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 copper-plate 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
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
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 Johan 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 copper plate. 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 (The History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm, 1617–1621), 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
And landscape remained an important subject for northern European etchers of the seventeenth century like Merian
and his Dutch contemporary Claes Jansz. Visscher. In 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.
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.
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
While emblems often have a strong “natural history” component, for example, an animal present in an emblem is
never to be understood as a member of a particular species, but 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.
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
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 by explaining in his commentary that the
“philosophical salamander” (i.e., the philosophers’ stone) resembles the common salamander in its imperviousness
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
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
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
Merian’s picture features a nude man with the face of the sun, a nude woman with the face of the moon, 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 in 1550 with woodcuts.22
In one of its images, a nude king and queen stand upon the sun and moon, offering one another flowers, declaring
their marriage, and 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
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
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, 1625–1627) (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
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
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
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 whose ostentatious materiality 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, or 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.
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
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, 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
Consider Merian’s etching for Emblem 32,
“As Coral grows under water, and is hardened by the air, So also is the Stone” (fig.
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.
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
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 “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
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 essential tools for determining the size and distance of objects in the
landscape. In the next section Fludd moves on to the science of optics where, with the help of Merian’s
extensive illustrations, he 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
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.
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.
Matthaeus Merian, Frontispiece to “De Geometria seu arte Metrica,” in Robert Fludd, De naturae
simia (1618). Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Matthaeus Merian, Demonstration of perspective, in Robert Fludd, De naturae simia (1618).
Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Matthaeus Merian, Measuring distance using the Jacob’s staff and quadrant, in Robert Fludd, De
naturae simia (1618). Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Matthaeus Merian, Detail of title page, Atalanta fugiens.
Blount, Thomas. Glossographia. London, 1656.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology. Translated by Paul J.
Revised ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.
Gesner, Conrad. Icones animalivm qvadrvpedvm viviparorvm et oviparorvm.
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.
Ptolemy, Claudius. The Geography. Translated by Edward Luther Stevenson. New
Dover Publications, 1991.
von Breydenbach, Bernhard. Peregrinatio in terram sanctam. Mainz, 1486.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth
University of Chicago Press, 1983.
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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, Sound, Image, Silence: Art and the Aural
Imagination in the Atlantic World, is forthcoming with University of Minnesota Press in 2019.