Nature as Truth

Harley 4425, f. 140, Guillaume de Lorris/ Jean de Meun, Nature forging a Baby, Roman de la Rose, c. 1490–1500, Illumination, London, British Library

The title of Lady Arundel’s natural philosophy collection could hardly be more gory: Natura Exenterata. The title evokes a personified nature that is hunted down to be gutted and thus exposed to the core. The merciless reference to the violent exploration of nature appears disrespectful at first glance. Natura, who was interpreted as a goddess in her own right in the Middle Ages, plays a key role in the discussion about the disenchantment of the world and a scientific approach to the environment. Ernst Robert Curtius’ remarks in his key work European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948) have become canonical for intellectual history. Most recently, William Newman made an important contribution to new attitudes towards natural processes with Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (2004).

From Bernardus de Silvestris and Alain de Lille to Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, the multi-layered figure of Natura stands for the divine power of procreation and, as mater generationis, becomes the origin of all life processes (Mechthild Modersohn, Natura als Göttin im Mittelalter 1997; Andrea Goesch, Diana Ephesia: Ikonographische Studien zur Allegorie der Natur in der Kunst vom 16.–19. Jahrhundert 1995; Wolfgang Kemp, Natura: Ikonographische Studien zur Geschichte und Verbreitung einer Allegorie 1973).

Natura also appears in the form of goddesses such as Venus and Diana, a mythologization in which she simultaneously represents object and subject, the hunter and the hunted, the giver and the recipient. After the majestic, divine and untouchable nature, a second, altered image of nature as a wet nurse, milk flowing from her bare breasts, gained influence in the 16th century. From an omnipotent ordering principle, Natura changed in the course of the early modern period into an exposed and vulnerable, yet nourishing, ever-accessible hyper mother (Katherine Park, Nature in Person: Medieval and Renaissance Allegories and Emblems 2004).

The now naked nature resembled the personification of truth, also often presented as naked, Aletheia. The iconographic approximation of nature and truth allows conclusions about changes in position in the ongoing intense examination of natural processes.

Inc. Pal. 1158, fol. 15, Frontispiece of Plinius, Naturalis Historia Libro Secondo, 1492, Illumination, Parma, Biblioteca Palatina

As an object that had to be examined and dissected, and whose mode of operation had to be deciphered, the nature of truth came to resemble something to be revealed. Carolyn Merchant argues that Francis Bacon used metaphors of submission, torture and rape in his writings to mark the natural philosophers’ new relationship to Natura. Her influential study The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980) sparked numerous reactions. Katharine Park undertook a historical classification with Women, Gender, and Utopia: The Death of Nature and the Historiography of Early Modern Science, and Carolyn Merchant herself reflected on the impact of her observations in The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature in 2006.

The femininity and thus passivity of nature became a determining aspect in her conceptualization. After emphasizing the generative power in the Middle Ages, which was not represented as birth and thus a physiological process, but as craftsmanship, as forging, carving or embossing, the focus was now on nature as a helpless bodily object of investigation.

Robert Fludd, Integrae Naturae, Etching in Utriusque Cosmi Maioris, Oppenheim 1617

Ripa’s Iconologia shows Natura, in addition to her milk-shooting breasts with a vulture, the most negatively connoted bird known for feasting on the flesh of dead animals. Ripa justifies his choice of this particular bird of prey for the characterization of nature with the relationship between active form and matter, which he, however, does not interpret as passive. The vulture symbolizes matter and its desire for the form that is the cause of all transience:
“L’attivo si nota con le mammelle piene di latte, perché la forma è quella, che nutrisce, & sostenta tutte le cose create [.. .] L’avoltore uccello avidissimo di preda, dimostra particolarmente l’altro principio dimandato materia, la quale per l’appetito della forma movendosi, & alterandosi, strugge a poco a poco tutte le cose corruttibili ”(Cesare Ripa, Novissima Iconologia 1630).

The relationship appears to be mutually dependent and dialectically. The description is reminiscent of Rubens ’portrait of Lady Arundel, who he conspicuously chose to depict with a bird of prey.

Cesare Ripa, Natura in Novissima Iconologia, Etching, Padua 1630

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