“It is indeed true,” wrote Albrecht Dürer, “that art is omnipresent in nature, and the true artist is he who can bring it out.” The Stag Beetle is one of Dürer’s most influential and most copied nature studies.
Georg Hoefnagel appropriate the Stag Beetle on not fewer than three occasions. Archetype studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii shows close-up portraits of plants, insects, and small animals. It initiated at the time of its publishing in 1592 (Frankfurt) an immediate admiration of the art and nature lovers. The designs were created by Georg Hoefnagel and engraved by his son, Jacob who was said to be 17-years old at the time of the publishing (in reality he was 19-years old).
Singling out a beetle as the focal point of a work of art was unprecedented in 1505, when most of Dürer’s contemporaries believed that insects were the lowest of creatures. Dürer’s keen interest in nature, however, was a typical manifestation of the Renaissance. This beetle, rendered with such care and respect, seems almost heroic as he looms above the page.
Seen up close, the creature’s legs and spiky mandibles suggest its kinship to imaginary beasts in late Gothic depictions of Hell or the temptation of Saint Anthony Abbott.
Landscape with the Virgin and child seated at centre, several animals in foreground (e.g. dog, beetle, slug, butterfly, dragonfly, fox on a leash, frog, owl in tree trunk, spider crab), an angel addressing a group of shepherds in background at right, a bay with a city in background at left
In antiquity, insects had been included in trompe l’oeil and memento mori paintings to demonstrate technical virtuosity and as symbols of evil and death, while butterflies represented transformation and resurrection. Insects in themselves were considered unworthy of consideration as subjects for painting.
By the 17th century, the obsession with natural history —and with insects as a miraculous part of the natural world— took precedence, and symbolism was left behind. Insects became subjects of study and fascination. Dürer, as always, ahead of his time, brings his masterful draughtsmanship to his watercolor, of a beetle—which he considered a finished work of art, not a study. Durer’s realistic rendering of this humble bug is a tribute to the minutest in nature, that which is often overlooked or summarily destroyed, its importance lost to ignorance or neglect.