The Paradise by Roelant Savery (detail). The painting was given by the City of Utrecht to Princess Amalie von Solms as a wedding gift on 21 December 1626.
The Paradise by Roelant Savery (detail). The painting was given by the City of Utrecht to Princess Amalie von Solms as a wedding gift on 21 December 1626. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A teeming painting between art and science

Children love pictures teeming with animals, even in the 21st century. Roelant Savery was an expert in painting wildlife, and he used his skills to impress the Habsburg emperor over 400 years ago as well as inspiring many of his contemporaries, including Swiss artists.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

A lively Berlin primary school class in 2024 is shown The Paradise by Roelant Savery in the art gallery. The 400-year-old painting is the perfect educational tool. The children are captivated by the sight of the painting packed with animals, some even start counting them. Why don’t the animals have more space, asks a concerned girl. Even the animals at the zoo have more room. Can they find enough to eat? A boy wonders how the lion in the top-right corner can lie there so peacefully instead of attacking the waterfowl right in front of his nose. The children spot some other oddities: why are the animals so different in size? Why do some look to the right, some to the left and some straight at us? One of the children finally sees Adam and Eve with the serpent and apple tree. But why are these two central characters in the biblical account of Paradise so firmly in the background and so tiny? Maybe the artist preferred animals to people suggests one of the girls. The children’s questions are reminiscent of those posed in the past by art historians about the work by Roelant Savery (1576-1639) who found fame with his enchanting landscapes teeming with animals. Savery used stories from the Bible and mythology, for example Paradise, Noah’s Ark or Orpheus who enchanted and tamed animals, to provide a suitable context within which to indulge his love of wildlife. He even adorned his splendid flower still-lifes with numerous insects and reptiles.
Portrait of Roelant Savery, 1662.
Portrait of Roelant Savery, 1662.   Wikimedia

At the emperor’s court

However, Savery’s unconventional works were not solely a product of the painter’s personal preferences. Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) was a big fan of the artist’s depictions of wildlife. Rudolf II appointed Savery court painter at Hradčany castle in Prague. While the ruler, who was of questionable mental health, saw his temporal power steadily decline, he attracted artists and renowned scholars from all over Europe (including many Swiss) with his aesthetic sensibility and broad, in some ways, eccentric interests. Hradčany was a cultural El Dorado when he was in charge.
Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II was a great supporter of Savery’s art.
Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II was a great supporter of Savery’s art. Wikimedia
For example, besides Rudolf’s court mathematician, famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler, Kepler’s friend, Swiss mathematician Jost Bürgi also stayed at the castle. He came to the emperor’s attention as the inventor of high-precision astronomical instruments. The five gold-plated celestial globes by Jost Bürgi currently in the Swiss National Museum collection were originally acquired by Rudolf II for his room of marvels. Its contents were dispersed during the Thirty Years' War . Rudolf was also a great art collector with a particular preference for famous deceased artists, such as Titian, Correggio, Dürer and Pieter Breughel. His artistic interests also included the more eccentric exponents of Mannerism, who took the concept of shapes in the Renaissance to extremes, especially Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Bartholomäus Spranger – and Roelant Savery.

Savery and the animals

Savery was born in the Flemish city of Kortrijk (Courtrai, Belgium) and went to Prague in 1604. His early artistic leanings and interest in portraying animals stemmed from the ubiquitous tapestry factories in his hometown. Wall-sized hangings from Flanders displaying artistic designs were highly sought after for royal households and churches in those days. These tapestries also featured scenes with animals. The young Savery was familiar with them as his much older brother Jacob, who taught him how to paint, also produced tapestry designs and specialised in depicting animals. His art was initially oriented towards medieval traditions with their emblematic style. Animals were always attributed certain characteristics (the “strong lion”, the “faithful dog”), which live on in today’s animal fables. He also used early animal shapes as presented in scientific encyclopaedias, for example illustrated manuscripts of hunts. Roelant’s artistic brand became pictures teeming with animals (known as ‘Wimmelbild’ in German).
There is so much to discover in Savery’s wildlife paintings. This is Landscape with Birds of 1628.
There is so much to discover in Savery’s wildlife paintings. This is Landscape with Birds of 1628. Wikimedia
Savery also probably saw some of the animals he depicted in Rudolf’s menagerie. He almost definitely saw the dodo, the plump giant bird in the bottom-right corner of the painting. It was discovered by Dutch seafarers on the island of Mauritius in 1598. The dodo was extinct by 1690, mainly because rats from the sailors’ ships plundered the flightless birds’ nests, which were on the ground. The dodo brings us to another possible source of inspiration for Savery: the works of Flemish miniaturist and copper engraver Georg Hoefnagel (1542-1600) and his son Jacob. Georg Hoefnagel was employed as court painter by Rudolf II shortly before Savery and he put together a marvellous, four-volume picture encyclopaedia with several thousand animal portrayals. It was used as a model book for subsequent generations of artists. Jacob compiled a work with illustrations of the animals from Rudolf’s menagerie, including the dodo. The Hoefnagels’ manuscripts, along with Conrad Gessner’s animal books published between 1551 and 1587, were some of the fundamental works of the emerging natural sciences.
A dodo, detail from Savery’s painting The Paradise.
A dodo, detail from Savery’s painting The Paradise.   Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
The composition of Savery’s The Paradise was also not as unusual in its time as it may appear nowadays. This is shown by a comparison with a design for a glass window, a depiction of paradise dating from 1580 by Christoph Murer (1558-1614) of Zurich. Murer was the leading Swiss glass painter of his time and a familiar face at Hradčany castle: Rudolf II had a number of reverse glass paintings by him. Just like Savery, Murer’s paradise has many animals of all types from hare to deer to elephant, in keeping with the motto “the more, the better”. It is possible that Savery was familiar with Murer’s work.
Round draft drawing: Animals in Paradise by Christoph Murer, 1580.   Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg

Peace in paradise — a pipe dream?

Contemporaries of Savery – initially restricted to people from Rudolf’s inner circle – may well have admired his portrayal of paradise as a type of animal lexicon, just like the children in Berlin. It satisfied their desire for knowledge, gave them the rewarding role of discoverers following in the footsteps of celebrated world conquerors. Maybe they recognised a hierarchy among the animals. Maybe they interpreted the breeding bulls in the middle of the painting as a symbol of fertility or as acknowledgement of the economic significance of animal breeding and, more generally, the concept of livestock. Did the public perhaps interpret the questionable harmony in the almost surreal presentation of paradise as a pipedream, a painted utopia in a troubled world? The Habsburg monarchy was facing repeated attacks from the Turks at the time and the Reformation had divided Europe. Rudolf II had nonetheless granted religious freedom to the protestants in 1609. His successors, however, rescinded his decree leading to the Thirty Years’ War, which started as a religious conflict with the Prague defenestration of 1618 and developed into a wider conflagration. Did Savery’s contemporaries realise that he was from an Anabaptist family? In any case, they had no issue with understanding the theological aspect of his work, i.e. a morally motivated call for tolerance. Savery did not see humankind as the pinnacle of creation but as born equal to other creatures, all living together in harmony.
The Paradise by Roelant Savery: where people and animals live in harmony.
The Paradise by Roelant Savery: where people and animals live in harmony. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Nowadays, there is an unmistakeably melancholy side to Savery’s vision of animals living together in peace. The dodo is far from being the only extinct or endangered species. The dream of coexistence between people and animals has indisputably turned out to be fiction. Even the primary school children acknowledged that. We have been living in the Anthropocene for a long time, i.e. the period dominated and shaped by humankind with growing destruction of nature. Savery’s art marks a key milestone on the path towards the Anthropocene: that point before curiosity turned into exploitation.

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