Towards Scientific Illustration

Faculty of “Artes Liberales” University of Warsaw

By Polish History Museum

De materia medica by DioscuridesPolish History Museum

Dioskurides, De materia medica.

The tradition of decorating herbaria—the process of adding artwork to publications containing descriptions of plants and advice on how to use them for medical purposes—dates back to antiquity.

Scientific botanical illustration is believed to have been invented by the Greek naturalist Crateuas (ca. 120—60 BC), who was the author of the Rhizotomikon, a treatise about medicinal plants supplemented by a volume of artistic representations which had been modelled on nature.

Crateuas’ realistic drawings made it possible to identify individual species. Sadly, these drawings have not been passed down to us, although some of them inspired the illustrations found in the herbarium by Dioscorides , an ancient pharmacist, and dated to ca. 512.

Herbarium vivum plantarum... (1695/1705) by Georg Andreas HelwingPolish History Museum

Collections of dried plants

Modern herbaria were compilations of dried specimens of real plants. The early collections of Italian botanists were bound in thick, book-like volumes and referred to as winter gardens, dry gardens (hortus hiemali, hortus siccus) or living herbaria (herbarium vivum).

De Historia stirpium commentarii insignes... (1542) by Leonhart FuchsPolish History Museum

The beginnings of scientific illustration

Such dry gardens were gradually replaced by collections of drawings compiled into herbaria. The artists strived to depict plants as realistically as possible. Since it was believed that illustrations replaced real specimens, such collections were known as paper museums.

Scientific illustration combined science and art. As early as the Renaissance illustrations were modelled on live or freshly picked plants, and the practice of copying drawings from previous manuscripts was abandoned.

With the advent of printing, illuminations were ousted by woodcuts displaying varying degrees of fidelity to nature. Ready-made drawings were engraved in wood and could then be used to print multiple copies.

On Herbs and their Potency (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

Coloring illustrations

The herbaria that were published in Poland were also decorated with numerous woodcuts. Following the example of foreign editions, some printed copies were later coloured, which might have made them more attractive for potential buyers.

On Herbs and their Potency (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

The addition of colour also made it easier to identify different specimens. In the dissertation De colore by the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, colour was treated almost as a research tool, applied to indicate distinctive features of individual species.

Syreniusz Herbarium (1613) by Szymon SyreniuszPolish History Museum

Simon Syrenius’ Herbal

Botanical investigations carried out during the Renaissance in Poland were summed up by Simon Syrenius’ herbarium, published after his death in 1613 thanks to the efforts and money of Anna Vasa, sister of Sigismund III, who also had an interest in botany and pharmacy.

Syreniusz Herbarium (1613) by Szymon SyreniuszPolish History Museum

The collection of works was essentially a natural encyclopaedia of plants, animals and minerals. In total, only five books on botany and medicines that can be obtained from plants were published. In conducting his research, Syrenius was inspired by the work of Dioscorides.

Syreniusz Herbarium (1613) by Szymon SyreniuszPolish History Museum

Syrenius’ book contains descriptions of 765 predominantly medicinal plants as well as their potential application in households, and in spite of the scientific language, its purpose was practical. Almost every species mentioned is accompanied by an illustration.

The woodcuts were made with great attention to detail. Most of them depict an entire plant in bloom, together with the root, seeds or fruit. The illustrations were intended to convey a true image of the elements that helped identify the illustrated species.

Syreniusz Herbarium (1613) by Szymon SyreniuszPolish History Museum

More and more detailed illustrations

The first microscopes were built during the Renaissance. Initially, they could only magnify objects by several dozen times. However, this was enough to take a closer look at plant tissues and render their variety in scientific illustrations, as evidenced by Syrenius’ work.

Syreniusz Herbarium (1613) by Szymon SyreniuszPolish History Museum

The new instruments brought about a major change in scientific illustrations—naturalistic depictions were replaced by more selective and abstract images. Illustrators started highlighting species-specific features, reflecting a new approach to systematising knowledge.

Credits: Story

Text by Aleksandra Jakóbczyk-Gola, Katarzyna Krzak-Weiss, Tomasz Kandziora


Project financed by the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw

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