nav-left cat-right

Botanical Art – A Little History of Herbals

9. Middle_Age_Herbal 

 Dear Friends:

A review of the history of botanical art reveals several developmental stages of this art form — in particular the herbal plant discovery for medicinal purposes.  From the beginning, all records of human existence point to this very fact: plants are documented for their use.

Even before we could write, humans made a point of recording the plants around them and whether they were edible or not.  This simple understanding then of course led to the discovery of their medicinal properties. 

Unfortunately, these early discoveries were not properly recorded, but rather passed down orally, often within families, and thus the knowledge of their proper use was lost and altered.  Fortunately today we are still learning about plants from obscure cultures.  My work in the Dominican Republic is an example of how modern research enables wonderful re-discoveries of local native plants, their medicinal properties, and how they can best be used.

Sacred clay tablets, hieroglyphics, then later, books and manuscripts all marked the beginning of written documentation.  The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus written around 1550 BC describing natural plants and properties, the Chinese and Ayurvedic texts about herbal medicines written between 2700 and 1500 BC and the Greek physicians Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides who pursued the discovery of medicines, the early quest for and writings about the healing powers of herbs remained no small matter.

9. Herball_John_Gerarde

Monks in Christian monasteries from the 9th through 11th centuries were chiefly responsible for recording many of these early discoveries.  They documented the medicinal purposes of plants in books called “Herbals.”  The job of copying these books was passed down and illustrations were rarely taken from the actual plant.  This abstraction created copies that contained distorted information about the true nature of the plants being described. 

Jacopo-Ligozzi Mandragora

Fortunately, the Renaissance brought about the beginning of modern science. It pulled civilization out of the Dark Ages and prompted original thought.  During the 14th and following centuries, plants were documented according to their true physical morphology.  Prominent contributors like Italian artist Jacopo Ligozzi, who upon the death of Giorgio Vasari in 1574 became head of the Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno, the officially patronized guild of artists, was often called to advise on diverse projects. He created numerous drawings and watercolor paintings of plants. See the beauty of his recording of the Mandrake plant above in true Renaissance style of geometric perspective.  Re-recordings of the early monastic records prompted new investigation with great vigor and by very skilled artists.

Watch for more information about the Renaissance period in the Once-A-Day Art Tips brought to you by  To register for these daily tips, go to

Both the science of navigation and the printing press made it possible for the revised printed herbals to gain popularity.  With so much information available and with a vehicle that allowed wide spread influence, accurate illustrations and proper taxonomy (plant naming) of plants, borne from first-hand observations, were in high demand. 

Although Europe holds a significant portion of the history regarding the use of medicinal plants for healing, America began the process of integrating North American plants into the European materia medica, which ultimately altered the face of herbal medicine in Europe. Botanical illustrators during this period, more than ever before, played an important role in plant identification…and they did so from sea to shining sea and beyond.

We are fortunate today to have a wealth of this historic information available to us in the various museums and libraries throughout the world.  In these places, we are able to see the magnificent antique collections of illustrated Herbals as well as those printed in later centuries.  One such place near Florence, Italy called the Aboca Museum has made its primary goal the illustration and documentation of medicinal herbs.   Its ancient library contains a collection of over 1,000 printed volumes from the 16th to the 20th century of old herbals, botanical books, and related manuscripts.


At the Bodleian Library, Cambridge, England, one can find assorted texts of Herbals and other medieval medical images from as early as the 11th century.  Also, a book published in association with the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, PA, called Plant, Animal & Anatomical Illustration in Art and Science: a Bibliographical Guide from the 16th Century to the Present Day by Gavis Bridson references John Payne’s complete Flora: Flowers, Fruits, Beastes, Birds, and Flies Exactly Drawne (London, 1660) and includes full-page illustrated plates.  Additionally, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA, is holding a copy of William Bartram’s Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788, that contains over 60 botanical illustrations. 

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that thousands of listings of books where information on herbs can be found complete with black and white line drawings and color illustrations are not only available for viewing, but just the mention of which gives a glimpse into the enormous world of botanical art and to the importance of its many subjects.

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”   Georgia O’Keefe

God Bless.  OM

Comments are closed.