- Reading the Book of Nature in the Dutch Golden Age, 1575–1715
Anyone familiar with the art of the Dutch Golden Age will detect a certain fascination with nature. But what was the motivation for and meaning of all those detailed renderings of landscape, flora, and fauna in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, prints, and drawings? Was it, as Svetlana Alpers argued in her book The Art of Describing, the expression of a naturalistic (and secular) mapping impulse? Or was there something more theologically and symbolically weighty going on? The subject of Jorink’s learned and engaging book is not so much the art of the period (although this plays a supporting role), but rather the more general and religiously charged interest in nature in early modern Dutch intellectual culture. Taking his cue from Constantijn Huygens’s pride in his country house and garden, Jorink concentrates on the different ways in which Dutch philosophers, theologians, and scientists regarded nature, and especially the transformation over the course of the century in ways of looking at nature as a guide to knowledge of its creator; in essence, as God’s “second book.”
Already by the seventeenth century, the notion of the “Book of Nature” (libera naturae) is, Jorink shows, “time-hallowed.” But that does not mean that it was a static and unchanging concept. In fact, Jorink argues (by marshaling a great deal of textual, historical, and artistic evidence), it was a sufficiently “vague” and flexible notion that, from the mid-sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century, underwent significant and controversial development.
To speak of the “Book of Nature” is, in the first instance, to treat nature as a kind of text, a coherent and authored whole that is amenable to, and even calls for, interpretation. Jorink contrasts this with the Cartesian mechanistic view of the world, which he claims treats nature as an autonomous, law-governed, but divinely (and teleologically) empty system of matter in motion and in which the events of nature are causally explained, not interpreted. For the “Book of Nature” tradition, the truths of nature are discovered by reading nature as a text (often in the light of other, printed texts). For Cartesians, they are discovered by reason and experiment. [End Page 124]
Jorink insists that too much attention has been paid to the latter and not enough to the former. He argues that the study of Dutch philosophical and scientific culture has been devoted primarily to the growing divide between science and religion, with the emphasis on the “mechanization of the world picture,” the scientific revolution, and the “radical Enlightenment.” Jorink’s goal is to highlight the other side of things, where natural philosophy (natural science) and theology are not so far apart, and where the proper interpretation of nature leads one to recognize the glory of God. Jorink shows that this was not simply a matter of laying out a good old-fashioned design argument for God’s existence. Rather, nature afforded clear, wondrous, and informative testimony to God’s attributes and providential care. As one author, writing in 1676, puts it, “God is visible everywhere, and . . . all the wonders that the eye sees proclaim his honor.” And it was not just nature writ large that afforded such testimony. “These magnifying glasses,” this same author says of the recently invented microscope, revealed God’s handiwork in its hitherto invisible details. As Jorink puts it, for such thinkers “nature is not primarily the field of natural philosophers and engineers, but the starting point for religious meditation. Nature is a book and as such . . . the object of exegesis” (21).
Of course, there was another text that was even more important than nature: the Bible. But rather than seeing the Bible as drawing attention away from nature, early modern Dutch thinkers used Scripture as the basis for “reading” nature. The two books of God thereby work together, each to illuminate the other (although there was no symmetry here...