Art and Architecture, History and Philosophy of Science, Nature

Brighten Your Winter Day with Images from “Botanical Icons”

In his new book, Botanical Icons: Critical Practices of Illustration in the Premodern Mediterranean, Andrew Griebeler traces the history of botanical illustration in the Mediterranean from antiquity to the early modern period. By examining Greek, Latin, and Arabic botanical inquiry in this early era, Griebeler shows how diverse and sophisticated modes of plant depiction emerged and ultimately gave rise to practices now recognized as central to modern botanical illustration. He reveals that many of the critical practices characteristic of modern botanical illustrations began in premodern manuscript culture.

 The images below, which appear in this lavishly illustrated book, offer a look at the evolving ways that plants were portrayed throughout the premodern Mediterranean, as well as the rich documentation Griebeler draws together.

The ancient pharmacologist Dioscorides and the “Discovery” (heuresis) of the mandrake root from the earliest (mostly) complete illustrated book on medical botany. Vienna Dioscorides, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. med. Gr. 1, fol. 4v, sixth century CE. Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Fragment f of the Tebtunis Roll, a piece of the earliest surviving fragment of an illustrated book on medical botany. University of California, Berkeley, Tebtunis Center, P. Tebt. II 679, second century CE. Courtesy of Tebtunis Center, Berkeley.

Illustration of a comfrey on a fragment of the Antinoopolis Codex, the “Johnson Papyrus,” recto/Side A. London, Wellcome Collection, MS 5753, fifth century CE. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Illustration of a blackberry showing many parts of the plant at varying stages of development. Vienna Dioscorides, fol. 83r. Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Illustration of a “mouse ear” plant, and an unknown plant, possibly dock, labeled as “woad.” The figure beside the “mouse ear” plant illustrates its medical use. Old Paris Dioscorides, fol. 5r. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Illustrations of fruit trees with Greek marginalia in a copy of al-Nātilī’s rectification of Iṣṭifan’s Arabic translation of Dioscorides. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Or. 289, colophon dated 1038, fols. 46v–47r. Courtesy of Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden.

Illustration of ṭragos and oat. The original meaning of tragos as a spelt product was lost, so later illustrators assumed it to be a grain. The Greek name comes from the word for a billy goat, hence the illustration of a plant with goat heads. Some illustrated Arabic herbals retain this error in transmission. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS ar. 4947 (the “Parchment Arabic Dioscorides”), twelfth century, fol. 23v. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Illustration of a lupine. Vienna Dioscorides, fol. 135r. Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

A depiction of Spanish broom from the sixth-century Vienna Dioscorides alongside a fourteenth-century sketch of the plant with additional details including flowers and seedpods. Vienna Dioscorides, fols. 327v–28r. Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

A violet (viola purpurea) with later additions from Leonhart Fuchs, De historia stirpium (Basel: Isingrin, 1542), p. 311. Scholars and physicians continued to modify illustrations in later printed herbals, thus following earlier patterns of use. University of Minnesota Libraries, Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, Folio 580.01 F95.

Botanical Icons by Andrew Griebeler is available from our website or your favorite bookseller.