Imitating nature

The person who painted the plants and animals on this box might be called an artist today. But at the time, there was no reason to separate the arts and sciences with a disciplinary divide the way we often do now. The scientific disciplines of zoology and botany have always been closely intertwined with literature and art, making it sometimes hard to determine where the art ends and the science begins.

The goal of artists who drew and painted foreign species in the 1600s was, according to the botanist and painter Christian Mentzel, “to reproduce nature itself as perfectly as possible.” This period marked the introduction of images of certain exotic animals in Europe, and it also saw the rise of widespread circulation of books about plants and animals from all over the world.  The most famous of these books was a series of six volumes by the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, who published his Historia Animalium between 1551 and 1558. Gessner was the first European to describe and depict many plants and animals, including the tulip and the bird of paradise.

 Use the slider to see how the bird of paradise painted on the ivory box compares to the bird of paradise drawn by Conrad Gessner.

As soon as one artist created an image of a previously unseen animal, others would copy it into their own books and artwork. This reliance on other artists’ images to portray animals, which many people had never actually seen in person, meant that a lot of mistakes in how animals or plants were depicted continued.

Gessner’s well-known and widely copied drawing of bird of paradise was based on a dead specimen that had been shipped to Europe from its native New Guinea, probably not long after the first specimen reached Europe in 1522. Birds of paradise often had their limbs removed in local rituals and for preservation as specimens before they were transported to Europe. As a consequence, Gessner’s drawing (which was widely published as a print in his book), was of a bird lacking wings or legs – as were the drawings by many European artists who came after him.

Systematic mistakes were also made in flower drawings around the same time. It was thought that the purpose of flowers was to protect the developing fruit. So, the reproductive organs of flowers were occasionally mis-drawn or omitted, even though we now know that these are the very reason for flowers’ existence. Some of the lilies on this box are painted with visible stamens and pistils, but others are painted without these pollen-and ovule-producing features.

The tulips on the box are painted without visible stamens or pistils at all. Although tulips are grown all over Europe now, they weren’t always. They were first introduced from the Ottoman Empire in 1554, about half a century before the presumed date of the Courtauld casket.

Today, living things are generally named according to a notation and taxonomical system developed by Carl Linnaeus in 1735. Linnaean taxonomy orders species into kingdoms, classes, orders, genera, and species. But before Linnaeus created this system, classification of living things used the system set up by Aristotle before 300 BCE. Aristotle’s system separated animals into those with blood and those without, and then split animals with blood further into mammals, birds, reptiles/amphibians, snakes, and fishes.

Zoological books like Gessner’s were often arranged based on these divisions. The painted animals on this box seem to copy this scheme. The upper part of the box exclusively depicts birds on all four sides. The lower box shows mammals on the front and back, and reptiles and fishes on the sides, without any mixing of these types of animals on the same panel.

Use the arrows in the top right of the photo to make the gallery below full screen. See select animals painted on the ivory box, and the drawings that might have inspired these paintings.