Nature as a Female Magician in Early Modern Imagery (2012)

Lecture given at the Sixteenth Century Studies & Conference Annual Meetint in Cincinnati (Ohio); October 27, 2012

Renaissance scholars discussed two important traits of Nature (Natura in Latin) very intensively: (1) Natura as a sort of Holy Scripture, which had to be studied and deciphered to learn “her” secret language; and (2) Natura as a divine female figure, a goddess, who would only communicate her secrets when she was gently and awesomely handled and not violently unveiled. Both traits could hardly be separated. It was the endeavour of “natural magic” (magia naturalis) to find out the „secrets of nature“.[1] But those secrets should not only by admired: Nature had to be analyzed and scientifically investigated as well as imitated and completed. In the early modern period, the new established scientific academies committed themselves to such an approach. The Italian physician and Giambattista Della Porta, who  acted in Naples and published his groundbreaking work „Magia naturalis“ in 1558, founded one of the first natural scientific academies in Europe, namely the Academia Secretorum Naturae (Accademia dei Segreti) in 1560.[2] Its unique mission was the exploration of Nature. Someone was only accepted as a member, when he “could  present a so far unknown secret in the field of medicine or the mechanical arts”.[3] So, “Encyclopedias of Secrets” were composed and natural research was explicitly seen as a “hunt”.[4] The final task was the rational explanation of the “natural secrets”.

(1) Natura as a Nourishing Mother

The German teacher of Romance languages Ernst Robert Curtius adressed the „Goddess Natura“ in a special chapter of his main work Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter.[5] It offers a rich sources of the occidental conceptions of Nature and their imagery and iconography. Although Curtius did not respond to medicine and magic, his references became essential for an understanding the image of Nature as a (female) magic artist. His classification of Natura in the sense of an “historical topic” (historische Topik), as he put it, focussed on the topos of  Natura mater generationis originating from the Late Antiquity. He distinguished 14 categories (slide). Natura artifex mundi, Natura dei serva, and Natura altrix hominis are primarily important for our consideration. As a servant of God (dei serva) Nature was equally appreciated as a „world artist“ or “world creator” (artifex mundi) producing everything and shaping man in particular.[6] So, in the 12th century, Alanus ab Insulis (Alain de Lille), the famous savant at the School of Chartre, broached the issue of „the creation of the perfect man“ (die Schöpfung des vollkommenen Menschen) in his Anticlaudian according to Curtius.

Nature as a provider of man (Natura altrix hominum) implied both dimensions as a physical and mental provider or alma mater. Consequently, she was viewed simultaneously as a educator, teacher, and leader within the scope of magic an alchemy. In the contemporary emblematic collections Natura frequently emerged. Thus the French sculptor Jean Baptiste Boudard edited 1759 an Iconologie in three volumes including 630 engravings with legends − a real repository for authors looking for images. He presented the personifications of diverse natural qualities, arts, sciences, and human virtues mostly in female figures. For instance “Nature” appeared as a statue of the many-breasted Isis with birds sitting on her extended arms and leaping beasts decorating the pedestal (figure 1). The veiled head of the goddess would show in the view of the Egyptians, „que les plus parfaits secrets de la nature sont réservés au Créateur.“ In particular, the providing or nourishing function of Natura reminded of Mary, the Mother of God, so that really a blended female figure evolved. Undoubtedly, Mary delivered for the Christian Middle Ages an ideal of the alma mater, the „wet nurse of God” (gotheits-ammen)“ as the German poet Konrad von Würzburg wrote in the 13th century.[7]


(2) Emblems of Nature

The emblematics flourished in the 16th century. Hereby, the image of a woman appeared in various figures, clothes and poses. The Italian humanist Andrea Alciato introduced the classical triple form in his „Emblematum liber“ published in 1531: (1) image (Ikon, Pictura, Imago, Symbolon) following the design of the hieroglyphics; (2) lemma (title / headword); motto, inscriptio (in the sense of imprese); und (3) epigram, (subscriptio, signature).[8] In the consequence of this emblem book the baroque emblematics (“Sinnbildkunst”) devoloped.[9] The depiction of Venus often resembling Natura was a liked motive. The French humanist Guillaume de La Perrière presented e. g. a respective emblem in the first edition of Le Théâtre des bons engins published 1539 (figure 2). It displayed a naked woman with waving hair standing in a mountainous landscape holding a big key in her right hand. Her left forefinger points to her mouth und her right foot is put on a turtle.  The 1545 edition shows a quite different composition of the picture: Below the headline „Ce qu’est requis en la femme prudente“ the „Dame Venus“ sits beneath a baldachin partly clothed on a cushion. Key, turtle and finger on the lips are analogously arranged (figure 3). The explanatory text gives a symbolic interpretation: A goddess would demonstrate the right attitude of an honourable woman. The turtle would demonstrate the loyalty to the location  („n’aille loing“), the forefinger would indicate the avoidance of loquaciousness, and the key would signify the sagacious administration of the goods of the husband.

The upgrading of Natura to a divine instance showing man the guidelines for his own evolution was mainly influenced by Alanus ab Insulis and his Anticlaudian at the end of the 12th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries series of carpets oriented themselves on this work. There, the figure of Natura is often displayed, but never in a manner that would lift her out of the other allegories.[10] The wall carpet exhibited in the Electoral Palatinate Museum (Kurpfälzisches Museum) of Heidelberg today gives an impressive example. Probably the tapestry belonging to the inheritance of Ottheinrich (Otto-Henry, Elector Palatine) was produced in 1531. It is entitled with “The way of earthly prudence to heavenly wisdom“ (figure 4).This so-called „Prudentia-Teppich“ was studied by art historians in detail.[11] The constellation of the three figures Natura, Prudentia, and Sapientia essential for the whole scenario is highly interesting. At first one notices Prudentia seated on a throne in the centre of the carpet and then ascending on the right hand side taking over the sceptre from Sapientia floating down as the Goddess of Heaven. On the left hand side Natura stands with her head directed upwards beneath Jove floating as the king of heaven in analogy to Sapientia. Closer to the foreground Natura directs the horses ridden by angels who point with their shields to the senses. Placella, the crowned figure in the foreground, cannot be interpreted definitely.[12] Perhaps was it just a play on the verb placere and this woman should symbolize courtesy and agreeableness. It is not clear whether the picture corresponded to a “pedagogic-allegorical program” teaching people how to be enabled to perfect oneself. One may assume this with regard to the male observer in the foreground on the right hand side watching the activities of the female majesties.

The emblem Cuncta refundit (She transfers all things) by Julius Wilhelm Zincgref shows very clearly the hierarchy God – Nature – Man in the vertical order of sun, moon and earth (figure 5) The moon is here in the position of the mediating Nature, whereas the sun is identified with Christ, the “light of the world”. At the same time the moon becomes a symbol for the transmission of the divine light to man. Accordingly, the subscription explains:

„Der Mond wie die Natur bericht /

Hat von der Sonnen all sein Liecht /

Uns wiederfehrt all Liechtes Gab /

Durch Christum von oben herab.“[13]

(3) Natura as a teacher  

About 70 years after Agrippa von Nettesheeim, the physician and alchemist Michael Maier exhibited Natura as a leader for researching scholars. His  Atalanta fugiens (1618) illustrated by the well-known engraver Matthäus Merian the Elder contains a very meaningful emblem (figure 6) . Natura as a knowing woman precedes a naturist following her footsteps (quasi directory) equipped with a stick (quasi reason), glasses (quasi experience), and a lantern (quasi light to study her signatures). The message is: The scholar has to trail Natura. In the German translation of the Atalanta fugiens (1708) this emblem (Zwey und viertzigstes Sinnbild von Geheimnuß der Natur“) had the motto:”Dem Sucher der Chymischen Kunst muß die Natur / Vernunfft / Erfahrenheit und das fleissige Lesen / Leiten / und an statt eines Führers / Stabs / ja einer Leuchte und Lampe dienen.“ [14] (May Nature, Reason, Exercise and Literature be the guide, staff, spectacles and lamp for him who participates in chemistry.)[15] The respective epigram (Überschrifft) says:

„Dich leitet die Natur / drum folge ihren Wegen /

Sonst tritt’st du aus dem Pfad der rechten Wahrheits Bahn:

Dein Staab sey die Vernunfft / das Licht muß dir zulegê

Die edle Wissenschafft / wañ du das Werck fängst an.

Das Lesen ist die Lamp so in dem Finstern scheinet /

Doch überleg dabey was auch der Weiß recht meinet.“[16]

                                   (Nature be your guide; follow her with your art willingly, closely,

You err, if she is not your companion on your way.

Reason be your staff, Exercise may strengthen your sight,

On account of which the things that are far away can be discerned,

Literature be your lamp, shining in the darkness,

In order to guard you against an accumulation of things and words.)[17]

Maier explains that herewith the four wheels of the philosophical wagon were illustrated: Nature, reason, experience and the philosophical scriptures. The „chemists“  should pay attention to Nature, because she would be the directory and one had to follow her footsteps.[18] In the original Latin edition Nature was called dux natura tibi“ (your [female] leader). The title page of the Musæum Hermeticum (1625) displays a hermetic modification of Maier’s emblem (figure 7). Some interesting variations can be noticed. Within an oval frame the picture shows Natura bearing an hexagonal star (hexagram, Star of David) symbolizing the bond between heaven and earth, She is double-breasted and unveiled until the waistbelt reminding of Isis. The scholar with glasses, stick and lantern is followed by another one with the same attributes. So, Nature appears here even more clearly as a goddess of an old secret knowledge the footsteps of her the naturists have to follow.


(4) Art − the „Ape of Nature“

There was a common topos coined mainly by Agrippa:  Not the art would teach, illuminate, enhance Nature at all, but vice versa: Nature herself would invent, teach and improve the arts.[19] Within this context the author personified the art as a (female) ape and called her the „Nature’s ape“ (der Natur äffin). This topos was also used by other authors of natural philosophy, not least by Robert Fludd. Sebastian Franck explained the circumstances of the case: „The art is an ape domineering Nature pretending whenever possible to express the nature of a thing for example by painting of a man what she can never achieve yet. Because Nature is life and being, the art only scratches external things from the outside” (Die Kunst it ein äffin vnd anmasserin der natur / Dann wie sie kann / anmast sie sich / die Natur eins dings außzutrücken/ als das malen einen Menschen / das sie doch nimmer erlangt. Dann die Natur ist leben und wesen / die Kunst schabt nuhr von aussen an eusserlichen dingen).[20] It would be even better to do some soul-searching and to stay „inside“ than to learn all outward arts.[21] Franck’s device was: Learning from the „Light of Nature“ which was shadowed and faded due to the fall of man.

The metaphor of the ape symbolized the leading function of Nature for man. The ape symbolized the docile disciple of Nature who had to imitate her positively. One assumed that man could only recognise and use her secrets by imitating her like an ape, particularly her magic arts. Two allegories catch the eyes notably represented on big plates in Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi. At the beginning there is the allegory „Integrae Naturae speculum Artisque imago“ (mirror of the whole nature und image of the art). Nature is visibly interposed as a medium between God and the ape (i. e. man) (figure 8). A chain conducts from the hand of God to the virgin Natura and from her to an ape personifying art and science imitating Nature above him to improve her products. In this constellation Nature combines the fiery heaven (God) with the ethereal one (stars) and with the „sublunar“ earthly world (elements). Natura is depicted as a powerful and energy dispensing woman nourishing the world: Her heart is a real sun lightening the stars (Milky Way) and her abdomen (uterus) in form of a crescent turns out to be a medium transmitting the astral influences to the earth. The chain conducts from the (left) hand of God reaching out of the fiery cloud to the right hand of Nature, and from the left hand of Nature to the left forearm of the great ape. Nature is a substantial a link of chain resembling the Golden Chain in the Greek mythology. The physical operations of the human art are described: Nature imitates, helps, and perfects (Imitatur, Adjuvat, Perfecit). Nature is not a goddess, but God’s nearest servant (Natura non Dea, sed proxima Dei ministra).[22]

In the second tract of the above quoted work of Robert Fludd an impressive allegory of the erudite-docile ape is shown on the title page (figure 9) He sits in the middle of a disk, on which the different arts are depicted and points to an arithmetical book. Thereby he stresses the author’s conviction that all shown arts are based on numbers respectively relations of numbers. According to Ernst Robert Curtius the ape was already used as a metaphor of imitation in the 12th and 13th centuries.[23] About 1200, “simia“ became a slogan in Latin school poetry presumably introduced by Alanus. „The real ape (simius) turns to a simia, when he imitates man.” Man himself could turn to a simia naturae, when he imitated Nature with his art, aping her, likewise art in general could appear as a simia, i. g. as a scimia della natura in the Italian literature of the 16th and 17th centuries.

(5) Natural philosophy and gynephilia − a crucial link

The figure of Nature [Natura] was generally personified as a noble or even divine woman indicating specific gender implications. Because of the identification of Nature with such a woman, the image of the earthly women was exalted: Women seemed to be nearer to the divine wisdom. The treatise of Agrippa von Nettesheim De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus published in 1529 and mostly ignored nowadays is an extraordinary example for this highlighting the women for natural philosophical reasons.[24] By the way: The doctrine of Paracelsus stressed the same idea more indirectly. He also appreciated the female sex characterizing her uterus as another microcosm within microcosm (the “smallest world”). Back to Agrippa: He tried to prove the nobility and pre-eminence of the female sex using a cascade of arguments. He enumerates a series of qualities which should prove his supposed thesis. I can only mention some key words: (1) The etymological argument stresses that “Eve” would mean “life”, whereas “Adam” could be deduced from “earth”. (2) The order of the creation recorded by the Genesis would plea for the woman: She was created by God as the last and therefore the most complete creature.[25] (3) But also in regard to the matter, from which Eve was created, she would differ from Adam. It was not just “dead paste or faeces” as it was with Adam, “but a purified, lively Matter gifted with a reasonable soul participating in the spirit of God.”[26] This idea of a wise woman, a female sophia fitted very well in the contemporary natural philosophy of alchemy and occultism. (4) Agrippa located Natura cosmologically as a sort of medium in between God and man. Women take over the role of Nature in the human realm.  (5)  Nature prefers women in regard to healing powers. They could bear children and spend milk as a life sustaining stuff, not only for the children[27], but also for weak old persons to nourish them.[28] (6) The Biblical female figures Eve and Mary play an important: The fall of mankind was not committed by Eve, but by Adam, because God had forbidden him to eat from the fruit.[29] So, the original sin was caused by Adam not by Eve. But the most striking argument for the female superiority was the fact, that the “noblest of all pure creatures” was a woman, namely Mary, the Virgin Mother.[30] (7) Women are prone to divination and would had been the first acting as prophets and sybils.[31] So, an ordinary woman is according to Agrippa wiser than an erudite man, and an old countrywoman would often have more experience than a physician (medicus) who was perceived as an adept man[32] (8) In the end Agrippa pleas emphatically for the women’s emancipation deploring the traditional misogynic disrespect. Women had to give way to men “as if they would have been conquered in a war.”[33]

Natural philosophers, alchemists, and artists projected Nature as a female figure in the macrocosm imagining her as a divine magician beaming the splendour of God down to the microcosm. In their view all women shared with Nature corresponding characteristic traits, especially the ability of producing and achieving the life of creatures. There was a clear hierarchy: Nature was inferior to God, but superior to man – analogously to Agrippa’s theory according to which the woman was superior to man but also inferior to God respectively Christ or the Holy Spirit. The crucial point is that in the renaissance and early modern period the idea of the superiority of the female gender was stimulated by two impacts overlapping each other very intriguingly: Firstly, the natural philosophy and its personifications, and secondly, the image of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, as a religious mediator of Godfather’s splendour.

Illustration Sources

Fig. 1 : Jean Baptiste Boudard, Iconologie tirée de divers auteurs. Ouvrage utile aux gens de lettres, aux poëtes, aux artistes, et généralement à tous les amateurs des Beaux arts (Parme: Sebstverl.; [printer:] Carmignani, 1759 ; Reprint of the edition  Vienna 1766: New York 1976, 3rd vol., figure 1.

Fig. 2: Charles Moseley, A Century of Emblems. An Introductory Anthology (Aldershot: Scolar Presse, 1989). 54; Guillaume de La Perrière, Le Théâtre des bons engins […] (Paris: Janot, 1539), emblem XVIII; PURL :

Fig. 3 : Guillaume de La Perrière, Le Théâtre des bons engins […] (Paris: de Tournes, 1545), emblem XVIII; PURL :

Fig. 4: Cf. Anneliese Stemper, „Die Wandteppiche“, in Ottheinrich. Gedenkschrift zur vierhundertjährigen Wiederkehr seiner Kurfürstenzeit in der Pfalz (1556 – 1559). Ed. by  Georg Poensgen. Mit Beitr. von Hermann Baier […] (Heidelberg: Verl. der Studentenschaft der Univ. Heidelberg, 1956), 141-171; ibid., S. 141.

Fig. 5: Eduard B.Wüseke, Freimaurerische Bezüge zur barocken Emblematik, 103; Julius Wilhelm Zincgref, Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum Centuria ([Frankfurt am Main:] de Bry, 1619), LXXII;

Fig. 6: Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, hoc est, Emblemata nova de secretis naturae chymica […]. (Oppenheim: de Bry, 1618), 177; H.M.E. de Jong, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens. Sources of an alchemical book of emblems (Leiden: Brill, 1966; Janus, Suppléments, vol. 8), 418.

Fig. 7: MusæumHermeticum, OmnesSopho-SpagyricæArtisDiscipulosFidelissimeErudiensn (Francofurti: Jennisius [Frankfurt: Jennis], 1625)

Fig. 8: Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica atque Technica Historia. Tomus primus : De microcosmi historia […]. Tractatus primus. Oppenheim: de Bry, 1617), 4 et seq.

Fig. 9: Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Maioris scilicet et Minoris Metaphysica, Physica atque Technica  Historia. […]. Tractatus secundus: De Naturae Simia Seu Technica macrocosmi historia (Oppenheim: de Bry, 1618), title page.

[1] Cf. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature. Books of secrets in medieval and early modern culture (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1954). 

[2] Cf. ibid., 194-233 (Part 1, Ch. 6); (2012,1/20).

[3]Nicole Gronemeyer, Optische Magie. Zur Geschichte der visuellen Medien in der Frühen Neuzeit (Bielefeld: transcript, 2004), 87 [translation H. S.]..

[4] Cf. ibid., 273-285.

[5] Cf. Ernst Robert Curtius, Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, 2nd ed. (Bern: Francke, 1954), 116-137.

[6] Cf. Mechthild Modersohn, Natura als Göttin im Mittelalter. Ikonographische Studien zu Darstellungen der personifizierten Natur (Berlin: Akademie Verl., 1997), 17 et seq.

[7] Konrad [Conrad] von Würzburg, Die goldene Schmiede. Aus Gothaischen Handschriften herausgegeben und erklärt von W. C. Grimm (Frankfurt am Main: Körner, 1816), 37 et seq.: lines 290-294; „The godly spirit from above chose you to be his bride / and wanted you especially to ignite and inflame you as a wet nurse of God”. 

[8] Cf. Eduard B. Wüseke, Freimaurerische Bezüge zur barocken Emblematik. Kommunikationszeichen an der Schwelle zur Neuzeit (Münster: Bauhütten Verl., 1990), S. 6.

[9] Cf. ibid., 9.

[10] Wolfgang Kemp, Natura. Ikonographische Studien zur Geschichte und Verbreitung einer Allegorie, dissertation (Tübingen 1973).

Kemp, 1973, S. 11.

[11] Cf. Anneliese Stemper, „Die Wandteppiche“, in Ottheinrich. Gedenkschrift zur vierhundertjährigen Wiederkehr seiner Kurfürstenzeit in der Pfalz (1556 – 1559). Ed. by Georg Poensgen. Mit Beitr. von Hermann Baier […] (Heidelberg: Verl. der Studentenschaft der Univ. Heidelberg, 1956), 141-171; cf. Anneliese Stemper, „Der Prudentia-Teppich des Pfalzgrafen Ottheinrich im Kurpfälzischen Museum zu Heidelberg“, Heidelberger Jahrbücher 2 (1958): 68-95.

[12] Cf. Annelises Stemper, „Die Wandteppiche“, 165.

[13] Eduard B Wüseke, Freimaurerische Bezüge zur barocken Emblematik. Kommunikationszeichen an der Schwelle zur Neuzeit, 103; „The moon as Nature reports / Got all its [the moon’s] light from the sun / We experience all the gifts of light / By Jesus Christ from above.”

[14]Michael Maier, Chymisches Cabinet/ Drer grossen Geheimnussen der Natur/ Durch wohl ersonnene sinnreiche Kupfferstiche und Emblemata […]: Der Chymischen Republic Und Dero Liebhabern/ Zur Speculation, Betracht- und Unersuchung aus wohlmeinender Veneration und Liebe zum zweyten mahl in der Lateinischen Sprach ausgefertiget/ vor jetzo aber zum ersten Mahl in das Hochteutsche übersetzet ist […] (Frankfurt: Oehrling, 1708), 124.

[15]H.M.E. de Jong, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens. Sources of an alchemical book of emblemds (Leiden: Brill, 1966; Janus, Suppléments, vol. 8), 266 et seq.

[16]Michael Maier, Chymisches Cabinet, ibid.

[17] H. M. E. de Jong, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, 266 et seq.

[18]Michael Maier, Chymisches Cabinet, 125.

[19] Cf. ibid., 52.

[20] Ibid., S. 66.

[21] Cf. ibid., 67.

[22] Ibid., 8.

[23] Ernst Robert Curtius, Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter. 2., durchgesehen Aufl. (Bern: Francke, 1954), 522 et seq.

[24] Heirnich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, De nobilitate te praecellentia foeminei sexus. Von Adel und Vorrang des weiblichen Geschlechts. Lateinischer Text und deutsche Übersetzung in Prosa, Einleitung und Anmerkungen von Otto Schönberger (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 1997).

[25] Cf. ibid., 18.

[26] Cf. ibid., 23.

[27] Cf. ibid., 35.

[28] Cf. ibid., 37.

[29] Cf. ibid., 47.

[30] Cf. ibid., 63.

[31] Cf. ibid., 74.

[32] Cf. ibid., 87.

[33] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Abigail; das ist, Des lob-würdigen Frauen-Zimmers Adel und Forträfligkeit; for mer dan hundert Jahren von Heinrich Kornel Agrippen latinisch beschriben […]. ([Lübeck:] Schernwebel; Jäger, 1650), 204.