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Historic Traces Leading back to Merian’s and Graff’s Garden in Nuremberg’s Imperial Castle


Move of the Young Graff-Merian Family from Frankfurt to Nuremberg

Johann Andreas Graff, a talented architectural painter and copper-plate etcher, works in the Frankfurt workshop of his teacher Jacob Marrell, who is married to the widow of Matthäus Merian the Elder. Maria Sibylla Merian, daughter from her first marriage to Matthäus Merian, lives in their household. In 1665 the 29-year-old Graff and Marrell’s 18-year-old stepdaughter marry. In 1668 Graff returns to his home town of Nuremberg with his young wife, who for 20 years will bear the name "Maria Sibylla Gräffin", and his daughter Dorothea Maria, born in the same year. The couple probably hoped for a better livelihood there after the great economic decline of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

Maria Sibylla Starting her Career in Nuremberg

The young wife does indeed manage to contribute to the family's livelihood, not only by running the household but also through many other, different activities such as painting, drawing, copperplate etching, embroidery and producing colours for painting. She was even able to teach young girls drawing, painting and embroidery - unusual for a woman in her time. She quickly becomes a respected artist. While still in Nuremberg, she is honoured by Joachim von Sandrart in his "Teutsche Academie", a comprehensive, widely read encyclopaedia of artists.

A Private Garden for the Family

One of Maria Sybilla’s favourite students from a Nuremberg patrician family then plays an important role for her future life: She has a great uncle who, thanks to his office as the "Vorderster Losunger" (Mayor) and Vestenpfleger (curator of the castle), can provide a garden for the Graffs. In this garden Maria Sibylla makes a special discovery: "Hochrothe Käferlein" (Little Bright Red Beetles) arouse her especial interest, although these beetles are inconspicuous on first sight and feared as pests by garden lovers. Thanks to her connections to influential Nuremberg families, Maria Sibylla also gains access to many other gardens to collect enough material for her observations of nature.

Mention of the Garden in the Second Caterpillar Book

Indeed, despite the burden of many "part-time jobs" in the family house "Zur goldenen Sonne" (At the Golden Sun), today Bergstr. 10, she manages to work on her Flower Books and the two Caterpillar Books, enjoying the financial and active support of her husband Graff as etcher and publisher. In the Second Caterpillar Book the metamorphosis of a caterpillar (egg, caterpillar, pupa, beetle), together with the "golden yellow lily" as host plant, is illustrated and described (No. XXI). Even the place where it was found is indicated – "in my garden" – although without an exact location.

This period in Nuremberg comes to an abrupt end after the death of the second husband of Maria Sibylla's mother, her own foster father Jacob Marrell. The Graff-Merian couple obviously feels obliged to assist the widowed mother in Frankfurt, who has not been properly provided for. Between 1683 and 1685 Graff commuted between Frankfurt and Nuremberg, where he could earn money by working for private clients. The further history of this marriage and the separation of this couple is a different story and probably has several different reasons which can no longer be clearly established today.

Localisation of the Garden in the Study Book

Maria Sibylla does not stay in Frankfurt, but moves together with her mother to her half-brother Caspar Merian in a pious community guided by the tenets of early Christianity, the Labadists in Dutch West Frisia. There, in the secluded castle of Waltha, Maria Sibylla finds time to rearrange and label her pattern drawings.
It is only in this, her own hand-drawn and hand-written study book that she describes the location of the Nuremberg Garden:

"In early July, when I went up to my garden (next to the castle church or imperial chapel in Nuremberg) to look at the flowers and search for the caterpillars, I found ....".

With this double mention "next to the castle church / imperial chapel" the secret is solved: it can only be the small garden which is directly adjacent to the tower of the imperial chapel (today called the "Heidenturm").

Significance of the Study Book

She carried on making entries in this study book after her Surinam expedition and apparently kept it until her death in Amsterdam (1717) as an indispensable collection of motifs for her high-quality paintings on silk and parchment. Thanks to the personal details of where, when and with whom she made her finds and how the caterpillars were raised, the study book is also the most important source of autobiographical information about her life, about which she otherwise maintains an almost complete silence.

Sale of the Study Book to St. Petersburg

1716/1717 Czar Peter the Great visited Amsterdam a second time and commissioned his personal physician, a highly educated Scotsman, to buy works of art for his collections in his new residence in St Petersburg. This doctor, Robert Areskin (Erskin), bought the study book for his own collection from Maria Sibylla’s estate and bequeathed it to the Czar. Shortly after the death of her mother, the second daughter, Dorothea Maria (born in Nuremberg in 1678), who had already accompanied her mother on the expedition to Surinam, moves to St. Petersburg with her husband Georg Gsell. There, known as "Gsellscha", she contributes a great deal to the development of science and art, e.g., by developing the first public museum, with, amongst other items, 254 watercolours by her mother and the Study Book, which is kept there.

Rediscovery of the Lost Study Book

After having been forgotten for a long time, the book with the inconspicuous exterior was rediscovered in 1939 in the "Manu Picta" section of the Manuscript Department of the Library of the Academy of Sciences. Despite the years of siege and bombardment of Leningrad by the German Army during World War II, the museum experts responsible for it were able to preserve the Study Book.

Publication of the Study Book 1976

On the initiative of the young director of the Leipzig Museum of Natural History, Dr. Wolf-Dietrich Beer, an unusual collaboration was successful during the GDR era: the 'Edition Leipzig Verlag', together with the 'Reich Verlag Luzern' was given permission to produce an exemplary facsimile of the original from Leningrad. For this reason alone we are today able to read Maria Sibylla's handwritten note in one of the 1825 copies in existence worldwide and with it the proof of the location of her garden in Nuremberg.

The fact that the Graff-Merian family had a family garden in Nuremberg and the historical evidence for it are based on a remarkable chain of fortunate circumstances. Time and again this connection could have been lost and hung on a "silk (caterpillar) thread". 

The Closed Caretaker's Garden – a Forgotten Historical Heritage

Drawings and etchings prove that the small garden next to the Imperial Chapel existed long before the time of Graff's and Merian’s family garden. Later it was called the "Burgverwaltergarten" (Castle Administrator's Garden) and was privately used by whoever was chief castle official at any given time. Several photos in the City Archive show this idyllic, but not publicly accessible garden. During World War II the garden and the garden wall on the city side were devastated by a bomb crater. The two-storey garden house, which is also historic (it can already be guessed at in a Dürer engraving from 1514), miraculously survived the air raids with only slight damage, which was soon repaired. In the process the open loggia on the ground floor, decorated with a wooden balustrade ("dock balusters"), was replaced by a half-timbered front with two windows.

Planned Reopening as a "Wedding Garden“

In 2012/13 the Bavarian state government provides the necessary funds for a major investment programme for the general upgrading of the Kaiserburg. One new offer is the chance to be married at the castle: after a civil wedding ceremony in a stylish "wedding room", the garden described above can be used as a "wedding garden", particularly attractive for family photos in front of the picturesque city panorama and for private receptions.

The Garden’s New Design as a Place of Remembrance to Maria Sibylla Merian

On the basis of information provided by a city guide, the Bavarian Treasury Secretary responsible for the project changes the planned name and explains the concept behind the design of the future "Merian Garden" in a press conference at the end of July 2012.
A few weeks later, at the request of the Nuremberg population, he agrees to expand the name to include her two given names in the title "Maria Sibylla Merian-Garten". Since the big festival at the castle in mid-July 2013, the little garden can be visited on Sundays and Mondays from 2 to 6 pm from April to September inclusive (2-4 p.m. in October, closed in wintertime, status as of 2020). A peephole in the entrance door allows visitors a view into this oasis all year round during general castle opening hours.

It is the most beautiful, authentic place in the world for a public Maria Sibylla Merian Garden, designed with "her" plants - even with some tropical plants in a sunny, sheltered area of the small, 170 square-metre garden. A historical reconstruction was impossible because there are no documents concerning the garden which date from her time. Thus the modern design, with a water basin and several benches, resembles a small land-art monument and its diagonal orientation expands the horizon. The view is directed beyond the city into the wide open spaces, just as Maria Sibylla and her daughters set off from Nuremberg to the world of Amsterdam, Paramaribo and St. Petersburg.

1608: View into the castle courtyard and the fence of the garden next to the foot of the Imperial Chapel tower

19th century: The little garden behind the garden wall on the left edge of the picture

1945: The undestroyed garden house on the right edge of the picture (yellow arrow) in front of the silhouette of the castle ruins

Post-war period: garden house being converted into a "Tiny House" on the left at the foot of the chapel tower

Provisional plaque for the newly designed garden

Garden architect Sven-Patric Klameth

Design scheme for the little garden

The garden house in front of the Imperial Chapel and the Imperial Castle

"Maria Sibylla Merian Garden" above the panorama of Nuremberg houses

View from the garden to the top of the “Sinwell“ Tower behind the trees

View over the roofs to the 600-year-old half-timbered façade of Bergstrasse 10