Chinnor & District

Joris Hoefnagel

Joris Hoefnagel (1542-?1600) was born into a wealthy Antwerp family. He was bought up in the Calvinist religion at a time of tremendous religious upheaval across Europe. As a largely self-taught artist he began producing miniatures for illuminated manuscripts becoming the last great Flemish illuminator.

His versatility as a painter drew him to work in many mediums, using a wide range of materials from gold leaf to chalk. He produced his first landscapes in his twenties, moving on to mythological and allegorical studies, townscapes maps and cabinet miniatures. His final greatest works produced the first naturalist drawings of insects, animals and birds and paved the way for the Still Life genre.

Travelling and working around Europe throughout his life, he combined working for the family business with his own artistic endeavour, but Hoefnagel was forced repeatedly to flee from religious persecution, holding always to his Calvinist faith. Many of his works were collaborations. He worked with Georg Braun, a topo-geographer, and others to produce the Civitates orbis terrarium (1572-1618) – a six-volume town atlas, and his friendship with the pioneering Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius inspired his interest in botanical illustrations. These he used to add fauna and flora both real and imaginary to the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta produced some 30 years earlier by Georg Bocskay, secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinade I.

During the last decades of his life he embarked on his greatest work, The Four Elements. Having been lost for two centuries, these survive as four volumes (fire, earth, air and water) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The almost scientific naturalism of his botanical and natural drawings were achieved before the invention of the microscope and are the works of a patient observer who read and travelled widely and who never stopped asking questions. Hoefnagel explored the relationship between divinely created nature and his own creativity as a painter, repeatedly inscribing his works with ‘natura magistra’ (Nature is Teacher).

Hoefnagel is thought to have died in Vienna around 1600 and his son Jacob continue his work. He left a lasting legacy in his exquisite miniatures, made a major contribution to the development of topographical drawing and, most importantly, in his beautifully observed natural history studies.

Carole Wheeler (August 2021)