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Coins, Insects, Birds

Natural and Ancient History in the Art of Wilhelm Stettler

English Abstract

A Stock of Inventions 

When the Swiss draughtsman and painter Wilhelm Stettler (1643–1708) found himself without employment after returning from Strasbourg and Augsburg to his hometown of Bern in 1668, he began to build up a stock of figural inventions for future use in history works. Stettler referred to this moment of forced idleness in his autobiography written toward the end of his life, stating that the Bern antiquarian Andreas Morell’s “ancient medals and books of medals” had been particularly helpful for this endeavour and that he took from their illustrations of coins “the clothing of the ancient Greeks and Romans, their offensive and defensive weapons, household goods and siege engines, musical instruments, amphitheatres, ships, altars, temples, and offerings”.1 Andreas Morell (1646–1703), Stettler’s junior by three years and like him born in Bern, was one of the most renowned experts in ancient coins of the time. He not only employed Stettler as a draughtsman for the illustrations of his own numismatic works, but also recommended him to his friend and equally prolific fellow numismatist Charles Patin (1633–1693), who after an adventurous flight from the police in Louis XIV’s Paris in 1668 and subsequent travels throughout Germany and Austria had arrived in Basel in 1673.2 This short essay positions Stettler’s art within the expanding community of lovers of ancient coins and the epistemic virtues of accuracy and “truth to nature” (ad vivum) in representation that accompanied a new interest in collecting for enhancing visual expertise. This interest, as will be shown, extended to the worlds of both antiquity and natural history that complemented and permeated each other in many ways. 

Fig. 1: Wilhelm Stettler, “Eyerstock”: Bee-eater and great green bush-cricket on a ground patterned with motifs from Roman coins. Pen and ink, watercolour and body colour on paper, ca. 16 x 10.5 cm. Burgerbibliothek Bern, FA Stettler 25.

Stettler’s stock of figures, including “quadruped animals, birds, flowers” and humans, as he described them, were later bound into a volume by the art critic and dealer Sigmund Wagner (1759–1835) and donated to the Burgerbibliothek Bern where it can still be seen (FA Stettler 25).3 Interestingly, Wagner claimed that Stettler called this stock of figures an “Eyerstock” (ovary), like the egg-producing female organs, the central role of which in reproduction was first confirmed by William Harvey (1578–1657) and later by Reinier de Graaf (1641–1673). By the 1660s, the “ovist” theory was widely accepted and, as a consequence, the female organs originally known as female testicles were renamed ovaries.4 Stettler’s “Eyerstock” thus designated the place where new pictorial ideas were generated.

Among the fifty-four sheets of paper, drawn with pen over pencil or red chalk and washed or painted with watercolour or body colour, one contains a particularly inventive iconography combining the imagery of Roman coins with the depiction of an exotic bird and a local insect, more specifically, a newly killed bee-eater (merops apiaster), a colourful bird species found mostly in warm southern climes, and a great green bush-cricket (tettigonia viridissima) of the kind on which the bird liked to feed. 

This curious painting on paper linking the study of antiquity and the observation of nature is a composition in its own right rather than a collection of figures and motifs from which other pictures could be composed. But before returning to it in more detail a few words need to be said about Stettler and his preoccupation with coins and medals. 

“A Perfect Mint Master on Paper”

Delighting already at a young age in doodling and drawing, Stettler was apprenticed to the painter and etcher Conrad Meyer (1618–1689) in Zurich and then continued his education with the painter and miniaturist Joseph Werner (1637–1710) whom he accompanied to the French court in 1662. In the course of his subsequent travels which also took him to Lyon, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and, in the company of Patin, to Milan, Piacenza, Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua, Stettler not only met with fellow artists and craftsmen and saw public artworks and monuments as well as many private collections, but he also acquired a sizeable collection of about 350 books. A skilled draughtsman, curious collector, and avid reader, Stettler belonged to the growing group of artists specializing in graphic techniques, who, although responsible for the greatest share of the artistic production of their time, were nevertheless accorded only a marginal position within the then emerging canon of the visual arts. Exercising his skills in drawing, Stettler focused on illustrations of biblical and historical treatises, fables, collections of emblems as well as catalogues of coins and medals; however, it is in the last-mentioned genre that he created a niche for himself in the increasingly competitive world of the art market. Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688), in the second volume of the Teutsche Academie (The German Academy) of 1679, extolled Stettler as the most “perfect mint master on paper”. No one else could render them “as consummately and accurately” with the necessary convexity and precision.5 Indeed, as Stettler repeatedly mentions in his autobiography, he drew several thousand coins for both Morell and Patin that were then etched and printed to illustrate their books.

At a time when long-distance trade and financial speculation relied largely on paper instruments such as bills of exchange, it is perhaps no coincidence that ancient coins and medals should have exerted such a fascination on men and women with an antiquarian turn of mind. While the increasingly complex and unpredictable financial transfers played on people’s hopes for economic success, ancient coins which no longer functioned as currency but circulated as collectors’ items promised to provide tangible links to the rich history and moral values of the past. Patin, in his widely read treatise Introduction à l’histoire, par la connoissance des medailles (Introduction to History by the Knowledge of Medals), first published in Paris in 1665 and then reprinted in numerous editions, viewed coins and medals as “the most trustworthy testimonies” of the past. Citing Cicero’s famous dictum, he defined history as “the messenger of antiquity and the teacher of life, acquainting us with the rules that should form our moral philosophy”.6 For Patin, knowledge of coins and medals was equal in value to that of books, ancient statues and architecture, and the collecting of these items far superior to the pursuit of other curiosities like paintings, precious stones, shells, fish, stuffed birds, Chinese porcelain, and works from Japan.7 Patin wrote his Introduction while still in Paris with the explicit aim of “appealing to the taste” of those “curieux” or enthusiasts who did not have the time or linguistic skills to read a learned and dreary treatise in Latin, Italian or Spanish.8 At the French court of Louis XIV, “goût”, denoting social and aesthetic refinement, came to be established as a norm for conduct.

Fig. 2: Andreas Morellius: Specimen universae rei nummariae antiquae. Paris 1983, p. 77, Tabula XI. Bern, Universitätsbibliothek, MUE Rar alt 6248.

Morell, in his Specimen universae rei nummariae antiquae (Sample of the Whole Ancient Art Related to Coins) of 1683, stated that men and women with a “more delicate palate” or “taste, as it is called, for antiquity” were frequently not satisfied by the quality of the illustrations in numismatic works.9 For that reason he had drawn a large proportion of the coins pictured himself, but left the engravings to specialists since his own attempts in that art would not match the elegance of his drawings. 

Morell was expressing a view that was of central importance for the exchange of knowledge among antiquarians and, in fact, natural historians and other experts in natural and artificial things: in order to make critical examination possible, the coins shown on paper had to reproduce the central features of their three-dimensional minted prototypes. The increase in illustrated numismatic works thus created a new demand for draughtsmen that valued diligence and accuracy over novelty and invention. And that’s exactly where Stettler saw his chance.

The Art of Accuracy 

Stettler was fascinated by the perfect anatomy and the striking green colour of the female bush cricket with its long wings and equally long ovipositor. On the same sheet he made two other colour sketches and several line drawings of it, thus, at least indirectly, reframing coins as documents of natural history.

Let us now return to Stettler’s unique rendering of a bee-eater and a bush cricket against an ornamental background of line drawings in black ink. Even if it is not possible to point to any specific originals for these images, the temples, theatres, stadiums, triumphal arches, arms and armour, chariots and helmeted women all derive from the classical imagery of Roman coins, which Stettler himself describes as having inspired him. Along with the items from Roman civilization there are also birds, insects, snails, and mythical creatures that likewise frequently appeared on coins. However, here the images float freely, combining to form new patterns and create an associative field for the combat between bird and insect depicted in the foreground. Both the bird and the insect are depicted with great precision (ad vivum) and life size. Stettler was fascinated by the perfect anatomy and the striking green colour of the female bush cricket with its long wings and equally long ovipositor. On the same sheet he made two other colour sketches and several line drawings of it, thus, at least indirectly, reframing coins as documents of natural history. The newly killed bird, hung up by a thread from its long, curved beak has been turned to one side, revealing its bluey-green underside as well as the pale tones of its back, which range from reddish-brown to brownish-grey, and the greenish wings, typical of young birds. It is presented in a similar way to Albrecht Dürer’s much copied dead blue roller (coracias garrulus) and to the still life paintings with birds being produced at almost exactly the same time by Albrecht Kauw (1616–1681), also working in Bern, but whose output did not include a bee-eater.10

For most of the seventeenth century bee-eaters were only occasional visitors to northern European countries and depictions of these beautiful birds with their brilliantly coloured plumage are therefore rare. However, Stettler’s painting on paper was not the first depiction of a bee-eater in Bern. In 1644 several of these colourful birds were seen and shot near Kaiserstuhl in the Bernese-ruled part of Aargau. One of these dead birds came into the possession of the ornithological enthusiast Jakob Graviseth (1598–1658), the proprietor of Schloss Liebegg, who had it depicted for his bird book, identifying it on the page as “merops”, “guespier” and “Imbenstecher” (bee-eater) and further commenting that the bird was seen and shot in the autumn of 1644 near Kaiserstuhl in the county of Baden and that it had been flying together with other members of its species.11 

Fig. 3: Bee-eater. Watercolour and body colour on paper, ca. 31 x 18 cm, in: Vogelbuch der Familie Graviseth. Burgerbibliothek Bern, Mss.h.h.XV.49, p. 139.

Indeed, even during the Little Ice Age, bee-eaters occasionally appeared in areas north of the Alps in the seventeenth century; a brief warm spike and the consequent increase in the number of insects available may have favoured the migration of this bird species that had previously been almost unknown in the north.12

Fig. 4: Merops. Woodcut, in: Pierre Belon: L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris 1555, p. 225.

Stettler may have been familiar with the Graviseth family’s illustrated book on birds, but it is clear that he drew his bee-eater from life rather than from another image. Stettler’s books on natural history included copies of Pierre Belon’s L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux (The Natural History of Birds, first published in 1555) and Conrad Gessner’s Thierbuch (Book of Beasts, first published in German in 1563), which may very possibly have been bound together with Gessner’s Vogelbuch (Book of Birds, first published in 1557). Both Belon and Gessner described the bird as native of Crete, boasting a plumage as splendid as that of a parrot noting that it not only ate bees, but also other insects such as crickets, flies, and mosquitoes.13 However, Stettler’s skilfully painted likeness of the bee-eater is far removed from the rather crude woodcuts published in both Belon’s and Gessner’s treatises, which do not show the bird’s most striking feature, namely its brilliantly coloured plumage. Moreover, rather than showing the bee-eater in isolation he placed the rarely seen small bird next to one of the biggest insects, which may have well served as its prey.

Roman coins and natural specimens represented two different kinds of “objects of virtue”, one created by artisans endowed with particular metallurgical and technological knowledge, the other produced by Nature – the most consummate artist – with the utmost skill.

Like the study of ancient coins and medals, the collecting of smaller items of natural history such as insects, birds, shells, and flowers was shared by many wealthy educated men and women.14 Coins, insects, and shells were all available in large quantities but were nonetheless valued for their beauty and the knowledge they conveyed. Roman coins and natural specimens represented two different kinds of “objects of virtue”,15 one created by artisans endowed with particular metallurgical and technological knowledge, the other produced by Nature – the most consummate artist – with the utmost skill. Like many of his fellow draughtsmen, Stettler understood that these new collecting fashions required specific modes of drawing. Artistry had to be combined with consummate accuracy and attention to detail to translate these small items into drawn, painted, or printed images. Stettler’s composition reflects the many intersections between the natural and the antiquarian worlds, and assertively foregrounds the central role of his own art in imparting the uniqueness and variety of things foreign and local, recent and remote in time.16

Empfohlene Zitierweise/Suggested citation: Christine Göttler: Coins, Insects, Birds: Natural and Ancient History in the Art of Wilhelm Stettler. In: Tina Asmussen, Eva Brugger, Maike Christadler, Anja Rathmann-Lutz, Anna Reimann, Carla Roth, Sarah-Maria Schober, Ina Serif (eds.): Materialized Histories. Eine Festschrift 2.0, 07/10/2021, https://mhistories.hypotheses.org/?p=4939.


In the course of the seventeenth century, large numbers of educated men and women developed a new taste for coins, shells, insects, birds, and flowers whether as material specimens, items to be displayed in their collections or as images and illustrations making it possible to identify and compare them. This essay introduces a little-known drawing by the relatively obscure Bernese painter Wilhelm Stettler that reflects the intersection between the natural and artificial worlds and the role of pictures in exercising judgement of the eye and mind. It will be argued that the growing interest in these numerous, but nonetheless wondrous, small items went hand in hand with the emergence of a new ethos of artistic representation that valued accuracy and precision above originality and invention. It is a pleasure to dedicate this essay to Susanna, herself an expert in the world of wondrous things and the ways in which men and women wove stories and created images around them that have affected societies throughout history right up to today.

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  1. Johann Caspar Füssli: Geschichte und Abbildung der besten Mahler in der Schweitz, vol. 2. Zurich 1756, p. 175. The original of Stettler’s autobiographical account is no longer extant. It was not published until the Zurich painter and writer Füssli (1707–1782) included it in his biographies of the “best painters in Switzerland”. []
  2. On Morell: Martin Mulsow: Das numismatische Selbst. Epistemische Tugenden eines Münzzeichners, in: Andreas Gelhard, Ruben Hackler, Sandro Zanetti (eds.): Epistemische Tugenden. Zur Geschichte und Gegenwart eines Konzepts. Tübingen 2019, pp. 101–119. On Patin: Robert Felfe: “… der Vernunft Augen und den Augen Vernunft geben”. Charles Patin (1633–1693) – Physiognomie eines reisenden Curieux, in: Ulrike Feist, Markus Rath (eds.): Et in imagine ego. Facetten von Bildakt und Verkörperung: Festgabe für Horst Bredekamp. Berlin 2012, pp. 325–346. []
  3. Georges Herzog, Elisabeth Ryter, Johanna Strübin Rindisbacher (eds.): Im Schatten des Goldenen Zeitalters: Künstler und Auftraggeber im bernischen 17. Jahrhundert, vol. 1. Bern 1995, pp. 202–203, cat. 167 (Marie-Therese Bätschmann). []
  4. Gianna Pomata: Vollkommen oder verdorben? Der männliche Samen im frühneuzeitlichen Europa, in: L’Homme 6 (1995), pp. 59–85. []
  5. Joachim von Sandrart: Teutsche Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künste, Nürnberg 1675–1680, vol. 2, book 2, p. 83. Scholarly annotated online edition, ed. by Thomas Kirchner, Anna Schreurs, Thomas Wübbena, 2008–2012, http://ta.sandrart.net/-text-975 [08.09.21]. []
  6. Charles Patin: Introduction à l’histoire, par la connoissance des Medailles. Paris: Jean de Bray, 1665, pp. 13–14. []
  7. Ibid., pp. 9–10. []
  8. Ibid., fol. a4r. []
  9. Andreas Morell: Specimen universae rei nummariae antiquae. Paris 1683, pp. 16–17. []
  10. Peter Lüps, Georges Herzog: Die Vogelwelt auf den Stillleben Albrecht Kauws (1616–1681): Eine Quelle für die Faunistik?, in: Der Ornithologische Beobachter 99 (2002), pp. 161–186. On the many copies of Dürer’s dead blue roller: Klaus Albrecht Schröder, Maria Luise Sternath (eds.): Albrecht Dürer, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna. Ostfieldern-Ruit 2003, pp. 272–275, cat. 723 (Heinz Widauer). []
  11. Georges Herzog: Die Vogelbilder aus kunsthistorischer Sicht, in: Burgerbibliothek Bern (ed.): Die Vögel der Familie Graviseth. Ein ornithologisches Bilderbuch aus dem 17. Jahrhundert. Bern 2010, p. 101. []
  12. Ragnar Kinzelbach, Bernd Nicolai und Rolf Schlenker: Der Bienenfresser Merops apiaster als Klimazeiger: Zum Einflug in Bayern, der Schweiz und Baden im Jahr 1644, in: Journal für Ornithologie 138 (1997), pp. 297–308. []
  13. Pierre Belon: L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris 1555, p. 225; Conrad Gessner: Vogelbuch. Zürich 1557, fol. 151r–v. []
  14. Janice Neri: The Insect and the Image. Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700. Minneapolis, MN 2011; Marisa Anne Bass: Insect Artifice. Nature and Art in the Dutch Revolt. Princeton 2019. []
  15. See Luke Syson, Dora Thorton: Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy. Los Angeles 2001. []
  16. The author wishes to thank Paul Smith and Florike Egmond for kindly sharing their knowledge about this work on paper by Stettler. For more on the virtues and values of Stettler’s art: Christine Göttler: Zwei Berner Maler versuchen ihr Glück. Joseph Werner, Wilhelm Stettler und die Kunst der kleinen Form. In: Urte Krass, Annette Kranen, Nina Zimmer (eds.): Der Weg zum Glück. Die Berner Kebes-Tafel und die Bilderwelten des Barock. Exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Bern. Bern 2021, pp. 165–187, https://doi.org/10.36950/kat-wzg-2021 [08.09.2021]. []

Von Christine Göttler

Christine Göttler is Professor emerita of Art History at the Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Universität Bern. Her research interests concern historical aspects of early modern artists’ materials, collecting practices, the art of early modern Antwerp in its global context, and the imagery of landscapes. She has co-edited and contributed to "Materialized Identities in Early Modern Culture, 1450–1750: Objects, Affects, Effects" (ed. with Susanna Burghartz, Lucas Burkart, and Ulinka Rublack) and is currently working on a book manuscript entitled "Silver, Salt, and the Sea: Peter Paul Rubens and the Global World of Early Seventeenth-Century Antwerp".

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