The Ineffable - The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles

The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

The Ineffable


The most beautiful images of insects I have ever seen are in Ignis, the first volume of Joris Hoefnagel’s natural history masterpiece The Four Elements, a compendium of the world’s animals that this great Flemish miniaturist completed in 1582.1

Painted in delicate but still-vibrant gouache on seventy-eight vellum pages only five and five eighth inches high by seven and one quarter inches wide, many of Hoefnagel’s insects sit poised, on the point of motion, as if holding their breath, their shadows appearing almost to flicker on the featureless white ground. Others fly within the simple gold border that bounds them like a magic circle. Still others, spiders, dangle from the frame. Sometimes they seem to acknowledge one another, sometimes not. Sometimes they touch, most often not. Sometimes they seem so close, so present in the viewer’s time and space, that as the pages fell open in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Greg Jecmen, curator of old master prints and drawings, was showing me the precious volume, I caught my breath in involuntary wonder.

It felt odd to be surprised like that. For just a second, I let myself fancy that mine was the same sharp gasp as that of Hoefnagel’s sixteenth-century viewer, someone for whom (it is likely) insects were lowly and loathsome, still buried at the foot of an Aristotelian natural order that held them firmly in the thick darkness of excrement and decay, unworthy of contemplation, until—and surely this was Hoefnagel’s intent—the page fell back to reveal their astonishing perfection.


“In minimis tota es.” That’s how the London physician Thomas Moffett puts it in his Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum, an encyclopedic study of insect life and lore conceived and written in the same years as The Four Elements, although not published until 1634.2 Moffett’s insects are exemplary in many large ways. They are industrious; they are thrifty; they demonstrate good governance, respect for the elderly, and devotion to their offspring. Their metamorphosis is a resurrection, not merely a transformation. Their wondrousness stimulates piety. Their tiny perfection leads us to cry out, “How wonderful are thy works, O Lord!”3

The Theatrum was the second great compendium devoted to insects. The first was De animalibus insectis libri septem, published in 1602 by the prominent Bolognese naturalist and collector Ulisse Aldrovandi, a volume of such authority and ambition that it opened the door through which insects would eventually find their way into academic natural history.4 Both texts followed in the wake of Ignis, making Hoefnagel’s not only “one of the founding monuments of entomology” but also the first book of any type devoted to insects “as a separate kingdom rather than [as] a group appended to other major classes of animals.”5 All three books formed part of a continent-spanning project of early-modern natural history, a project fueled and provisioned by New World exploration and the expansion of maritime and overland trade. Far-reaching networks of correspondence and perilous travel linked scholars, merchants, and patrons—often with overlapping functions—to Prague, Frankfurt, Rome, and other centers of late-Renaissance learning.

It wasn’t only self-justification that provoked Moffett’s insistence that the greatest was contained even in the meanest. He was also appealing to a widely held Platonistic cosmology, in which the relationship between small and large was conceived as that between microcosm and macrocosm, with each being containing within it a seed of the entire cosmos.6 How well this notion lent itself to the study of insects! Their miniature world astonished not simply by the scale of its infinitely intricate social, biological, and symbolic life but, above all, by the contrast between the density of activity and meaning compressed into such physical tininess and the vastness of the cosmos to which it so unerringly but so mysteriously corresponded. Where better to locate the structure of the cosmos than in its most compact form? Given that the paradoxical was often a defining trait of the wondrous, Moffett could convincingly argue that the miniature was saturated by the immensity of the Divine to an even greater extent than were nature’s more conspicuous phenomena. Such micro/macrocosmic reasoning was so well established in the humanist circles to which these naturalists belonged that it was even the principle on which Hoefnagel’s final patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, organized his Prague cabinet of curiosities, the greatest Kunstkammer in Europe and the eventual home of The Four Elements.7

Yet these were complex impulses. While Moffett, Hoefnagel, and Aldrovandi were extending the reach of piety to insects, they were also developing an observational practice that, as the art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann writes, was leading to “the investigation of matter and of the processes of the natural world considered as ends in themselves.8 And Hoefnagel was also perfecting a complementary painting practice, which would establish him as a crucial figure in the development of the secular still life. Like others in his circle of Netherlandish humanists, Hoefnagel appears to have embraced Neostoicism, political moderation, and confessional indifference, making a self-conscious stand against intolerance at a time of the religious violence that saw his home city of Antwerp sacked by Spanish soldiers, his merchant family dispersed, and he himself consigned to a peripatetic future that would lead to Munich, Frankfurt, Prague, and finally Venice.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to imagine Hoefnagel in modern terms as a secular scientific illustrator. His work was governed by an ethic that drew deeply on the religious, albeit one motivated by an ecumenical striving for a peaceful resolution of the post-Reformation divisions in the Christian church.9 Indeed, Hoefnagel provided most of his paintings in The Four Elements with biblical aphorisms lauding divine providence and design. However, this piety is also not easily translated into present-day terms. Firm distinctions among sacred, secular, and what might now count as the domain of the occult were by no means settled.10 These were critical decades in the formation of modern modes of investigation, yet they were also decades in which esoteric traditions flourished among European intellectuals and in which revelation of the deep systematic ordering of the world was a guiding principle of natural philosophy and the arts it generated. Early-modern scholars deployed occult experiment, numerology, the symbolics of emblems, and a broad range of other forms of magic to close the gap between “the observation of appearance and the intuition of an underlying reality” and thus make nature’s secrets visible.11

The difference of insects—so small, so alien in appearance, so prodigious in their reproductive capacities—was profound and troubling. It placed them as simultaneously natural, that is, unexceptional and God-given, and on the borders of the inexplicable. Perhaps this paradoxical nature helps explain why insects became such popular objects of inquiry at this time, and perhaps it also explains why studies of them in this period reveal so many of the tensions present in natural philosophical practice. Consider, for example, Francis Bacon’s deeply Aristotelian account of “vivification”—reproduction—in Sylva sylvarum (1627), the collection of natural history observations on which he was working at the time of his death. Bacon, widely—if perhaps too easily—regarded as the founder of empirical philosophy, devotes much of the seventh section of his book to insects, “Creatures bred of Putrefaction,” because, as he says, echoing Moffett, “the Nature of Things is commonly better perceived, in small, than in Great.”

The “Contemplation … [of insects] hath many Excellent Fruits,” writes Bacon:

First, in Disclosing the Original of Vivification. Secondly, in Disclosing the Original of Figuration. Thirdly, in Disclosing many things in the nature of Perfect Creatures, which in them lie more hidden. And, Fourthly, in Traducing, by way of Operation, some Observations on the Insecta, to work Effects upon Perfect Creatures.12

He has little interest in insects in themselves. Their value lies in what they reveal about higher creatures. Even in this short passage, his detachment from the object of study is radically at odds with Hoefnagel’s intimacy. Yet the tension that insects manifest between difference and sameness in their status as microcosms of nature writ large allows Bacon to generalize as to the character of fundamental physiological processes common to all beings. This willingness to take insects seriously as objects of study while reinforcing their pejorative association with waste and imperfection (in the Aristotelian sense of spontaneous generation) indicates the obstacles faced by Moffett, Hoefnagel, and their insect-loving colleagues. The struggle would continue right through the eighteenth century, dogging the first generations of professional entomologists, Enlightenment savants such as Jan Swammerdam and René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, who, despite their scientific eminence, faced ridicule for the disproportion between the status of their scholarly attention and that of its humble object.13

Moffett’s strategy in these circumstances was the appeal to wonder through facticity, the heaping of fact upon fact, anecdote upon anecdote, observation upon observation, example upon example, impressing through the weight of evidence, understanding that the empirical was the source of the wondrous rather than, as Bacon might have preferred, its antidote. Again and again, in language of striking everydayness, Moffett expresses his astonishment at the marvels of the insect world. In a characteristic moment (and just before advising the use of a hand lens), he makes what must have seemed an incredible assertion, at least to those unfamiliar with Pliny, and he does so through a vocabulary of homespun analogy that emphasizes that the ubiquity of his subjects is also part of their miraculousness. “Thou shalt finde in the body of Bees,” he writes with obvious excitement, “a little bottle which is the receptacle of Honey sucked from flowers, and their legs loaded with Bitumen which sticks fast to make wax.”14

Like Moffett’s, Hoefnagel’s insects are at one and the same time familiar and unprecedented. The more time I spend with Ignis, the clearer it becomes that he focused all his substantial powers on turning these creatures into beings that are, quite literally, wonderful. Under his hand, beetles, moths, crickets, ants, butterflies, dragonflies, a mosquito, three mosquito hawks, a rather hairy black caterpillar, a ladybug, many bees, numerous spiders (of varying size and appearance), and even some wood lice are transformed into subjects and agents of the late-Renaissance capacity for wonder, a very particular emotional sense, a “cognitive passion” in which feeling and knowing were combined and cultivated.15 This sixteenth-century wonder was a type of faculty, the possession of which was itself the mark of the cultivated person.

The historians Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park have described wonders—that is, the objects that provoked the response of wonder—as “the aristocracy of natural phenomena.” The identification and collection of wondrous objects in cabinets of curiosity were central to the self-definition of the European cultural elite.16 Within a few decades, objects once wondrous would become vulgar and undesirable, too gaudy and too unreliably emotional to satisfy the rising imperatives of rational discrimination.17 But in Hoefnagel’s day, people sought out wonders in objects of all kinds that tied the transcendent to the earthly, and they found them as readily in nature as in those exceptional human-made imitations (like Hoefnagel’s insects) that revealed the bonds between people and the natural world with which they were so deeply entwined. Through the incitement of wonder, wondrous objects led to philosophical reflection and from there to true knowledge, a point that could be underlined by direct citation from Aristotle.18

At first, Hoefnagel’s images tugged at me with what I took to be their tenderness, so sensitively wrought, so decorative. But once I recovered from my gasp as the page fell open, I began to wonder—in that rather disconnected, secular, modern way—if that response wasn’t merely a product of my schooling in the contemporary aesthetics of biodiversity and its associated ethic of conservation and protection. Hoefnagel, I began to recognize, was doing something else. He was demanding that I not only see, look at, and observe the insects but that I do so with entirely new eyes, that I meet difference and dwell in it, that I discover grounds for empathy in the encounter with these beings’ biological and social marginality. I began to understand that he wanted me eye to eye with these insects, as close as could be, in direct and transformative confrontation.


As its title makes clear, The Four Elements presents the animals of the world in four groups. Each group is in its own volume, each is tied to its particular element, and each element is filled with symbolic meaning. Hoefnagel grounds the quadrupeds and reptiles on earth, submerges the fish and mollusks in water, frees the birds and amphibians to the air, and from the outset—Ignis is the first volume—signals his intention to surprise by associating fire, ignis, not with the salamander (which was believed to pass through flames unscathed) but with the “animalia rationalia et insecta,” a new category all his own that brings insects together with human prodigies, two forms of the marginal and marvelous.

Though with less fidelity than Bacon, Hoefnagel, too, reached back to Aristotle for his zoology. But perhaps this is a misleading way of putting it, given how widespread was the enmeshing of early-modern European natural philosophy in Aristotelian thought.19 Central elements of Aristotle’s biology persisted in Europe with little challenge through the mid-eighteenth century and beyond, long after the dismantling of the structural cosmology with which Aristotelianism is centrally identified. And specifically in terms of emerging entomology, it would be impossible to overestimate the significance of the observations and taxonomies developed by Aristotle in Historia animalium (History of Animals), De partibus animalium (On Parts of Animals), and De generatione animalium (On the Generation of Animals), continued by his student Theophrastus in his work on plant-insect interactions, and collected and extended by Pliny in book XII of Naturalis historia (Natural History). With the introduction of the taxonomic class he called the entoma—animals with notches or segments—Aristotle was the first to make systematic attempts to group and describe the insects.20 Prior to that, only those insects considered dangerous or useful—principally in medical terms—had figured as objects of natural historical attention.

Aristotle derived his classificatory characters from observed morphology, adding layers of differentiating features to build up the higher taxa.21 Yet unlike Linnaeus, whose attention to distinguishing characteristics was rigorously morphological, Aristotle looked to the soul of the animal—that is, to its vital functions—rather than to its body, for defining characters. And although he did dichotomize on occasion—into winged and wingless insects, for example—he sought distinction on the principle of unique constellations of features rather than in binary oppositions. Moreover, his taxonomy and the entire ontology from which it derived were underwritten by the cosmological conviction that nature was motivated by a teleology embodied in an ascending hierarchy of perfection, at the terrestrial summit of which, predictably enough, was the human male. As G.E.R. Lloyd succinctly explains, the edifice presupposed a close relationship among an animal’s humoral qualities, its mode of reproduction, and its degree of perfection. “Aristotle,” Lloyd writes, “differentiates groups of animals by their faculties of sensation, their means of locomotion, their methods of reproduction. These capacities are, in his view, closely correlated with certain primary qualities, the heat, coldness, dryness and wetness of the animal. Thus the viviparous animals, the ovoviviparous ones, the two main divisions of ovipara (those that produce perfect, and those that have imperfect, eggs) and the larvae-producing animals are arranged in a descending order of ‘perfection,’ where the hotter, and wetter, the animal the more perfect it is.”22

Cold and dry, the entoma form one of the four genera of bloodless animals. Some of them are winged; all have more than four feet; all possess sight, smell, and taste; some have hearing. Most significantly, as Lloyd indicates, the entoma reproduce by spontaneous generation, the most imperfect of the four methods that Aristotle identifies. Houseflies, for example, arise from manure, as do fleas; lice originate in flesh; worms grow from old snow; moths come from dry and dusty wool; others emerge from dew, mud, wood, plants, and animal hair. The examples demonstrate Aristotle’s close observation—without the benefit of lenses—and the application of a somewhat dogmatic theoretical apparatus. These little animals have sex, as he witnesses, but the offspring are always an inferior, more imperfect organism: the progeny of flies and of butterflies, for example, are tiny worms.23 And without evolution, there can be no improvement, no upward progress from excrement to ether. In every respect, then, Aristotle’s insects (with the exception of the highly regarded bees) are as far from perfection as is possible for animal beings.24

Ignis was in rebellion against this Aristotelian order. Where earlier artists had focused on the most emblematic of the insects—the stag beetle, the bee, the grasshopper—or had worked local species into illuminated texts to commemorate pilgrimages, Hoefnagel used Ignis to revise their standing as a class.25 By granting them such prominence and cohesion and by implicitly maintaining equivalence across the group—lavishing as much attention on the pestilential mosquito and the prosaic wood louse as on the industrious bee—Hoefnagel insisted on the value of all the creatures known to him as insecta.

To establish his case, he turned to physical principles that owed much to Aristotle. The cosmos that held sway in Renaissance Europe was divided into two realms: above, filled with the perfect and incorruptible ether, which moved in perfect and uniform motion, were the celestial heavens; below, abutting the lunar sphere, lay the terrestrial realm, constant only in its flux, composed of fire, earth, air, and water, the four types of terrestrial matter. Of those four elements, it was fire, the outermost surface of the terrestrial region, that occupied the most elevated natural place. Unimpeded, fiery bodies would always rise naturally toward the celestial realm, and in this sense they were closest to perfection.26 By attaching his insects to fire, Hoefnagel fused them to the most exceptional element, the element associated with generation and dematerialization, the most protean, the most dynamic, the most unfathomable, and in early-modern Europe, the most wondrous. And crucially, in contrast to the logic of the other volumes of The Four Elements, fire is not the medium in which the insects live. Instead, it represents the properties they embody.27


Rather than insects, though, the opening folio of Ignis depicts a human couple. The strange man with the penetrating gaze, whose wife rests her hand on his shoulder in a protective gesture, is Pedro González, the first of Hoefnagel’s animalia rationalia.

Encountered on Tenerife and brought back to France, where he received a humanist education at court, González, as Hoefnagel’s inscription relates (and there is other historical documentation, too), was a man of letters well known in European society. His dress and demeanor indicate considerable cultivation, but his congenital hirsutism, as well as that of his similarly somber children, depicted in the following folio, places him in a tradition of wildness, a wildness further suggested by the blasted landscape. The landscape accentuates the couple’s solitude, and the golden circle within which they, too, are enclosed seems an ironic comment on their civilized careers. Imprisoned as they are by physical accident and perverse celebrity, any doubt as to their aloneness is dispelled by the verse from the book of Job beneath the portrait: “Man born of woman, living briefly, a life replete with many miseries.”28

But what kind of man? González and his children—as well as the projected, though never painted, giant and dwarf of folio 3—are the animalia rationalia, the only humans (along with González’s wife) in the entire Four Elements. Hovering on the edge of humanity, they are more wondrous still for remaining within its fold, bringing together rationality (which defines the human) and animality (against which the human is defined), unsettling the very idea of natural order. Physically, they are instantly recognizable as members of the races of wild men and monsters that populate the outer shores of the Renaissance imagination, beasts rather than men, the opposites of men through which we come to understand what men really are. Culturally, though, there can be no question that González is human; indeed, as Hoefnagel’s inscription makes clear, that he is a humanist. And in this decisive sense, his outsideness poses a profound challenge to the very idea of a humanity defined by its capacity to reason, a challenge that echoes that posed in the same years by Montaigne in his essay “On Cannibals,” in which it is the encounter with native Brazilians at the French court that throws into question the superiority of European civility.29

The exotic problem of the Gonzalez family was widely recognized at the time. Important portraits were commissioned. Prominent physicians were consulted. Aldrovandi himself examined the family and included images of them in his Monstrorum historia.30 But of all the commentaries, Hoefnagel’s goes furthest. If these are victims, their sad situation is an indictment of intolerance, and in being invited to see them in this way, we are also, as the art historian Lee Hendrix suggests, reminded of the intolerance sweeping Europe that made a victim and a refugee of Hoefnagel himself.31 If these are victims, then, like the victims of religious persecution, they are radically misunderstood. And these victims—and perhaps all the victims—are unmistakably wondrous. Imbued with fire, they rise above their earthly condition to soar naturally toward the celestial sphere. It is a powerful image, and it has stayed with me since that day at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The strange man whose penetrating gaze is fixed unflinchingly on the viewer. The sad but self-possessed woman who looks neither at her husband nor at the artist but instead stares with blank resignation into an undefined distance and who is perhaps the most haunting figure of all: the one who chooses to transgress and thereby elects to suffer, the one positioned to mediate between the fully human and the animalia rationalia, the one about whom nothing is written, the one whose name and biography don’t appear to have been recorded.

Why does Hoefnagel bring the González family together with the insecta in this novel order of nature? Or more precisely, why does he use these human prodigies to frame and preface his book of insects? The answer must lie in what these beings share: a wondrousness brutally misconceived as imperfection, a common existence at the margins of nature. If González stands on the borders of humanity, insects stand both at the edge of nature and on the lip of the visible. On the threshold of hidden truths, they point beyond themselves, portals to the deep unknown, taking us—in this age before the microscope—“on an optical voyage into uncharted terrain.”32


It took me a while to recognize Ignis as a form of what Sir James Frazer, the encyclopedist of early anthropology, called homoeopathic magic, that form of sympathetic magic based on the law of similarity, in which like begets like.33 I already knew that the work of the early-modern natural philosopher was to use the ars magica to reach through that gap between the visible and the intuited universe.34 So why was I so slow to see that Ignis and its insects were themselves magical objects?

Perhaps it was that none of Frazer’s innumerable examples—refracted as they are through the imperial prism of early-twentieth-century social science35—appeared to correspond. Hoefnagel didn’t seem much like the “Ojebway Indian” who works his evil with “a little wooden image of his enemy and runs a needle into its head or heart.” Nor did he remind me of the “Peruvian Indians [who] molded images of fat mixed with grain to imitate the persons whom they disliked or feared, and then burned the effigy on the road where the intended victim was to pass.”36 Nor were Hoefnagel’s so precisely realized insects reminiscent of these fetishes of wood and fat whose morphological likeness to their victims seems in Frazer’s account to be casually and abstractly gestural, perhaps even irrelevant.

Although he has his doubts, Frazer allows that when intentionality is clearly evident, the term “mimetic magic” may be permissible. This should have alerted me, or at least would have if I hadn’t been thinking of imitation as ruled by tragedy, of mimicry as always haunted by the repetition of its failure to become its object. I could still think of Hoefnagel as some sort of (very-ahead-of-his-time) Surrealist and of his mimetic method as a tactic of disruption calculated to destabilize his viewer and produce the psychic conditions for revelation. But maybe there was more? Frazer’s phrase reminded me of how, in his strange essay “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aspiration is not in vain. In Benjamin’s understanding of mimesis, there is no limit to the identification with the object made possible by the copy. Instead, in the words of anthropologist Michael Taussig, under the right circumstances, the object “passes from being outside to becoming inside.… Imitation becomes immanence.”37

As were the insects it revealed, so was Ignis itself a wonder, its revelatory images the fruit of Hoefnagel’s astonishing capacity to breathe life into his subjects. Even though, like most painters of the time, he based much of his work on other artists’ representations, his was a celebrated ability to move beyond simple copying. In his hands, even Dürer’s famous stag beetle was re-inspired and in its new aliveness took the viewer that much closer, tantalizingly closer, to the promise of whatever lay beyond.38

Try not to think of this copying as imitation. Think of it as philosophical art in the service of something greater and more mysterious. It expresses piety, of course—these are God’s creatures—but also the associated desire to reach deeper, to cross the gap between representation and the real, between vellum, paint, and insect, between subject and object, between human and divine, between human and animal. Rather than producing a likeness of a being to act upon that being—as in Frazer’s examples—Hoefnagel’s likenesses aim to bring us to a point of identity with the being depicted. This is imitation striving for immanence and doing so through empathy—an empathy generated through wonder and a wonder created by an array of destabilizing tactics (those tactics that let me imagine Hoefnagel as an early-modern Surrealist).

Central to it all is the work of active viewing which Hoefnagel demands. It is impossible to pass lightly over his insects. Just as Pedro González locks us in his stare, holds our attention, and insists that we acknowledge him as subject (as person, as citizen, as topic, and as victim), so the detailed precision of Hoefnagel’s insects draws us into their individuality and elicits the same type of concentrated focus on the being in itself as would a lens, pulling us into the mysterious vitality of animate nature.

The dramatic staging heightens the effect: the background, usually blank, offers both depth and surface (note the delicate shadowing) yet removes the distraction of earthly context, leaving the insects in an independent, featureless space, a space I think of as ontological rather than—as we might expect today—ecological or historical. Abruptly, and this is part of what provokes that sudden gasp, Hoefnagel draws us into the tiny creatures’ scale. We become small, as if we have passed through his looking glass. Variations in the animals’ size—from the teeniest flies to the most monstrous spiders—are startling, frightening, but also exciting. He emphasizes their movement, their sense of purpose, intimating a motivating intelligence. Such wonders demand humility. They confront us with the limits of our understanding and with the poverty of the normality in which we dwell. This encounter wrought by mimetic magic takes us further and further into a secret realm. Deeper and deeper, closer and closer, up against the limits of communication, up against the ineffable.


High on its hill overlooking Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum and Research Institute holds another of Hoefnagel’s masterpieces: the Mira calligraphiae monumenta (Model Book of Calligraphy), an illuminated writing book of rare beauty and sly wit. The original manuscript was inscribed by the master calligrapher Georg Bocskay from 1561 to 1562. Some thirty years later, at the request of Rudolf II, Hoefnagel began to illuminate the text, adorning Bocskay’s work with fruit and flowers and with perfect little insects of all descriptions that climb over and around the intricate lettering, balance on serifs, slide down descenders, dart through flourishes, and nibble their way along crossbars, poking irreverent fun at Bocskay’s ornate virtuosity as they demonstrate Hoefnagel’s conviction that the visual image communicates on a plane inaccessible to the written text.39

Despite the airy touch of the Mira calligraphiae, Hoefnagel’s belief in the capacity of the image to access the truly recondite is utterly serious. In this, he reminds me again of Walter Benjamin, who, similarly intent on transforming relations between people and the world in which they move, struggled to find words to paint his “dialectical images”—images that would seize life in all its contradictions and blast a hole through the world of appearances.40 In the moment of danger in which Benjamin found himself as a Jew and a Marxist (albeit an idiosyncratic one) in pre-Second World War Europe, his faith in words rested in this ability to explode reality with the densely compressed image. A rather flimsy faith, we might think. But we would be wrong. Even if their power resides in their capacity to appropriate the image and even if the ability of the most daring of them to act on the world is frail and tentative, there is, in this idea, no barrier that the magic of words cannot breach.

Although their views on the relationship between word and image differ, I like to think that Hoefnagel and Benjamin would have understood each other’s approach to the task of the philosopher. For both, inspired as they are by traditions of piety, the work of criticism is a work of revelation. For both, revelation involves a drastic and transformative disruption of the everyday. For both, the method of revelation is something we might call mimetic shock: a psychic disordering that is accomplished best in moments of supreme artistry.

The centuries have softened the power of Hoefnagel’s insects. It is the arresting beauty of the images that strikes the viewer now, rather than the sudden vision of unanticipated difference. It didn’t take me long to realize that the gasp that escaped my lips when Greg Jecmen turned the page as we sat together that morning in the National Gallery of Art was a gasp of awe at Hoefnagel’s talent rather than a reaction to the fullness of the insects’ presence—a quite different kind of interruption from the one I imagine Hoefnagel intended. I was deeply impressed by the perfection of his imitation of life but less astonished by the life itself. And I didn’t at first recognize his mimesis as a magic designed to act upon the world. Perhaps, as Benjamin foresaw, familiarity with the reproduction has inured us to the magic of the original.41

But what a labor Hoefnagel set himself! Committed not simply to achieving perfection in representation but to capturing a deeper quality, something elusive and invisible that he knows is there and believes can be made apparent through the art of the copy. What kind of agony is this, working in miniature, striving not simply for realism but for a version of the real that is so real—more real even than the copy from which he is working—that it takes him beyond what he can see, takes him into the unknown inside, takes him across the species barrier to a place in which difference dissolves, to the immanence at the end of imitation.

Was he successful? Was his mimetic magic strong enough to jump the gap between representation and real, between vellum and paint and wondrous beings, between human and divine, between human and insect? Perhaps it’s enough to recognize the possibility, the weight that beauty once contained. Perhaps. But I suspect it wasn’t sufficient for Hoefnagel.

Greg turned another page, and we both gazed down at folio 54. Realizing that I hadn’t noticed, he pointed to the unusually worn wings of the two lower dragonflies. They were real, he told me, real wings that Hoefnagel had detached from his real insect models and carefully, with a care we can only imagine, pasted on to his painting. I saw then that they looked different. Rubbed through and disintegrating, they were decayed, far less lifelike now than the delicately robust imitations he had painted on the central insect. There was, I knew, a tradition of attaching found objects to medieval manuscripts—badges, seashells, pressed flowers—as a sign of witnessing. The objects, relics of a kind, were proof of a visit to the pilgrimage site and tactile mnemonics with which to recall the experience.42 But this was something else. This was Hoefnagel staring at the failure of his desire, staring at the limits of representation, staring at the ineffable. I heard Moffett’s exclamation—“How wonderful are thy works, O Lord!”—but less as celebration than lament. “How wonderful are thy works, O Lord,” I heard Hoefnagel’s echo, “How inadequate are my own!”