Der Fruchtbrinden Gesellschaft Nahmen, Vorhaben Geraehide und Woerter (The Fruit-Bearing Society Names, Intentions, Paintings, and Words). Merian published this four-volume book set for the Fruit-Bearing Society, a club for gentlemen of good morals and faith, established in 1617 by Prince Ludwig of Anhalt-Kothen to improve the German language.[4] One activity of the society was to create a personal motto and symbol for each new member, accompanied by a poem expanding on their associated meanings.[5]

    Left: Detail of the laurel tree in “Member 200.” Right: Laurel tree in bloom. The leaves in the Merian are simplified to the outline of the leaf, and colored a light green. AnonyousWikipedia on Wikimedia Commons.

    Two prints from Der Fruchtbrighten, plates “200: The Crowned One” and “201: The Nourisher,” are featured in the exhibition. Each page is dedicated to a member of the society; above the depiction of a German landscape, a banner appears at the top of each plate with the name of the plant or fruit for which the person is known. In “Member 200”, the laurel tree is depicted to the right of an open-air building with a laurel wreath on a table inside. At the bottom of the illustration, the banner proclaims the virtue of the person. Member 200 was known as the “Crowned One,” alluding to the famous German poet of the seventeenth century, Martin Opitz. He became a member in 1629, having worked to create a standard set of rules for the German language.[6] The society chose these plants for their symbolic properties. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, plants were beginning to be studied and used for their scientific properties as seen in Maria Sibylla Merian’s prints of plants as the food of the insects she depicted. Yet, many artists like Matthaeus still incorporated plants into compositions for their symbolism. The crown of laurel was commonly used to denote a poet during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.[7] This motif derives from the Greco-Roman god of poetry, Apollo, whose symbol was the laurel tree.

    Detail of Dante with a laurel crown, from Dante Reading from the Divine Comedy, Dimenico di Michelino, 1465, in the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore, Florence.

    In “Member 201: The Nourisher,” the rye plant was chosen to symbolize Heinrich von Reus’ generosity to the poor. The mustard colored rye plant that von Reus produced for his community sits in the foreground. To the plant’s right, a flaming oven has a multitude of rye breads, which will be used to feed the town. Golden rye fields and rolling mountains in the distance fill the background. The poem states von Reus’ generosity is how he serves God. During this period, dark, grainy, rye bread was associated with the poor, and thus this symbol was chosen to illustrate Heinrich’s allegiance to God through his assistance to the impoverished.[8]

    Left: Rye in the Merian “Member 201.” Right: Rye Plant. LSDSL on Wikimedia Commons

    Using flowers and plants as artistic symbols, as opposed to objects of scientific study, was commonplace in Europe for centuries.[9] The examples of laurel and rye speak to ancient, literary, and religious associations. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the prevalence of symbolism began to change as flowers began to be studied for their own properties by Renaissance botanists. Matthaeus Merian died when his daughter, Maria Sibylla Merian, was only three. Her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, was the one who taught Merian how to paint, and possibly, how to etch plates. However, Matthaeus Merian set the stage for naturalists like Maria Sibylla Merian, whose prints carefully depict naturalistic plants and insects together in an ecological composition.


    [1] Susan Donahue Kuretsky, “The Face in the Landscape: A Puzzling Print by Matthaus Merian the Elder,” in A. Golahny, Mia M. Mochizuki, and L. Vergara, In His Milieu: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Memory of John Michael Montias (Amsterdm: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), 221. ProQuest Ebook Central.

    [2] Karen Nipps, “The Cover Design,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy vol. 82, 4 (October 2012): 511. Doi: 10.1086/667439

    [3] Kuretsky, “The Face in the Landscape,” 221.

    [4] David E. Wellbery, Judith Ryan, and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, A New History of German Literature (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 277, 278.

    [5] Wellbery et al., German Literature, 278.

    [6] Sean Massa, “Martin Opitz,” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2019. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=89874990&site=eds-live

    [7] Luba, Freedman, “Apollo and Daphne by Antonio Del Pollaiuolo and the Poetry of Lorenzo de’ Medici,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome vol. 56/57 (2011/2012): 226. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24616442.

    [8] Lynne Olver, “Rye Bread,” Breads, The Food Timeline, accessed March 11, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbreads.html#ryebread

    [9]  Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Tony Willis, An Oak Spring Herbaria (Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library, 2009), xliii.

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