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On Display. The Fagel Family’s Copy of Maria Sibylla Merian’s ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ (1719)

By Emily Mattern

Emily Mattern completed an MPhil in the History of Art at Trinity College Dublin in 2022. The following text is based on the research for her dissertation entitled Materiality, Meaning, and Metamorphosis: The Work of Maria Sibylla Merian in the Fagel Collection at Trinity College Dublin (2022).

First Encounter with the Fagel Metamorphosis

Although the works of natural history found within the Fagel Collection are limited in number, they are some of the collection’s most visually striking objects. As a multi-generational library amassed by high-ranking Dutch citizens, the Fagel Collection demonstrates an interest in various subjects. Even so, the men who amassed and maintained it routinely favored items which would prove beneficial in upholding their official duties as greffier of the States General. Because the Fagels prioritized practical texts, it is no surprise that natural history volumes comprise only about 2.6% of the collection (Fox 89). More remarkable is the exquisite ornamentation of these books, as exemplified by one second-edition copy of Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Fag.GG.2.10 no.1).

A hand-coloured entomological illustration of a pineapple plant, surrounded by different life stages of the cockroach, in flight and at rest
Figure 1: The Fagel Metamorphosis (Fag.GG.2.10 no.1), plate 1, photo by author

I first encountered Fag.GG.2.10 no.1, or the Fagel Metamorphosis, in Autumn of 2022 during a seminar visit to Research Collections. I was immediately captivated by the entomological treatise and its seamless marriage of art and science. Often, these two disciplines are perceived as disparate, if not overtly antagonistic to one another. One need only glance at Plate 1 of the Metamorphosis (fig. 1) to see this assumption challenged. In introducing her magnum opus, Merian presents the infamous cockroach as an elegant and refined companion to the equally exotic pineapple plant. Further, the composition of Plate 1 is harmonious, here accentuated by colours which are vivid and complex to an equal degree. When faced with such beauty, a modern audience might initially question the scientific basis of Merian’s work. However, a more thorough examination of the Fagel Metamorphosis suggests, not only Merian’s scientific significance, but also, the motivations underpinning the book’s inclusion within the Fagel Collection.

Maria Sibylla Merian: A Singular Woman

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt on April 2nd, 1647. In addition to boasting an artistic lineage, Merian was trained for such pursuits by her stepfather, the still life painter, Jacob Marrel. By comparison, her scientific inclinations were less predictable, yet equally formative. From the age of thirteen, until her death at sixty-nine, Merian collected caterpillars and documented their development with word, as well as image. This lifelong fascination with insects and their transformations inspired the artist to independently finance a voyage to Surinam in 1699. The two years of fieldwork which resulted from this endeavour formed the foundation of her Metamorphosis. This work was first published in Amsterdam in 1705, at a time when the boundary between art and science was perhaps more fluid than we consider it today.

One of Merian’s most significant contributions continues to be her distinctive pictorial approach. Unlike her fellow naturalists, Merian did not categorize insects. Instead, she prioritized the environment of her subjects. In each plate, the artist displays all stages of an insect’s life cycle, accompanied by its host plant. In addition to adopting this ‘ecological’ style, Merian was the first European to describe many new-world plants and insects. For this reason, as well as the profound detail of her illustrations, Carl Linnaeus cited her Metamorphosis while developing his taxonomic system. More impressively, modern entomologists are able to identify a large portion of the species presented within her work. Taken together, it is evident that Merian’s historical importance is applicable to the fields of art and science alike. 

A sizable natural-history book with hand in foreground for size comparison
Figure 2: The volume containing the Fagel Metamorphosis (Fag.GG.2.10) with author’s hand as a size comparison, photo by author

In positing the original function of the Fagel Metamorphosis, consideration of the book’s material presence is worthwhile. Like other copies of this second edition of Merian’s work, the Fagel Metamorphosis is presented in an extra-large folio format (fig. 2). When closed, it measures 530mm (h) x 390mm (w) x 100mm (d). Although the book may be transported by one person, its sizable dimensions and considerable weight render this task awkward. Similarly, to turn its pages safely requires care and full attention. The Fagel Metamorphosis is also difficult to appreciate in what we might consider a normative manner of reading. Rather than resting comfortably in the reader’s hands, a table or desk surface is needed on which to lay the book, and possibly even additional supports to prop it up, as in today’s reading room. . In sum, these physical characteristics necessitate the book’s conspicuous display, as well as an increased level of conscious, viewer engagement. Consulting the Fagel Metamorphosis is an act that is neither intimate nor casual.

Figure 3: Gold lettering, found throughout the Fagel Metamorphosis (Fag.GG.2.10 no.1), photo by author

Along with its great size, the Fagel Metamorphosis emits luxury by virtue of its extensive ornamentation. Gold is found both within the text (fig. 3) and along the book’s fore edges (fig. 4). It is bound in red morocco leather, embellished with copious gold tooling (fig. 5). In this regard, the Metamorphosis volume diverges from most holdings within the Fagel Collection; typically, these texts are bound in less conspicuous materials, often parchment or leather and left undecorated.

Close-up of the gilded fore edge of an eighteenth-century printed book
Figure 4: Fore edge gilding of the Fagel Metamorphosis volume (Fag.GG.2.10), photo by author

Moreover, even as a posthumous edition, the Fagel Metamorphosis exhibits hand-coloured illustrations of an especially fine quality. Copies of the text produced within Merian’s lifetime were coloured by the artist herself, else her daughters. As such, they were accurate in Merian’s view. However, later editions of the Metamorphosis are more prone to inaccuracy, a fact which facilitated Merian’s discreditation in the nineteenth century. There are even some instances where uncoloured copies were coloured by amateurs at a later date (Valiant 474). This is not the case with the Fagel Metamorphosis.

Because the dimensions and decoration of the book command one’s undivided attention, its most probable function was that of showpiece. For the Fagel family, it is likely that their copy of Merian’s treatise was seen more as a treasure for display than as a reference tome.

A large and lavishly bound book in red morocco and gold, behind a smaller, mottled brown leather book
Figure 5: Size and binding comparison of the Fagel Metamorphosis (Fag.GG.2.10) (at rear) with another Merian volume held within the Fagel Collection (Fag.M.4.14) (foreground), photo by author


Delft, Marieke van and Hans Mulder, ed. Maria Sibylla Merian. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium= Verandering Der Surinaamsche Insecten= Transformation of the Surinamese Insects: 1705. Tielt: Lannoo, 2016.

Jackson, Timothy R., ed. Frozen in Time: The Fagel Collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2016.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist Scientist Adventurer. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018.

Valiant, Sharon. “Recovering and Eighteenth-Century Legend.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 467-479.


If the reader is interested in learning more about the hand-colouring of books in the Fagel Collection, this topic will be among those explored in depth at the upcoming Unlocking the Fagel Collection symposium (June 21-23 2023).