Beetles, form, art

In Emerging Infectious Diseases, each issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains a short essay that connects and contextualizes the artwork of the cover to the content of the issue (for a brief but interesting discussion of cover art on scientific journals, take a look at a post by biocreativity, another blog exploring the nexus of art, biology, creativity, science, design, and nature). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the producing body of the journal, writes that the cover art is selected on the basis of “artistic quality, technical reproducibility, stylistic continuity, communication effectiveness, and audience appeal.” The cover story, on the other hand,

has evolved by popular demand, literally out of the journal readers’ wish to know the art and how it relates to them and to what they do. A sketch of the artist, period, and work, provides contextual knowledge, and a brief interpretation offers a link between the art and the human elements and goals of public health. The reader becomes familiar with the work, and in the end is surprised and, we hope, enlightened.

A rather dry description of these clips, but the author, Cyprus-born Polyxeni Potter, is rather anything but. Potter’s contextualization of the art and artists of which she writes is lyrical and informative. For a 2005 issue of EID, containing research on Staphylococcus aureus infection in football teams, bed bug infestations, Lyssavirus prevalence in Scottish bats, and other outbreaks,  Potter chose a watercolor painting of a stag beetle, most likely the Europe-dominated member of the Lucanidae family, Lucanus cervus. Of her selection of this organism, this “tribute to the minutest in nature,” Potter writes:

Other critters, not so benign or visible, are also easy to ignore, their pestiferous history relegated to the past and quickly forgotten. Blood-thirsty ticks, bed bugs, and other insects, as if caught in some Gothic time machine, continue to torment humans, still claiming their lives, if not their souls. Renewed infestations of ticks causing meningoencephalitis in Germany and of bed bugs compromising health in Canada and elsewhere warn against ignorance and neglect regarding visible or invisible tiny creatures of nature.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Stag Beetle (1505).

L. cervus, most simply known as the stag beetle, was named as such—lucanus—by Publius Nigidius Figulus, a scholar of the Late Roman Republic and friend to Cicero, due to its ornamental use in the Lucania region of Italy. The latter end of the creature’s binomial nomenclature, cervus, the direct Latin for deer, the stag. The naming is gender-biased, typical of sexual dimorphism, as the reference to the stag—which itself refers to a male red deer—is more applicable to the males of the beetle, themselves characterized by the mammal’s antlers.

Stag beetle, Pavel Krasensky (2007).

It was in Italy, home of Nigidius, the lucanus label, and the Latin for stag, writes Potter, that Albrecht Dürer, the painter responsible for the above work, was drawn. But it was in Venice to the northeast, rather than the linguistic homeland of L. cervus, that the artist found inspiration and welcome. Of Venice, Dürer reflected, “In Venice, I am treated as a nobleman…. I really am somebody, whereas at home I am just a hack.” This home was Nürnberg, Germany, where Dürer had been trained in Gothic traditions, metallurgy, and mathematics. His move to Italy brought him to the Northern Renaissance, to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, to printmaking. Like other polymaths of his day, Dürer asserted that “art must be based upon science,” and, in agreement with da Vinci, on mathematics, on geometric form, on the golden ratio.

Ratios and antlers held a special place to mathematicians and artists of the day. Named by the Greeks—Dürer held a special reverence for Aristotle—the golden ratio has been considered the proportion of length to width of a rectangle most objectively pleasing to the eye.  The golden ratio draws from the Fibonacci sequence, introduced to the West by Leonardo Fibonacci in the 1100s and utilized to solve an issue of the growth of a population of rabbits . In the Fibonacci sequence, one produces a sequence of numbers by starting with 1 and 1 and adding the two together—the product is, of course, 2. Obtaining the subsequent number involves adding the latter two integers—the result is 3. Follow the natural pattern and the integers appear as 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. The role of the golden ratio is in taking from Fibonacci’s order of numbers and dividing each pair (2 by 1, 3 by 2, 5 by 3, 8 by 5, etc.). The resulting quotients are, respectively, 2.0, 1.5, 1.67, and 1.6. Continue making these divisions, and one number will begin to hold as a constant quotient—1.618.

While the Greeks applied 1.618 to architecture, the ratio’s role expanded into other realms of the arts. While the pattern of the golden ratio in nature was codified in the 19th century by Adolf Zeising in the arrangement both of branches along the stems of plants and of veins in leaves, 15th–16th century painters such as da Vinci and Dürer experimented and played with the concept. Some found the ratio apparent in a number of spiral forms, such as petals on flowers, the shell of mollusks, the antlers of deer.

Leonardo da Vinci's polyhedra in "De Divina Proportione"

Such was the kind of “natural truth” that Dürer looked for and explored in Italy. Potter cites the artist in his Treatise on Proportion that “Life in nature makes us recognize the truth of these things, so look at it diligently, follow it, and do not turn away from nature to your own thoughts…. For, verily, art is embedded in nature; whoever can draw her out, has her.” This art–truth, a universal, was what would allow Dürer to give tribute to the minute of which Potter wrote. It would also allow the artist to make the leap from minute to large, making mathematical concept into springboard into higher form—not just the mandible–antler of the stag beetle, but also the horn of a rhinoceros, Dürer’s most well-known engraving.

Albrecht Dürer's woodcut "Rhinoceros" (1515).

To further demonstrate the confidence and truth Dürer found in mathematical form, the artist had never seen an Indian rhinoceros. Instead, the woodcut was derived solely from a written description and brief sketch that had arrived in Lisbon that year. Undoubtedly, the depiction of the animal has inaccuracies—the armor-like plates lining the torso, the gorget at the creature’s throat. But it is in the horn of the mammal, which twists ever so slightly, that perhaps we can find glimpses into the mathematical mind of Dürer. Natural laws of beautiful form bridge the shapes of rhinoceros and stag beetle, the miniscule and the rare—both are windows into a hidden world, one of unseen ties, the kind that allow one to move from Italy to modern scientific journals, from 1.618 to  Lyssavirus prevalence.


One response to “Beetles, form, art

  1. Pingback: The painted lives of ciliates and schistosomes | eukaryography

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