Botany, Book, and Bugs

by Mark Calderwood

The Mira calligraphiae monumenta was the last great illuminated manuscript created in Europe, the magnificent final flourish of a 1500 year tradition. But there is more to the Mira than its stunning beauty: it was a museum in miniature, a way for its courtly reader to examine and understand the world.

This remarkable work was made by two artists who never actually met one other. Writing master Georg Bockskay created a ‘model book’ of extravagant and inventive calligraphy in 1561-62, during his time as court secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. This extraordinary writing album remained in the imperial collections in Vienna until Ferdinand’s grandson Rudolf II commissioned Dutch artist Joris Hoefnagel to illuminate the codex. Between 1591 and 1596 Hoefnagel filled with pages with delicately painted, masterfully observed and precisely detailed naturalia: flowers, leaves, fruits, shells, insects and tiny animals.

With these additions, Hoefnagel turned a straightforward if virtuoso manuscript into something even more exceptional, and far more complex. The illuminations set up a tension of opposites, a parergon that simultaneously complements and goes against the ‘frame’ of the scriptbook, making literal the idea that nature transcended mere written words. Hoefnagel’s illustrations confront the viewer with the ‘remoteness’ of text, however sumptuous, compared to the rich and vivid immediacy of nature. This tension operates on several levels: the naturalia of the paintings versus the artificialia of calligraphy, the spiritual versus the worldly, observation versus theorisation. It’s this last opposition that directly informs how the Mira was used by its sixteenth-century readers to construct their own picture of the natural world, remarking on the form and meanings of flowers, the attitudes of animals that reflected their qualities, how they related to the plants, and what meanings- spiritual or ‘scientific’ the flowers carried.

Looking at the hyper precise images of Mira’s flowers, as specimens often threaded through the page, it is tempting to assume they are examples of early botanical illustration. But in actuality, they descend from an older religious tradition of symbolic flowers and animals, depicted in the borders of sumptuous secular manuscripts. By the late middle ages this was a complex language based on chains of correspondences: for example, pinks (carnations) smell sweet like cloves, expensive and desirable cloves looked like tiny nails, and nails were used to nail Christ to the cross; therefore pinks in manuscripts and tapestries symbolised the crucifixion…and picked up some potent sensory associations on the way.


The late medieval movement called devotio moderna took this even further, teaching that the divine was present in the everyday. Everything became a symbol, and nothing more so than flowers and plants that people saw, touched and ate every day. Flower-strewn decorations in religious texts became unbelievably popular- even if one could not read, the symbolic meanings of flowers, birds, bugs, animals, and scenes of nature were a feast for the eyes and the soul. By the end of the 15th century, these flowers were painted as precise illusions ‘pinned’ or ‘threaded’ through cuts in the page; the truth of their physical appearance made their spiritual ‘claim to truth’ even stronger.

By the time Hoefnagel was illuminating the Mira a century later, this ‘spiritual rhetoric’ had evolved into an intellectual rhetoric tied to knowledge and ‘specimen logic’: a strategy that removed specimens from their mundane environments to display them as objects arranged into new relationships, somewhere between symbolic and scientific. Objects were key to understanding the world: natural specimens of all kinds, oddities, precious minerals, ethnographic items, and small artworks were zealously collected, and meticulously arranged and rearranged into easily ordered microcosms that summarised- and in some sense tamed- the chaotic and unfathomable macrocosm of the world. No educated gentleman or aristocrat- and certainly not Rudolf II- would be without such a wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) or kunstschrank (art cabinet) to house their collections. Although the Mira was kept as part of this kind of collection, it was a more specific kind of micro-collection in itself.


From a modern perspective this sounds bizarre; but medieval thought was more complex and multiply layered than that, adept of discerning the nuances of different modes of thought at once. Aesthetic delight and intellectual rigour were not separated in the sixteenth-century parlance, but closely bound in a methodology that located knowledge experientially as well as intellectually. Hoefnagel knew exactly how people would be reading the Mira, using it as a tool for thought and making meaning- and turned it into a wonderful game.

It’s an important point that Hoefnagel only depicted naturalia in his illuminations- precious minerals (which at the time included corals) and man-made objects are omitted, to strengthen the parergon but also simply to delight the reader. Hoefnagel seems to have had no preconceived plan for his illuminations, but responded ingeniously to the form and composition of Bocskay’s existing calligraphy with inventively composed organic forms of his own, bursting with life and colour amplified by their depiction against the blank vellum. There is never the slightest doubt of the artist’s exacting technical skill, employing foreshortening, delicate shadows, and refined modelling to create the perfect illusion of real objects occupying three-dimensional space.

Hoefnagel’s singular technique contributed to this vibrancy, being an extraordinarily refined version of medieval illumination, that builds forms with multiple layers of tiny, interlocking fine brush strokes over a very thin base. This technique lets the light-reflecting qualities of the vellum shine through, giving the entire painting a luminous quality and a sense of sharpness to complement its keenly observed subject matter.


But at the same time, Hoefnagel subverts the authority of illusion. Mira is not restrained by real specimens in glass cases- Hoefnagel was thus free to distort plant growth habits for decorative effect, and depict different species in full simultaneous bloom; to select insects suggesting a wider range than actually portrayed, and even imagine new insects, barely distinguishable from ‘real’ ones. There is an element of fantasia and transformation at work, the performative function of imagining the world.

Yet on every fine vellum folio, Hoefnagel makes the viewer sharply aware of their own assumptions about vision and meaning, frequently confounding the coherent understanding of the pictorial surface. At times the page is a perspectival window one peers through, as if into a space to see insects climbing up the sides of words or the edges of the page; at other times the pictorial surface is coincident, so that the viewer feels they are looking down onto actual snails creeping along a very solid page. The viewer is required to switch back and forth between modes of vision, and modes of understanding. Mira calligraphiae monumenta demands a semiotically intelligent reader, intrigued by the idea that text and nature could have a contingent relationship.


This is especially meaningful when considering that in the sixteenth century, the study of nature was an intensely social activity; the process of organising, describing, representing, displaying, and making meaning out of objects was almost always done in collaboration with others. The wunderkammer was an investigative place for the social and cultural construction of knowledge rather than the passive reception of didacticism. Information was discerned through visual examination, thence reified through discussion, disputatio, and intellectual display, reflecting aristocratic society’s conviction that understanding was best achieved by observation and engagement with the natural world, rather than abstract book-learning.

Yet Mira turns again turns this on its head, as a book that can offer direct experience- and one that playfully outdoes nature itself- and held in the hands, a book that can render understanding as an private experience of delighted discovery. In many ways, Mira calligraphiae monumenta is an artwork that grows more complex with study, not less.