From the late 1640s, collections of biblical illustrations based on Matthaeus Merian’s engravings began to appear from Dutch publishers, in particular the Danckerts and the Visscher families. One of the most successful of these collections used the reworking of Merian’s illustrations by Pieter Hendriksz Schut (1619–62), with accompanying poetic summaries of the biblical text (perhaps by Reinier Anslo), which were also translated into Latin, French, German and English. This copy, which is a finely-bound oblong quarto, was probably part of the first printing, executed for Nicolaes Visscher in around 1648. Illustrated (overleaf) is the seventh engraving, showing the situation of Adam and Eve after the Fall and their expulsion from paradise. In the background, Adam ploughs the land, which has grown less fertile as a result of God’s curse upon it (Genesis 3:17–18):
‘Poore banish’d Adam plowes with sweat and paine,
The barren earth, and there in soweth graine,
Eve fares as ill, her children she doth beare
In grievous paine, and nurseth them in feare.’
The illustration underlines the significance of the events described in the story of Genesis for the future history of mankind. For the mid-seventeenth-century reader, Genesis explained that the earth had once been a fertile place, in which the lot of human beings had been pleasant. Human pride and sinfulness had led to the corruption of mankind, and to loss of the earth’s fertility. This, in turn, forced people to labour for their food. From this historical example, it could be deduced that improvements in human morality and spirituality might go hand in hand with improvements in the cultivation of the earth, and that if the earth could be returned to something approaching its pristine fertility, mankind might be able to re-enter paradise.
Nicolaes Visscher (1587–1652) and his son, also Nicolaes (1618–1709), issued many different versions of Merian’s engravings, with accompanying multilingual verses and texts, during the second half of the seventeenth century. Several of these appear to have circulated in England, as did separately-issued prints, for binding with Bibles, produced for the Visscher family (see catalogue no. 1 ).