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No. 2049:
The deBry's and the Merians

Today, the New World, both real and Imagined. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The pall of the Spanish Inquisition lay over Belgium in 1570. And the Protestant engraver Theodore de Bry was exiled to Strassburg. Eight years later, he moved to Frankfurt and set up a publishing house. By then, de Bry had become very interested in the explorations of the Western hemisphere

In 1590, he set out to describe all that those journeys had revealed. The project extended far beyond his death in 1598, and was carried on by his sons Theodore and Israel. They were joined by his son-in-law Matthäus Merian, who finished the work in 1634. (Like his father-in-law, Merian was also an artist in copperplate.) 

And, oh, the images in that Great Voyages series. Most of the texts, and some pictures, had been published earlier. But de Bry and his sons talked with explorers, then drew their own images to go with the tales they heard. And remember, they were Protestants. 

Their northern European explorers were shown as benign, but they showed the Spanish inflicting terrible atrocities -- murder, torture, cannibalism. And, since they'd never seen the Natives, they drew them with European faces and they built a pictorial mythology around them.

Although Merian finished the series, the Grand Guignol theater of horrors in the books largely reflects the work of the de Bry family. Merian went on to print other books of images -- maps, city plans, and remarkable bird's-eye views of European cities. 

Still, there's no lack of theater in another Merian book, his Iconum Biblicarum. This huge set of copperplate illustrations of Bible verses is even better theater than the Great Voyages books. Never did the walls of Jericho fall as resoundingly as he shows them falling, or was Jonah spit up on shore by so fierce a fish.

Then came the third generation: Matthäus Merian's son was also a noted engraver. And, although Matthäus died when his daughter Maria Sybilla Merian only three, the story has it that he saw her early genius and predicted she would be the most famous of all. 

And so she was! Her mother, Matthäus wife, remarried to a painter, and under his teaching Maria became a superb artist in oil and watercolor. She also became fascinated with flowers, and with butterflies and caterpillars. 

Maria's daughter, in turn, married a seagoing merchant. And, when Maria was fifty-two, they convinced her to join them in a real voyage to the new world. They went to Surinam, on the north South American coast. And there, Maria cemented her role as the world's first entomologist with a stunningly beautiful book on The Metamorphosis of Surinam Insects. Today, seventeen species of plants, butterflies, and beetles have been named after her.

With Maria Merian, it was no longer conquistadors and natives, chopping each other to bits. She'd now come full circle. She had, at last, narrowed her lens and given us a wholly different picture of our New World. 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

M. Merian, Iconum Biblicarum, (Frankfurt: 1625/1630). Reprinted: (Wenatchee, WA: AVB Press, 1981)

B. Bucher, Icon and Conquest: A Structural Analysis of Illustrations of de Bry's GREAT VOYAGES. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981). 

A. H. Mayor, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971). 

The Age of The Marvelous. (Joy Kenseth, ed.) (Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art -- Dartmouth College, 1991). 

G. B. Parks, Richard Hakluyt and the English Voyages. (New York: American Geographical Society, 1928): pp. 161-163. (De Bry traveled only as far as England, and he did so to meet with the English explorer Hakluyt.) 

For more on Maria Sybilla Merian, see L. Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.)

For examples of Maria Merian and her stunning artwork and additional biographical material, see, e.g., the following web site:

or see this small reprint of her drawings of flowers with an introduction to her biography: M. S. Merian, New Book of Flowers. (Intro. By Melanie Klier) (New York: Prestel, 2003)

Some might find it of interest that the lineage continued: Maria Merian's granddaughter's husband was the great mathematician, Leonard Euler. 


Supposed cannibalism among Native Americans, deBry, Great Voyages. All images from this source may be found at

Joshua defeating the Amorites

Joshua defeating the Amorites. Matthäus Merian's Iconum Biblicarum

Emperor moth
A change of pace: Maria Sybilla Merian's image of the stages of an Emperor Moth: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis, Plate XI.