Exhibition: Maria Sibylla Merian at an Amsterdam Canal House

Blue sky, spring sun, garden waking up. Museum café open and offering the chance to sit in the small, quiet garden – provided the weather allows it. Most Sunday afternoons, there are concerts in one of the rooms of this Amsterdam canal house. It is now called the Cromhouthuis Museum.

As mentioned in an earlier post, this museum actually consists of two. The upper part of the building houses the small Amsterdam Biblical museum. Downstairs, ground floor and several floors up, are what is left of the period home. The Cromhout and other families have long gone, but this remains one of those small museums which keep drawing one back.

This time, the excuse was its small exhibition dedicated to Anna Maria Sybillia Merian. The exhibition had opened to visitors a day earlier. Merian (1647 – 1717), was a German naturalist, illustrator, trail-blazer. Sir David Attenborough considers her to be one of the most significant contributors to entomology.

The reason there are several museums throughout the world, opening exhibitions on Maria Sybillia Merian and her works: she died 300 years ago. She is still famous for her outstanding book “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium“, which was published in 1705. But she had published other works before this, as well as taught painters like Rachel Ruysch.

An illustration from Merian’s “Insects from Suriname”, first published in 1705.

Merian actually traveled to Suriname – with one of her daughters. The sojourn in Suriname was partly paid for by Amsterdam and the two women intended to spend several years exploring the country, its plants, insects, animals. Unfortunately, they returned earlier than planned, because Maria Sybillia had caught malaria. Merian died a pauper; her daughter publishing her mother’s last work posthumously.

Two rooms on different floors of the Cromhout Museum, exhibit works by Merian. However, the theme of insects, animals, flowers, plants, runs throughout nearly all floors. A wall of the hallway for instance shows fac simile from Merian’s works.

But it are the two small rooms, which are most interesting. These include books, water colours, drawings and manuscripts. One showcase contains examples of predecessors and followers, illustrating Merian’s importance and influence. Another one shows one of her handwritten manuscripts. The printed text on the pine-apple, is exhibited nearby.

Merian’s handwriting, in brown ink, can be easily read. Her observations and explanations alternate with her praising God. She may have been a scientist, she firmly believed God’s hand could be detected in everything.

The exhibits are on loan from the Artis Library of the University of Amsterdam. There are many activities organized at this museum, not just Sunday afternoon concerts. So a quick visit to the museum website (scroll down for the link) is recommended.

After revisiting other rooms and floors, I walked down the stairs. Downstairs, the house contains two kitchens, as well as what used to be the family’s breakfast and garden rooms. Here one finds the museum café and the door to the small garden.

View of the garden at the back of the Cromhouthuis Museum

Outside, tulips were starting to flower. In the pond, waterlilies were waking up, developing leaves. A water strider hurried across the pond. The tabletops show a quote from the Song of Songs. Most of the plants, shrubs, trees, have links to the Bible. The plant labels contain the right quote and name of the plant.

It all ties in perfectly with Merian’s perception of nature. But even if one is not religious, this garden is a lovely, quiet oasis in busy Amsterdam. One can spend hours reading a book here, changing from sunny spots to shaded ones. The café is at hand to stock up on coffee, tea, or delicious pastries.

These come from the near-by bakery and tea room Lanskroon, situated in the nine streets area. I still have not made up my mind which of the pastries I like best. If you have similar problems: staff will give excellent advise.

The small Merian exhibition can be visited till the 18th of June 2017 at Museum Cromhouthuis, Amsterdam
Merian’s book on Suriname insects is regularly reprinted in translations.

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