The Most Noble
of All the Worms
How many creatures walking on this earth
Have their first being in another form?
Frankfurt am Main, 1647– 1665
A nother pupa, another time. Cocoon walls, thick with silk, wrapped their contents tight. Inside, the organs altered. The mouth disappeared. The white body darkened, turned dusky gold. Pressed between the wings, the antennae waited to sense the morning.
At a table near dawn, the girl watched and gripped her paintbrush. She’d woken early enough this day to catch the adult moth dissolving the silk strands and pushing them aside. Other times she got up too late or waited and waited, grown cramped from sitting still. How to capture the thin threads swathing the oval, the precise folds of the pupa? Once out, the moth changed so fast, shifting from second to second as it dried. It was hard to move her wrist quickly enough to make the black lines of scrabbling legs.
This pale silkworm, its dowdy moth, drew her in. At thirteen, she may have felt her own innards alter, traced a finger over a face now unfamiliar in the mirror. It’s the time when the young most anticipate a spectacular transformation, hoping for a future saturated with color, shimmering with iridescence. But she had chosen to focus not on some gaudy butterfly, but this dowdy little insect. Those strands, so thin, so strong, that wrapped the cocoon, tied the worm to stockings, and skirts and hair ribbons, bound it to daily life. It was a practical choice, though no one could call this activity practical. She labeled the silkworm “the most useful and noble of all worms and caterpillars.”
Between chores, she cared for her subjects. In the chill of early spring when the mulberry leaves were not yet in bloom, she raised the caterpillars on lettuce. She built them cone-shaped paper houses where they could spin their cocoons, covering the insects if a storm threatened. Thunder made them ill. So many things could go wrong: a room too cold, leaves wet and rotten, eggs that collapsed and failed to hatch, a clumsy finger brushing scales off the wings.
But eventually she captured the whole process, egg to adult. It was an odd picture, not like any her stepfather showed her—full still-life paintings where a moth might echo a color used on a flower petal, or more humble engravings where beetles and butterflies of many species crowded together. Just the simple insect, alone with all its stages. The wings, crumpled like paper, not fully dry. The adult tipped forward, as if still finding its legs. A tiny caterpillar, no longer than a thumbnail, inching across the page. A larger version, fat on mulberry leaves, made of bleached white segments, large as teeth. The pupa lay curved and motionless, wrapped like a mummy in its hard casing, covering the knots of nerve as they came undone to reform in another shape.
As she rinsed her hands and rubbed her brush to clean it, she probably couldn’t say what pulled her to gather all these parts and paint them together, condensing and stopping time for a moment. More likely her thoughts jumped to the unknown striped caterpillar she glimpsed along the riverbank, whether she could find another, how to raise it, when she could do it again.
While curiosity could be suspect, even dangerous, in a girl, Maria Sibylla Merian was born into the ideal household for an inquisitive mind. Her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder, owned a thriving Frankfurt publishing house, specializing in books illustrated with lavish pictures and maps engraved by him, his children (including Matthaus the Younger), his sons-in-law, and apprentices.
Maria Merian’s early childhood would have been punctuated by the clatter of the printing press, the heart of the business and family enterprise. Peering into the workshop, she could watch her father or brothers selecting type or planning the next season’s catalog. Trays of metal letters of different fonts and sizes lay jumbled on shelves. Printed sheets hung overhead like laundry out to dry. Murmurs of conversation of visiting artists and buyers curled in the corners of rooms. Hired workmen in smocks bustled around the printing press itself, a hulking machine that looked like a bookcase straddling a table, often braced with boards against the ceiling, with scissors and a hammer dangling off the front. On the table lay three boards hinged together, like a triptych on its back. One man smeared ink on the letters arranged in a tray, called a “coffin,” that made up one of the three sections. The other put the paper on the middle board, cushioned with blankets or padding. The final panel, just a hollow frame, contained another piece of paper, with holes cut for the text to go through. It sopped up any spills. The frame folded over the paper, which folded over the coffin, and one man slid the whole stack under the press. Then he grabbed the handle called the devil’s tail and screwed a plank down to meet the coffin, banging the text against the paper. This way, they produced 200 pages an hour. The press’s ability to spread information so rapidly made it invaluable but also gave it the taint of subversion. The business depended on the dreaming up of fresh ideas, always a risky endeavor when the only reading material above suspicion was the Bible. Some had doubts about whether anyone but ministers should read even that. A refuge for scientists, religious minorities, and visionaries, a publisher’s workshop drew free thinkers of every stripe. Whether the writers wanted to publicize discoveries about the mechanism of the human heart or incite a religious revolution, they needed the type, the paper, and the press, to have any influence. The astronomer Johannes Kepler, when he wasn’t contemplating the orbits of planets or the movement of the tides, lingered at the printers where his books were in progress, looking over tables and evaluating illustrations. It was a coffee house before anyone in Europe drank coffee, where the heady brew was ink. The Merians themselves had their own secrets. The whole extended family comprised refugees from one place or another. The publishing house was launched in the late 1500s by the de Bry family, Calvinists who fled Belgium when Catholics took over. Theodor de Bry, the founder and noted engraver, passed the company on to his son Johann Theodor de Bry. As a young man, Matthaus Merian, originally from Basle, worked for Johann Theodor and eventually married his daughter, Maria Magdelena. Though Matthaus wasn’t the most obvious successor (he had moved away and other sons-in-law were more involved in the day-to-day operations), de Bry’s widow must have respected his business instincts, because she helped ensure that Matthaus took overtheprint shop when his father-in-law died in 1623. Matthaus split the company assets (backlogs of books and engraved copper plates) with another son-in-law, but Matthaus got by far the more valuable share.
When his first wife died, Matthaus quickly remarried, wedding Johanna Sibylla Heim. About Johanna Heim, not much is known: her family were Walloons (French-speaking residents of a region of Belgium), who moved to Hanau, where her brother served as a preacher. Since Hanau was a Calvinist city, the Heims were probably also fleeing religious persecution. By the time Johanna and Matthaus’s daughter, Maria Sibylla, was born in April 1647, many of Matthaus Merian’s older children from his first marriage were adults, skilled artists themselves. The youngest in a family with two half brothers and two half sisters in their twenties, a half sister in her late teens and another half brother who was twelve, the young Maria Merian risked being underfoot.
Later, biographers writing just after she died would say this youngest daughter was her father’s favorite, tha...