As an art historian, I’ve spent 15 years writing and teaching about art and ecology. I focus not only on contemporary contexts but also historical art produced centuries ago, long before Ernst Haeckel coined the word “ecology” in 1866 and the emergence of modern environmentalism. Why do this? Because artists, like writers, have always creatively interpreted and borne witness to conditions of life on Earth—conditions that are intrinsically environmental in one way or another. Everything happens in a context. Even art—seemingly the most rarefied of things—is made of earthly materials and ideas that come from somewhere. Art cannot help but reveal something about the ecological circumstances in which it was created, regardless of whether the artist was an environmentalist. Historical art helps us to see and understand environmental history while providing clues about how we arrived at our current predicament.
Recently I co-authored a book and co-curated a related traveling exhibition titled Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, which originated last fall at the Princeton University Art Museum and traveled this spring to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. (This summer the exhibition goes to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.) Featuring more than 100 works of art from 70 museums, Nature’s Nation explores three centuries of creative activity by diverse makers in a range of media. It shows how artists have revealed anthropogenic environmental change over time while helping to invent modern ecological consciousness. Working deliberately against the grain, implied in the title, Nature’s Nation also demonstrates the border-crossing power of both art and ecology to disclose complex relationships, effectively putting categories like “nature” and “nation” in quotes.
The oldest work of art on display in the exhibition is a 16th century engraving by Diego de Valadés representing the Great Chain of Being, a Christian vision of hierarchical order in nature. Though obviously not a contemporary environmentalist image, it reveals interesting and important things about the past that resonate today. In the scene of Heaven above clouds, God sits in majesty with Christ and the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the Virgin Mary. God holds the chain, or vinculum, linking Him to the various ranked categories of creation below. Under a host of angels, the earthly sphere is arranged in echelons with human beings closest to Heaven, followed by birds, sea creatures, quadrupeds, and flora. Satan sits at the bottom, amid flames and demons torturing the damned.
This old print envisions a top-down ordering scheme with deep European roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Through centuries of Christianity and early modern science, Europeans adopted the scheme as a metaphor of natural hierarchy, affirming the divine right of kings to lead while others followed. As depicted by Valadés, it asserts a static ideal of unchanging order—or so it seems. The more we know about the artist and his work, however, the more complex the picture becomes.
The engraving illustrates Rhetorica Christiana, a manual of oratory written by Valadés to assist fellow Franciscan missionaries in converting Indigenous people in Mexico. Both image and text were ideological tools of colonialism. Based on his experience preaching to Native Americans in New Spain, Valadés wrote, illustrated, and published the book in Italy in 1579 near the end of his life. His efforts thus complemented the violence of European conquest and subjugation of the Americas, exemplifying what historian Walter Mignolo has called “the darker side of the Renaissance.”
Yet, a salient biographical fact complicates this narrative: Valadés was a mestizo, the son of a Spanish conquistador father and an Indigenous mother of the Tlaxcalan people, who had allied with Cortés in defeating the Aztecs. Viewed in this light, the picture can be seen as evidence of métissage, or an “in between” condition, that complicates clear-cut identities and cultural oppositions. Alessandra Russo, author of The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts of New Spain 1500 - 1600, invokes the term “nepantilism” (from the Aztec-Nahuatl word nepantla meaning “in between”) to describe “unexpected possibilities of creations arising at the crossroads and … convergence of several traditions.” For Russo, this requires reflection “on the transformation not only of pre-Hispanic but also of European creative processes.”
Despite its European appearance, Valadés’s illustration of the Great Chain of Being displays evidence of such reciprocal transformation in its cosmopolitan combination of earthly flora and fauna. For example, in the human echelon, we see not only Franciscan priests but also Native Americans and other non-Europeans, including three men wearing turbans. Among the birds below, at least two American species appear—the turkey and the quetzal—along with an ostrich, a golden eagle, and various others of international origins. A camel and a llama face each other in a quadruped group that also includes a horse, stag, unicorn, dragon, elephant, and mountain goat, among other creatures. Among the flora, we see American maize, pineapple, and prickly pear as well as European plants.
Depicting such diversity in this colonial context was hardly a militant expression of resistance or environmental justice, at least not the kind we’re familiar with today. But at a time when many Europeans viewed Indigenous people as little more than animals, the engraving at least asserted their humanity amid a global network of beings, things, and interrelationships. Even as he folded Native Americans into an expanding Christian imperium, Valadés helped visualize new knowledge of environmental complexity. As a mestizo, he was particularly attuned to such nuances. I felt compelled to note the artist’s complex biographical background in writing the original gallery label for Nature’s Nation at Princeton. When viewing the exhibition in Salem, though, I noticed the local curators had deleted my reference to his mestizo identity, producing a misleading impression that this was a purely “European” work of art. Such erasure speaks volumes about the plight of complexity today, but art and ecology ultimately tell a subtler story.