Origins of Botanical Art in Western Culture (100 BC-1500 AD)

Botanical Art is an art form with a long and continuous history in Western culture. Plant illustrations first appeared in the first century BC in Greek manuscripts known as herbals that described plants used for medicinal purposes. Cratevas, a Greek physician credited with producing the first herbal with colored illustrations, is the “father of botanical art”.

During Medieval times (AD 470–1453), rather than being drawn from living plants, the illustrations in herbals were copied from earlier herbals. The copyists lacked botanical knowledge and incorporated impressions of medical uses, superstition, and mythology into the plant images, degrading them to the point where they no longer resembled the plant. Woodcuts were introduced during this time. The woodcutter responsible for cutting the image into the wood block interpreted the image of the copyist from his own perspective leading to further degradation of the image. After the invention of movable type in 1457, herbals were printed by putting the degraded woodblock images side by side next to the text and passing them through the press.

At the end of the 1300s, naturalism in art returned to Italy, Germany, Flanders, and France as artists began drawing from living plants. In the early 1400s, realistic drawings of plants began to appear in illuminated books of hours and in some Italian herbals. Although not considered botanical artists, Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450–1491), Leonardo daVinci (1452–1519), and Albrecht Durer (1471–1528) all included realistically rendered plants in their drawings and paintings. In the late 1400s, realistic plant illustrations began to appear in some herbals.

No doubt influenced by these artistic developments and the prominent artists of the time, a new era in botanical art began in the mid-1500s. Drawing from live plants, the artists illustrating herbals produced high quality naturalistic illustrations. Herbals with exceptional illustrations were published and influenced the quality of plant illustrations in herbals from then on.

In the late 1500s, another development occurred that greatly advanced the creation of realistic plant images—the printing of the “flower book”, or florilegium.

credits for supplemental images

From top right: