Artists, Field Notes, Painting, Plants

Mushrooms in Paradise

The Paradise in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is an astonishing example of a subgenre of mannerist landscape painting pioneered by Roelant Savery in the early seventeenth century.

Lucas Vanhevel
Roelant Savery, Das Paradies © Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Fotograf/in: Jörg P. Anders

The Paradise in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is an astonishing example of a subgenre of mannerist landscape painting pioneered by Roelant Savery in the early seventeenth century. Depicting the prelapsarian paradise – original sin unfolding in the central background – the painting is positively teeming with life, providing a scopophilic feast of biodiversity.

It is signed and dated by Savery in 1626, and we know it was a wedding present to princess Amalia of Solms-Braunfels (1602-1675).  However, the genre, of which the Gemäldegalerie also posesses one of the earliest known examples (cat. 717A), originated during Savery’s stay in Prague, at the court of holy Roman emperor Rudolf II, whose catholic tastes for collecting naturalia and aritificialia were truly insatiable and whose collections thus provided the artist with ample study material. Especially remarkable to today’s viewers is the painting’s inclusion (in the bottom right) of a dodo, a species of flightless bird now extinct, imported by Dutch sailors at the end of the sixteenth century. From surviving inventories we know the emperor possessed a stuffed and perhaps also a living specimen.

Perhaps equally remarkable however, on the other side, (the bottom left) of the painting, is the inclusion of a cluster of mushrooms, just beneath the snout of the bear. Mushrooms are included only very rarely in paintings of this period, and only one other example of mushrooms in Paradise before it, is known. The Bible makes not a single reference to mushrooms, nor do the Apocrypha’s, the legends or even the writings of the early church fathers. In the story of Genesis one could even read an explicit exclusion of mushrooms when God is said to create only seed-bearing plants.

Transgressing this rule of bearing seeds mushrooms were indeed often considered abominations of nature. Their sudden appearance and decay, their association with poison and their apparent lack of structure made them especially suspicious. Were they part of Gods plan, or perhaps of Gods punishment, mentioned in in Genesis 3:18, along with the thorns and thistles?

Roelant’s The Paradise, however, seems optimistically to welcome mushrooms to its cornucopic display of biodiversity, as a pictorial hymn to the richness and variety of Gods creation. Like its contemporary herbals, one of the most popular genres of the early printed book, the painting departs from and expands on biblical and ancient descriptions of plants and animals. It is a silent witness of a transitory period towards a more expansive view of nature.

Today’s view of biodiversity has turned more than completely topsy turvy since Savery’s time. Biologists now consider the stars of The Paradise as little more than evolutionary afterthought. We now know that by many orders of magnitude most of the earth’s biodiversity is in fact microscopic, and that fungi easily outnumber both plants and vertebrate animals combined, in global species count.

About the author:

Lucas Vanhevel received his MA in Art History at the university of Ghent, Belgium, with a thesis on mycological illustration in the early modern Low Countries, titled "Op het Tooneel der Campernoelien: Mycologische illustratie in de Nederlanden: 1550-1700" (EN: "The theatre of mushrooms: mycological illustration in the Netherlands 1550-1700"). Lucas' work focuses primarly on fungi and mushrooms in culture-historical entanglements.