Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Published By: Mariner Books

Book Category: Non-Fiction, Nature

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Reviewed by Jamie Driggers

What possesses a European woman to pack up her life and move across the ocean to study the natural world? Did I mention that it was 1699?

Chrysalis tells the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman living in the late 1600s and early 1700s, who is fascinated by the process in which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. She cultivates them as one might cultivate roses. More, she studies them in their own habitat. But how did she do it in a time when women were subject to their men, when witch trials were the norm, and dabbling in insect life was more than suspect?

But Chrysalis is more than a biography. It is a study in entomology. What is the process from caterpillar to butterfly? And why do the chrysalises sometimes produce flies rather than butterflies? Remember this is the time of “spontaneous generation” when scientists thought frogs came from rain and meat produced flies.

Chrysalis is more than entomology. It is religious history. What made the Pietist sects split off from the Lutheran church? What was the call of the Labidists for Merian? And how did she slide by the rules of stripping off worldly trappings in order to continue to paint and study?

And still that is not all. There is her study across the ocean in Surinam. Her return. Her art. The study of microbiology with the invention of the microscope. This book is a comprehensive study of much that was going on in the world. It is fascinating and the art is beautiful. If I have any complaint, it is that the author references pieces that aren’t pictured in the book and when the pieces are pictured, there is nothing to note that. I spent a lot of time flipping to the grouped photos in an often fruitless search.

Armchair Interviews says: This is an overall fascinating book that could be improved by better referencing and picturing of the art.

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