With the groundbreaking recent exhibition and catalogue, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe by Susan Dackerman et al. (2011; reviewed here November 2011, 22-23), study of the close relationship between Dutch art and early modern science received a powerful pictorial foundation. Intellectual history of that relationship had already received its own wide-ranging and well illustrated study (Leiden: Primavera, 2006) in the published dissertation by Erik Jorink. Now thanks to the very accessible translation by Peter Mason – already well known for his own studies of early modern imagery of fauna, flora, and exotic humans – this insightful study will reach a wider audience, including art historians of HNA who did not have access to the Dutch original. Only the high price hampers the contribution of this well produced book, volume 191 in Brill’s series Studies in Intellectual History.
If one follows literally the concept of a paradigm shift, as defined by Thomas Kuhn in his renowned Structures of Scientific Revolutions(1962), then the era of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution would be a basic replacement of a medieval cosmic order with the empiricism of heliocentrism and descriptive naturalism. Yet Jorink’s meticulously researched arguments point to the grey area of both times and ideas in conflict during the seventeenth century, when Cartesian rationalism did not yet hold sway and was itself vigorously opposed by Calvinists in Dutch universities, especially Leiden. Many intellectuals, natural philosophers, still saw the Bible as the key to understanding the world and the heavens, or at least they viewed scientific research and understanding of “the Book of Nature” as fully complementary studies, acknowledging the divine, almighty creation of that natural order, which proclaims His majesty.
This convincing viewpoint is revisionist, overturning the more common progressive and positivist histories of science and religion by such scholars as Koyré (1957), while amplifying the uncommon insights of a briefer essay by Hooykaas (1972). This book will add to current revisions to a more complex history of science by Shapin et al., who contend that the Scientific Revolution was more diverse, contested, and gradual than progressive history of science accounts would have asserted a generation ago. In this respect, Jorink confirms recent contributions by art historians, especially Claudia Swan, whose 2005 book on Jacques de Gheyn II discussed the artist’s mingling of “art, science, and witchcraft” in a distinctly Dutch context of the early seventeenth century. Jorink also repeatedly makes good use of the combination of piety with natural curiosity of a familiar polymath, Constantijn Huygens, father of renowned experimental scientist Christiaan Huygens, and he adduces younger investigators, such as Nicolaes Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and governor of the VOC.
After his initial chapter discussing both disputes and overlaps among learned theologians and their scientific colleagues – and the work of some, especially astronomers, who researched both fields – Jorink turns to illustrated period case studies, where his insights will resonate well with art historians. He begins with comets, which astronomers had already established as superlunary phenomena, but still often construed, or debated, as “wonders,” omens or prodigies to be read as divine signs, often of divine anger, as had the ancients (and the sixteenth century, still; see Silver, Art Bulletin, 91, 1999, 194-214), but increasingly as testaments to divine majesty in the Book of Nature. Jorink even links Jacob Cats (131-34, fig. 18; 1619; a stern critic of astrology as heathen), the elder Huygens, and Jan Luycken (169, fig. 24; 1708) to this ongoing Calvinist viewpoint of the divine order, and his survey examines specific cases of reactions to celebrated comets (1577, 1618, and especially 1664).
A highlight chapter (Four) considers the central role assumed by the humblest creatures, insects, in the divine order. In anticipation of modern notions, the Creator is said to have bestowed “intelligent design” even to the plans of mosquito, fly, or cheese mite. Begun by De Gheyn’s drawings, this vision became even more evident through the lens of Van Leeuwenhoek onto the microscopic or through Robert Hooke’s engraved Micrographia (1665; fig. 33). To study the metamorphosis of a Surinam butterfly, as in Johannes Swammerdam’s books, especially his son’s significant title, Bybel der natuure (219-40, figs. 34-37; 1737-38) or in Maria Sibylla Merian’s, blended both descriptive naturalism and piety, to show how nature followed divine laws.
Thus did the great collections of naturalia (Chapter Five, an up-to-date primer on this major topic) truly deserve at first to be called “chambers of Wonders.” Beginning with Bernardus Paludanus in Enkhuizen at the end of the sixteenth century (266-78), Dutch collectors led the way in amassing cabinets of curiosity from their far-flung global trade. But Jorink restores their activities to the study of the book of nature, particularly by humanists and theologians. He emphasizes amateurs like Witsen (326-33) and physicians, such as Swammerdam (311-19) and Frederik Ruysch (319-25), especially in the university setting of Leiden, whose collections were established by Carolus Clusius and Petrus Pauw (278-82). Additionally, Jorink underscores the scholarly importance of Johannes de Laet (296-308), whose 1625 description of the New World became an oft-reprinted standard reference and who edited the watershed 1648 Natural History of Brazil; his Amerindians and exotic fauna soon challenged inherited biblical chronologies and geographies. Observation as such took on increasing significance. As Jorink assesses (308): “European hunger for curiosities, originally partly intended to illustrate classical and Christian history, began, paradoxically enough, to undermine that very history.” He calls the shift of outlook a change “from collection of curiosities to cabinets of naturalia” (309). Natural explanations of monstrous births, for example, replaced their previous status as preternatural prodigies, though wonder at the works of the divine architect still remained in force.
The book concludes with its overview of the main development, “from rarity to regularity,” where order constituted divine creation. Experiments replaced prodigies, but faith and science remained allies in a reconfigured “physico-theology.” Jorink’s deeply grounded, expressly Dutch account charts the main intellectual shift from wonder to observational science, as recounted by Daston and Park (1998), but also complements that rich pictorial record of visual knowledge, epitomized now by the imagery within Dackerman’s exhibition.
University of Pennsylvania