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Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1618) offers a heady mix of arcane alchemical principles, humanist literary references, and contrapuntal fugues, but it is the volume’s striking copperplate etchings that are most likely to retain a vivid presence in the reader’s imagination long after the book is closed. Composed of elegantly rendered figural groups typically set within mountainous landscapes that sometimes make direct reference to the German lands in which the book was produced, the etchings offer visual interpretations of the cryptic mottos that accompany each of the volume’s fifty emblems. The quality of these pictures, perhaps more than any other aspect of this notable publication, has secured its place of distinction in the alchemical literature of early modern Europe. While the figural compositions undoubtedly were influenced by Maier, who took inspiration from numerous textual and pictorial sources, the actual plates are the work of the de Bry book publishing firm in Oppenheim.1 It is appropriate to begin, therefore, with a consideration of this family’s pictorial contribution to Atalanta fugiens.

In 1588, Theodor de Bry and his sons, Johann Theodor and Johann Israel, having fled the southern Netherlands as Calvinist exiles, arrived in the free imperial city of Frankfurt am Main, where they quickly established a reputation as engravers and publishers of high-quality illustrated books. The de Bry family was best known for its two series of illustrated travel accounts, the India occidentalis (West Indies; 1590–1634) and the India orientalis (East Indies; 1597–1628). In his engraved self-portrait of 1615, Johann Theodor, who oversaw these long-term projects after the deaths of his father and brother, stands proudly before two stacks of pages labeled with the titles of these collections (fig. 1). But the engraved plate that he props up with his left hand on top of the stacks, with its vanitas image and the motto “Quis Evadet” (Who will be spared?), highlights the emblematic publications that were also an important part of his firm’s repertoire.2

In a self-portrait, Johann Theodor de Bry stands before two stacks of pages and props up an engraved plate with a vanitas image and the motto “Quis Evade?” meaning Who will be spared?
Figure 1

The alchemical emblems of Atalanta fugiens belong to a period of extraordinary productivity between 1609 and 1620 during which Johann Theodor relocated the firm to the Palatinate town of Oppenheim and published the profusely illustrated alchemical works of Maier and the English Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd. Unlike Frankfurt, which showed wavering support for its community of Reformed exiles, the Calvinist state of the Palatinate under the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, provided a liberal religious and intellectual climate that promoted the publishing of works of alchemical and occult interest and, as Frances Yates has shown, allowed for the flourishing of a “Rosicrucian Enlightenment.”3 Johann Theodor de Bry, a shrewd businessman, took advantage of these conditions until 1620, when the onset of the Thirty Years' War forced him to return to Frankfurt.4

During its busy years in Oppenheim, the de Bry firm was fortunate to add a talented and productive member to the family, Matthäus Merian, who in February 1617 married Johann Theodor’s daughter Maria Magdalena de Bry. Merian was a native of Basel who learned the technique of etching during his apprenticeship in Zurich and refined his skills in Strasbourg, Nancy, and Paris before arriving in Oppenheim.5 Etching requires the artist to draw a design with a pointed stylus, or “needle,” directly on a copper plate that has been covered with an acid-resistant ground. When the plate is then submerged in acid, the exposed lines are etched into the plate so they can hold ink for printing. Etching is the closest of the printmaking processes to pen-and-ink drawing and is carried out much more quickly than engraving, a laborious process in which the artist uses the palm of his hand to push the point of a burin — the tool held in Johann Theodor’s left hand in his self-portrait — into the copperplate. As an etcher, Merian was better suited to meeting heavy demands for illustrations than was his father-in-law, to whom no known etchings have been attributed.6 Although no artist is named on the title page of Atalanta fugiens or on that of Fludd’s magnum opus, the Utriusque cosmi [. . .] historia (History of the macrocosm and microcosm, 1617–21), we can safely attribute the etched plates in both publications to Merian.7

Merian not only brought expertise in etching to the de Bry firm; he brought expertise in landscape representation as well, and indeed his reputation as a printmaker rests largely on his views of European cities and their surroundings. Etching and landscape had been closely linked since both appeared on the scene during the first half of the sixteenth century. Some of the earliest German artists to develop the genre of independent landscape, including Albrecht Altdorfer and Augustin Hirschvogel, recognized the possibilities of the new printmaking process for translating their distinctive landscape drawing styles into a reproductive medium.8 And landscape remained an important subject for northern European etchers of the seventeenth century like Merian and his Dutch contemporary Claes Jansz. Visscher. On the contents page to Visscher’s series of topographical landscapes, Pleasant Places (1611), an architectural frame surrounds an appealing view of a lighthouse in the dunes outside Haarlem. Before our eyes can take in this landscape, however, they are confronted with the etcher’s needles, bottles of mordant, and copper plate, all of which rest on the sill of the frame (fig. 2).9 Etching, Visscher’s print suggests, makes it possible to preserve the vividness of the artist’s own direct experience of nature in a reproduction. An accomplished topographical etcher, Merian lavished an unusual attention on landscape in the emblems for Atalanta fugiens. Approaching these pictures through their landscapes can offer fresh insight into this artist’s unique contribution to alchemical imagery.

The contents page to Plaisante Plaetsen (Pleasant Places) presents an architectural frame surrounding a view of a lighthouse in the dunes outside Haarlem. On the window sill are the instruments of the etcher’s craft.
Figure 2


Before proceeding into the background, however, it seems appropriate to make our entry into Merian’s pictures through the emblem in the foreground. Emblematics was another genre in which Merian was prolific. His earliest emblems date to 1614 when, in Paris, he created twelve plates for the Emblemata amatoria (Emblems of love), and he continued to be active in this field throughout his career. Among his best-known endeavors are the fifty etchings for Atalanta fugiens and one hundred moral and political emblems for Julius Wilhelm Zincgref’s Emblematum ethico-politicorum centuria (One hundred ethical-political emblems; 1619), the most celebrated German emblem book of the seventeenth century and also the first publication from the de Bry firm to include Merian’s name on its title page.10

The emblem has its origins in the ancient literary genre of the epigram, but its typical early modern format was established with the publication of Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber (Book of emblems) in 1531. Alciato’s book made the interpretation of the epigram into a witty and learned game by appending to it a brief motto and a picture, inviting the reader to engage in the pleasurable task of decoding hidden meanings by considering all three parts together. Maier, who adds a musical component and a prose commentary to Alciato’s tripartite scheme, tells us on the title page of Atalanta fugiens that his emblems are “not without Singular delectation, to be seen, read, meditated, Understood, distinguished, Sung and Heard.”11 The emblem is, from a modern viewpoint, inherently interdisciplinary, and for this reason it would be inappropriate to isolate any one part of it for specialized analysis. Its meanings can be found only in the relationship between its parts.

In the baroque world of emblematics, all things are linked through chains of resemblance that bind together the mundane and spiritual realms.12 For example, while emblems often have a strong “natural history” component, an animal present in an emblem is never to be understood as a member of a particular species but rather through the moral, humoral, and philological associations it has acquired over time.13 The salamander, which is pictured in Emblem 29 of Atalanta fugiens, was reported to survive in fire by various ancient authorities including Aristotle, Pliny, and Avicenna, the last of whom is the source of Maier’s motto, “As the Salamander lives in fire so also the Stone” (fig. 3).14 In Merian’s picture, a salamander with a row of stars across its back (a feature described by Pliny) crouches cat-like amidst the flames while turning its head into the billowing smoke, seemingly unharmed by the fire.15 As with a biblical parable, however, a literal reading of the picture is insufficient: one must see through the outward form in order to discover a macrocosmic significance. Maier helps us to do so not only with references to the lapis (stone) in his motto and epigram but also by explaining in his commentary that the “philosophical salamander” (i.e., the philosophers’ stone) resembles the common salamander in its imperviousness to fire.16

The second page of emblem 29 of Atalanta fugiens, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin, and an image of a salamander with stars in a line down his back and large claws is engulfed in fire and smoke.
Figure 3 add add Add to Collection

Maier’s courtly, humanistic brand of alchemy lent itself to emblematic thinking. Just as he sought to transform the soul through the skilled and learned manipulation of sensible matter, so his emblems promise to reveal the deepest secrets of nature through their appeal to the senses. In his preface, Maier declares that if his book seems
more intellectual, than sensual, the more profitable and delightful will it be in time: but if it be first in bondage to the sense, there is no doubt but there will be a passage from the sense to the understanding as by a door: for nothing is said to be in the understanding, which had not admission by some sense, the understanding of a man new born being supposed as a smooth table, wherein nothing is as yet written, but any thing may be written by the help of sense, as a Styl[us].17

For Maier, the senses are clearly indispensable to the pursuit of alchemical understanding, yet like Aristotle to whom he alludes in the above passage, he also insists on a hierarchy of knowledge. The “common salamander” pictured in Merian’s etching may resemble the “philosophical salamander” of the intellect, but the difference between the two is equally important: while the common salamander is said to withstand the fire because of its cold and wet nature, in the ideal salamander all the elements are perfectly balanced.18 The emblem engages our senses, but it does so in order to disconnect us from a merely corporeal experience of a fallen and corrupt world, setting us down a symbolic pathway toward the retrieval of universal concepts hidden in nature.19

Maier’s Aristotelian stylus for writing these concepts on the blank tablet of the reader’s intellect was Merian’s etching needle, and the collaboration between the two men resulted in an extraordinarily rich and inventive alchemical iconography. Some of this imagery had its origin in previous works. Such is the case of Emblem 30, “Luna is as requisite to Sol as a hen to a cock” (fig. 4).20

A manuscript page from Rosarium philosophorum (Rose Garden of the Philosophers) depicts the marriage of Sol and Luna: a crowned man stands on a sun and crosses flowers with a crowned woman who stands on a moon. A dove swoops down from above with a flower of its own.
Figure 5

Merian’s picture features a nude man with the sun as his head, a nude woman with the moon as her head, and a cock and hen at their feet. The content is simple but also full of symbolic resonance within the alchemical tradition. The sun represents hot and dry sulfur, the moon cold and moist mercury; and just “as the cock is desired by the hen,” the epigram informs us, so the moon needs the sun for their philosophical union.21 The source for the motto and image is an alchemical text that Maier knew well, the Rosarium philosophorum (Rose garden of the philosophers), a work culled from various medieval sources and published in a Frankfurt edition with woodcuts in 1550.22 In one of its images, a nude king and queen stand upon the sun and moon, offering one another flowers and declaring their marriage, united by a dove signifying the life-giving spirit (fig. 5). Merian transforms his model by fusing the human figures with their chemical symbols, thus personifying the gendered elements of sulfur and mercury, and by adding a new layer of meaning with the cock and hen. The result is an image that is concise in its expression and multi-layered in its symbolism. It is one of several plates in Atalanta fugiens that are derived, to different degrees, from the woodcuts of the Rosarium philosophorum.

The second page of emblem 13 of Atalanta fugiens, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. The image shows a nude leprous man, identified as Naaman, is sitting on a bank and washing in the river. Behind him is a cityscape with a bridge.
Figure 6 add add Add to Collection

By no means, however, do all of the pictures in Atalanta fugiens originate in alchemical sources, as we see in the case of the Old Testament figure of Naaman, the subject of Emblem 13 (fig. 6). Naaman, commander of the Syrian army and a leper, is told by the prophet Elisha to wash himself seven times in the river Jordan, which cures him of his disease.23 The subject was occasionally depicted in biblical illustrations, and Merian himself later treated it in one of the plates for his influential Icones biblicae (Biblical icons; 1625–27) (fig. 7). In this later version Merian was primarily concerned with translating a textual narrative into a visual format. We are led into the scene by the servants and soldiers on shore, who watch over Naaman’s armor as he bathes and with whom we bear witness to the miracle of his cure. In the background we see earlier stages in the story as Naaman walks with his servant toward the river. In Atalanta fugiens, in contrast, narrative is subordinated to the emblematic significance of Naaman himself, who sits alone on the shore of the river, nude and without even his identifying armor beside him. Naaman’s meaning unfolds not through narrative but through his relation to the motto and epigram, both of which compare his story to the purification of the philosophers’ stone. While this comparison had been made previously in alchemical literature, Merian for the first time formulates it in a visual image.24

A biblical illustration from Icones Biblicae depicts servants and soldiers on shore, who watch over Naaman’s armor as he bathes; the background depicts earlier stages in the story as Naaman walks with his servant toward the river.
Figure 7

Emblem 13 also exemplifies the wide resonance of Maier’s and Merian’s emblematic imagery within the context of the Palatinate in the early seventeenth century. The Rosicrucianism that informed the writings of Maier and Fludd yoked alchemical and hermetic thought to the pursuit of a world Reformation centered on the Elector Frederick V.25 Surely the significance of Naaman, as a figure of purification, extends beyond chemical transformation alone to hopes for a more general political and religious transformation. Merian and the de Brys shared these hopes. Although there is no evidence that they held specifically Rosicrucian sympathies, their very presence in Oppenheim was a result of the Elector’s openness to their Reformist beliefs as they sought freedom to practice their Calvinist faith.26 We might even read into the Naaman emblem an impulse toward the purification of the visual image that was fundamental to Reformed aesthetics. The emblem form appealed to Protestants because of its capacity to lead beyond the sensory appeal of the image to invisible, spiritual truths.27 Of course the emblem could become corrupted, but all the more reason to bring to it a Reformer’s vigilance. In the dedicatory letters of their Emblemata saecularia (Secular emblems; 1596, 1611), a book of emblems interleaved with blank escutcheons for personal autographs, Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry express their desire to cleanse a tradition that had been defiled by lewd pictures aimed at perverting simple minds.28 A similar impulse informs the emblems of Atalanta fugiens. The motto of Emblem 13 refers to the “Aes philosophorum,” literally the “philosophers’ copper,” which is sick and, like Naaman, must be washed. The relevance of the phrase to the material worked by the etcher could not have been lost on Merian, who by bathing his plates in acid sought to transform earthly copper into spiritual gold.

While we have no textual record of Merian’s thoughts about his etchings for Atalanta fugiens, we do know that Maier was thinking about them in alchemical terms. Punning on the word “Venus,” the alchemical symbol for copper, he writes in his preface that the pictures in his book are “incised in Venus or copper, not without charm [Venere] or grace.”29 Maier’s comment makes it clear, moreover, that in the alchemical pursuit of purification and universal concepts, the sensory appeal of Merian’s etchings, their “charm” and “grace,” cannot be ignored. In the picture for Emblem 21, for instance, a philosopher holds the points of an enormous pair of dividers to a wall and traces a large circle around representations of a man and woman who have already been inscribed within smaller geometric shapes (fig. 8). The emblem’s motto, taken from the Rosarium philosophorum, instructs the adept:
A circle for the man and wife provide,
Which make quadrangular with equal side,
That trigonal, resulting in a Sphere:
And then the blessed Stone to you will appear.30

The second page of emblem 21 of Atalanta fugiens, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. The image shows a bearded man in eastern clothing, represented as Hermes Trismegistus, is holding a compass and pointing to a brick wall with a t-square and quadrant at his feet. On the brick wall there is a drawing of a nude man and woman inside a circle inside a square inside a triangle inside a circle.
Figure 8 add add Add to Collection

It is a complex emblem in which the geometrical quest to square the circle is fused with the alchemical quest to transcend contraries: male and female, sulfur and mercury, spirit and matter.31 But for all of its preoccupation with the abstract domain of mathematical ideas, Merian’s picture insists upon representation as an embodied act, one that in this case is performed by a philosopher-artist on a “canvas” of crumbling plaster and brick the ostentatious materiality of which competes with the theoretical interest of the emblem’s geometrical forms. In the quick and irregular hatches, dots, and scribbles of the etcher’s needle, we encounter a powerful evocation of earthly decay that puts one in mind of the “speaking ruins” that Giovanni Battista Piranesi will later depict in his masterful etchings of ancient Rome. The wall’s crumbling surface serves as a memento mori in the face of the philosopher’s outsized confidence in geometry. And yet the wall goes unremarked upon in Maier’s motto, epigram, and commentary. Instead it serves quietly as a kind of landscape, a sensory background against which the emblem in the foreground will be invested with meaning.


What of those expansive landscapes that stretch out behind the figures of Sol and Luna, and behind Naaman as he bathes in the Jordan? Nearly all of the pictures in Atalanta fugiens — with the exception of a few interior scenes, an image of the solar system, and the salamander crouching amidst flames and smoke — include at least some landscape elements, and many, such as Emblem 36, are truly impressive in their breadth and detail (fig. 9). According to this emblem’s motto, the philosophers’ stone has been “cast upon the earth, and exalted on mountains, and resides in the air, and is nourished in water.”32 Merian represents the stone as cubes, and to accommodate their elemental course through earth, air, and water, he sets them within a flourishing river valley. A road leads several travelers, along with the viewer, toward settlements that Merian’s biographer, Lucas Heinrich Wüthrich, identifies as the towns of Bad Cannstatt and Berg (both now incorporated into modern-day Stuttgart), located on opposite sides of the river Neckar and depicted by Merian in drawings he had made in 1616.33 Beyond these towns, our eyes are pulled into a distant, mountainous landscape where Merian, with the economy of a virtuoso etcher, conjures the textures of rock, architecture, vegetation, and sky.

The second page of emblem 36 of Atalanta fugiens, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin, and an image. The image shows two men in early modern clothing walking on a path through a town with another man walking ahead of them and another one riding a horse. There is a river, church, and town in the background. There are three cubes floating in the air, five cubes behind the two men, and four cubes in the river.
Figure 9 add add Add to Collection

Merian was certainly not the first artist to attend to landscape in emblems, but the extraordinary care he gives to the settings of his pictures for Atalanta fugiens and for his next emblematic publication, Zincgref’s Emblematum ethico-politicorum centuria, takes this attention to an unprecedented level within the genre.34 In the latter volume, Merian’s depiction of specific locales in the Palatinate and surrounding regions anticipates his multivolume topographical publications of the 1630s and 1640s — the Theatrum Europeaum (Theater of Europe) and the Topographia Germaniae (Topography of Germany) — that became the basis of his fame as an etcher and publisher.35

An image from emblem 67 of “In Insignia Academiae Palatinae,” in which a lion holds a book with the motto of Heidelberg University as it stands before Heidelberg castle, the city, and the bridge over the River Neckar.
Figure 10

In Emblem 67 of the Zincgref volume, for example, the Palatine lion holds a book with the motto of Heidelberg University as it stands before Heidelberg castle, the city, and the bridge over the Neckar (fig. 10). That we can identify this locale, the seat of the Elector Palatine, is significant given the political context of the volume and its dedication to Frederick V. The picture’s circular form, moreover, highlights its close association with the portrait medal, which typically included an emblematic image on its reverse and was a common form of commemorating sovereigns in early modern Europe. The medallion format is thus an entirely appropriate choice for emblems dedicated to the Elector, although it also has the effect of underscoring the allegorical function of these landscapes.36 The rectangular format of Merian’s etchings for Atalanta fugiens, on the other hand, is less insistent on this point. These images belong to the naturalistic aesthetic of the panel picture as codified by Leon Battista Alberti, whose grid-based perspectival system accommodated human visual experience to the rectilinear picture, offering direct access to nature through its four-sided “window.”

And yet, despite Merian’s invitation to enter into the backgrounds of his alchemical emblems, these landscapes are not addressed in Maier’s commentaries and are rarely discussed in the scholarship on Atalanta fugiens. Why is this the case? Alberti is helpful on this question as well, for even though he praised the restorative effect of a pleasing landscape on the viewer, as a humanist he located the true content of the artwork in its istoria, a term that refers to harmonious and persuasive figural compositions that move the beholder in the same way that a well-told history moves a reader. “I look at a good painting,” writes Alberti, “with as much pleasure as I take in the reading of a good istoria. Both are the work of painters: one paints with words, the other tells the story with his brush.”37 Like a good painting, the emblem is loquacious; it speaks through mottos and epigrams, and in Atalanta fugiens its voice is enhanced with fugues and extensive commentaries. Landscape, in contrast, has difficulty making itself heard. The Latin term that Renaissance art theorists used for landscape was parergon, a word borrowed from Pliny and meaning “by-work” or, as a seventeenth-century English lexicographer put it, “all that which in a Picture is not of the body or argument thereof.”38

The second page of emblem 32 of Atalanta fugiens, which shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a man in early modern clothing is trawling for coral with a hook in a bog. There is a dock, small house, and bridge behind him. In the sky a face in a cloud, understood as a wind god, is blowing wind.
Figure 11 add add Add to Collection

Consider Merian’s etching for Emblem 32, “As Coral grows under water, and is hardened by the air, So also is the Stone” (fig. 11).39 A figure in the foreground reaches into a river with a long hook to pull up a piece of coral, but the picture’s primary visual draw is the picturesque landscape and its rich variety of vegetation, mountains, hills, and classical architecture that evokes Sicily where, as the epigram informs us, this moist “plant” lives. This etching is one of the most fully realized landscapes in Atalanta fugiens, but if we are to understand it according to Alberti’s humanist model of picturing, the background must be considered secondary to the alchemical content addressed by Maier in the emblem’s textual apparatus.

An etching, called “View of Heidelberg,” that depicts a scene along the river on the outskirts of the city. Two travelers encounter a wagon along the road while boat traffic makes its way down the Neckar.
Figure 12

Merian nevertheless dedicated much of his career to such supplemental work. Only a few years after the publication of Atalanta fugiens, for example, Peter Aubry published a view of Heidelberg by Merian that is very close in composition to Emblem 36 (fig. 12).40 In this landscape, there is no philosophers’ stone to provide its “argument,” although things do happen: we witness the daily to and fro in the city’s outskirts as two travelers (very similar to those in Emblem 36) encounter a wagon along the road while boat traffic makes its way down the Neckar. These small details belong to the work of “chorography,” a term that early moderns took from Claudius Ptolemy, who contrasted it with the work of geography. While the geographer, according to Ptolemy, is concerned with “the extent of the entire earth, as well as its shape, and its position under the heavens,” the chorographer focuses on surveying the local, “even dealing with the smallest conceivable localities, such as harbors, farms, villages, river courses, and such like.”41 It is a practice we might associate with the man who kneels in the left foreground of Merian’s landscape as he lays a boundary stone, and who like Merian himself is concerned with defining the limits of the local Palatine terrain.

While this quiet chorographical work seems modest in ambition, it is difficult to overstate its importance for northern European art of the seventeenth century. To find a language capable of articulating this importance, we must look beyond the Albertian model of painting as istoria. Merian’s contemporary René Descartes, in his short treatise on optics, La dioptrique (Optics; 1637), points us in the right direction:
You can see that etchings and engravings, being made of nothing but a little ink placed here and there on the paper, represent to us forests, towns, men, and even battles and storms, even though, among an infinity of diverse qualities which they make us conceive in these objects, only in shape is there actually any resemblance. And even this resemblance is a very imperfect one, seeing that, on a completely flat surface, they represent to us bodies which are of different heights and distances, and even that following the rules of perspective, circles are often better represented by ovals rather than by other circles; and squares by diamonds rather than by other squares; and so for all other shapes. So that often, in order to be more perfect as images and to represent an object better, they must not resemble it.42

Writing in Holland, where he had ample opportunity to encounter the topographical work of Dutch landscape etchers such as Visscher, Descartes recognized that the “content” of these landscapes was the nature of human vision itself. They show us how we see; that what we know to be circles, for example, are seen by the eye as ovals. The skilled printmaker is able to reproduce these effects on a flat surface and create a convincing image of the world precisely by not resembling it too closely. And of course we take aesthetic pleasure in the results, as Descartes clearly does. We are taken in by the way Merian depicts the walls, archways, roofs, and domes of a distant city in Emblem 32 with a few tiny, well-placed lines, or by the way he creates the appearance of distant trees rustling in the wind through the subtlest variations in his stippling.

The concern with optical perception in the backgrounds of Merian’s alchemical etchings would seem to be at odds with their emblematic foregrounds, which, after all, invite us to see beyond mere outward appearances. And indeed, this tension between a descriptive art focused on the visible surfaces of the world, and an emblematic art that seeks to reveal the meanings concealed beneath those surfaces, has figured prominently in art-historical debates over the proper interpretive approach to seventeenth-century northern realism.43 We should be careful, however, not to ascribe these two modes of picture-making to distinct “world views.” Certainly, Merian and Maier would not have seen them as incompatible. In his preface, Maier declares that it is the highest pursuit of the “generously educated” alchemist to disclose the “infinite” arcana that God has concealed in nature. But, he goes on, “next after such intellectual sciences as these are reckoned those which treat of a visible and audible object, as are Optics, or perspectives, and Picture.”44 This same hierarchical but complementary relationship between esoteric knowledge and the practical science of vision is rehearsed in Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi [. . .] historia, which Merian was illustrating at the same time he was working on Atalanta fugiens. Fludd’s first volume, De macrocosmi structurae (On the structure of the macrocosm; 1617), addresses the metaphysical question of cosmic origins, while the second volume, De naturae simia (On the ape of nature; 1618), turns its attention to those practical arts and sciences — including geometry, optics, and the pictorial arts — through which man becomes the “ape of nature.”45

The frontispiece to “De Geometria seu arte Metrica” depicts two men on the left standing at different locations on a large outcropping of rock and a prominent central waterway across from which there is a distant townscape on the right. Dotted lines from their equipment, representing their lines of sight, converge on a faraway spire in the townscape.
Figure 13

Merian’s opening image for Fludd’s section on geometry and the art of measurement is, once again, a landscape into which we are led by a large outcropping of rock on the left and a prominent central waterway that leads the eye toward a distant townscape (fig. 13). In this instance, however, the work of surveying takes center stage as two figures demonstrate the use of a surveying staff that, along with the astronomical quadrant, Fludd discusses at length as an essential tool for determining the size and distance of objects in the landscape. In the next section Fludd moves on to the science of optics and, with the help of Merian’s extensive illustrations, not only explains the physiology of the eye and how it sees but also teaches the art of perspective drawing. This knowledge in turn proves essential for a section on the art of picturing, and it is appropriate that this next section concludes, as the practical geometry section began, with a landscape (fig. 14). An artist-surveyor stands at the center of the composition with his back to us, his vision aligned with orthogonals that determine the relative size and position of objects in the picture. The art of picturing, Merian’s etching suggests, precisely is the delimitation of the landscape. As Ptolemy writes, “chorography needs an artist, and no one presents it rightly unless he is an artist.”46

An illustration of a “Demonstration of perspective” that depicts an artist-surveyor before a landscape that includes several buildings, rocky outcroppings, and an open sky. Overlaid these natural and manmade features are lines that converge on a single, central point: where the artist-surveyor is looking.
Figure 14

It is worth noting that the tools of the surveyor appear in one of the plates for Atalanta fugiens we have already considered. In Emblem 21, a quadrant and what looks like a simple surveying instrument called a Jacob’s staff, both of which Merian illustrated for Fludd, lie at the feet of the alchemist (fig. 15). Although he has dropped them in favor of the compasses, a symbol of theoretical rather than practical labor, these abandoned instruments suggest that the pursuit of metaphysical truths begins in the field. It is here, at the feet of this artist-philosopher, that we should locate Merian’s contribution to Atalanta fugiens.

A diagram from De naturae simia that consists of two images. On top: two men from different locations measure the height of a stone tower by holding out a cross-like instrument known as Jacob’s staff to their head. Lines traced from each point to the tower help gauge the measurements. Below the first image: a man atop a stone tower uses a quadrant to measure the distance between the tower and a faraway rock. Another man closer to the rock uses the same instrument to measure his own distance to it.
Figure 15

In the backgrounds of Merian’s emblems, the landscape quietly establishes the rules according to which nature is perceived, measured, and represented. While the alchemist may seek to reveal meanings concealed behind these appearances, Merian’s landscapes provide the practical conditions for emblematic interpretation, which must begin with the senses. It is a lesson contained in the master trope of Maier’s book, the foot race between Atalanta and Hippomenes, which Merian depicts in the lower left corner of the title page (fig. 16). Seeking to win the race and Atalanta’s love, Hippomenes casts the golden apples that Venus has given him into Atalanta’s path. Unable to resist the fruit, Atalanta slows down to retrieve it, allowing Hippomenes to overtake her. Much has been written, by Maier and by subsequent scholars, about how this myth provides a metaphor for the pursuit of the philosophers’ stone through the union of sulfur (Hippomenes) and mercury (Atalanta). But it is also a story about the fifty copper plates that are cast before the reader of Atalanta fugiens. Only by slowing down to reflect on their surfaces, on the “charm” and “grace” of landscapes in which the etcher’s needle brilliantly takes the measure of the world and of human perception, can we grasp their significance in the alchemical pursuit of nature’s secrets.

The frontispiece, or first illustrated page, of Atalanta fugiens that contains a short introductory text surrounded by multiple scenes from the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. These include the Garden of the Hesperides, which includes Aegle, Arethusa, a many-headed dragon, understood as Ladon, and Hespertusa; Hercules stealing apples; Venus giving apples to Hippomenes; the race between Hippomenes and Atalanta; the consummation of their love; and their transformation into lions.
Figure 16 add add Add to Collection


  • Figure 1
    Johann Theodor de Bry, self-portrait, in Robert Fludd, Anatomiae Amphitheatrum (Frankfurt, 1623). (© Trustees of the British Museum)
  • Figure 2
    Claes Jansz. Visscher, contents page to Plaisante Plaetsen, 1611. (© Trustees of the British Museum)
  • Figure 3
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 29, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 4
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 30, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 5
    The marriage of the Sol and Luna, Rosarium Philosophorum (Frankfurt, 1550). (Foundation of the Works of C.G. Jung, Zurich)
  • Figure 6
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 13, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 7
    Matthaeus Merian, Naaman washing in the river Jordan, Icones Biblicae (Strasbourg, 1625–27). (© Trustees of the British Museum)
  • Figure 8
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 21, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 9
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 36, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 10
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 67, “In Insignia Academiae Palatinae,” in Zincgref, Emblematum ethico-politicorum centuria (Frankfurt, 1619). (HathiTrust)
  • Figure 11
    Matthaeus Merian, Emblem 32, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 12
    Matthaeus Merian, view of Heidelberg, 1620/22. (© Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig)
  • Figure 13
    Matthaeus Merian, frontispiece to “De Geometria seu arte Metrica,” in Robert Fludd, De naturae simia (1618). (HathiTrust)
  • Figure 14
    Matthaeus Merian, demonstration of perspective, in Robert Fludd, De naturae simia (1618). (HathiTrust)
  • Figure 15
    Matthaeus Merian, measuring distance using the Jacob’s staff and quadrant, in Robert Fludd, De naturae simia (1618). (HathiTrust)
  • Figure 16
    Matthaeus Merian, title page, Atalanta fugiens.

Works Cited

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Maier, Michael. Atalanta fugiens, hoc est, emblemata nova de secretis naturae chymica. Oppenheim, 1618.
“Atalanta running, that is, new chymicall emblems relating to the secrets of nature.” 1618 or after. Mellon Alchemical Collection 48. Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Pliny. Natural History, Volume III: Books 8–11. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.
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von Breydenbach, Bernhard. Peregrinatio in terram sanctam. Mainz, 1486.
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Daly, Peter M. Literature in Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels Between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
de Jong, H. M. E. Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens”: Sources of an Alchemical Book of Emblems. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.
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Klossowski de Rola, Stanislas. The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century. New York: George Braziller, 1988.
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Gaudio, Michael. “The Emblem in the Landscape: Matthäus Merian’s Etchings for Atalanta fugiens.” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier's “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Michael Gaudio is Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and The Bible and the Printed Image in Early Modern England: Little Gidding and the Pursuit of Scriptural Harmony (Routledge, 2017). His most recent project is Sound, Image, Silence: Art and the Aural Imagination in the Atlantic World (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

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Weight, Number, Measure by Eric Bianchi
Emblem collections

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