Nature today | Underwater on display at the Rijksmuseum

To find out what species can be seen in the exhibition, the Rijksmuseum enlists the help of a nature lover. Ten boards have been posted on the Early Birds forum, and you can point out insects, reptiles, and other animals that you know. Two exhibition tickets are available for the biggest connoisseurs of reptiles.

Click on the names below to go to the correct panel:

  • Cornelia de Rijk: Five Leaves with Surinamese Insects, circa 1700
  • Balthasar van der Ast: Still Life with Fruit and Flowers, 1620
  • Elias van den Broek: Cacti and Lizards, c. 1685
  • J.M. Sartory: Forest Still Life with Skull, Reptiles, Insects and Plants, circa 1720
  • Jan van Kessel: Insects and Reptiles, c. 1660
  • Otto Marcius van Shrek: Still Life with Insects, Amphibians, and Reptiles, 1662
  • Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders: Head of Medusa, 1617-1618
  • Roelant Savery: vase of flowers in a stone niche, 1615
  • Joris Hofnagel: Still Life with Flowers and Insects, 1589
  • Jan van Kessel: Still Life of Gooseberry, Butterfly, Moth, Girl Fly and Others, 1659


According to Sterrin Smalbrugge, an ecologist and snake expert, “reptile” is a name these animals do not deserve. Because they are of great benefit to our ecosystem. Something with which curator Jan de Hoon agrees: “It is a title that should ensure that people understand the importance of these little animals. This is also the line of this exhibition: where these creeps are first associated with death and the devil came, and later artists and scientists such as Albrecht Dürer, Wenzel Jamnitzer, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek and Maria Sibylla Merian to appreciate their beauty. The Ondercreesels exhibition highlights the changing appreciation of these small animals in art and science.”

change photo

In the Middle Ages, reptiles were associated with death and the devil. It is believed that they were born spontaneously from dead matter such as dung, decomposing plant remains, and mud. In the artwork, snakes, frogs and lizards are metaphors for evil and act as followers of Satan. This image slowly changes in the 15th and 16th centuries as artists become familiar with the aesthetics of these creatures. They were seen as examples of “the beauty of God’s creation.” When it first appears in the margins of medieval manuscripts, it gradually creeps toward the center of the page. The first artwork with an insect as the main theme is a drawing of a deer in flight. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Albrecht Dürer’s work from 1505.


In the 16th century, reptiles became popular art collectibles and wunderkammers in European courts. For example in the form of live castTemplates are from real animals. The most telling of the life and other notable events of the wunderkammer of the Habsburg emperor can be seen in the exhibition. Interest is also growing among artists and scholars. Small reptiles are bred, exchanged, studied, recorded and collected in nature’s reservoirs. The invention of the microscope gives the study of these creatures a new impetus. Researchers were amazed at an entirely new world that is now visible for the first time.

This leads, among other things, to the unraveling of the mystery of their greatest secret: their reproduction and transformation. Art and science were not as strictly separated during this period as now. For example, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) travels to Suriname to study and paint the metamorphosis of insects. Some of her most valuable drawings from the Queen Elizabeth II collection are coming to the Rijksmuseum this fall. Around 1650, the appreciation of reptiles led to its own genre in painting: it Sotoposko Or a forest with reptiles and insects. The inventor of sottobosco, Otto Marsius van Schreck, himself cultivated reptiles, amphibians and insects. Art and science come together in sottobosco, which can be seen in the last room of the gallery.

Gooseberry Still Life, Butterfly, Moth, Girl Fly and Others, 1659

Spiders are safe for vacuum cleaners

The appreciation of creeps has taken a new turn in recent decades. The relationship between humans and other animals is critically examined not only in science, but also in art. The imbalanced relationship between humans and other animals is examined in the exhibition through a collaboration with artist Tomás Saraceno. In the exhibition there is a room dedicated to sculpture Solitary Semi-Social Gravity Choreography LHS 477, Made by four types of spiders. In addition, Tomás Saraceno drafted a letter with the Arachnophilia community: An open letter to invertebrate rights With a request for recognition and respect for spiders in the Rijksmuseum. During the exhibition, the use of vacuum cleaners and feather dusters will be restricted in many rooms so that the spiders that already live in the Rijksmuseum can freely weave their webs.

more information

  • The exhibition Ondercreesels can be seen at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam until January 15, 2023.
  • You can also listen to the report on the Vroege Vogels website, and you can help identify the “reptiles” in the plates.

Text: Early Bird
Photo: Jan van Kessel (main image: Insects and Reptiles, circa 1660); Peter Paul Rubens and France Snigers

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