José Celestino Mutis

The Flora of Granada

Today is the anniversary of the death of the Spanish priest, botanist, physician, and naturalist José Celestino Mutis who spent almost 50 years in Columbia, where he is regarded as a national treasure for his scientific work.

In the 18th century, Columbia and the area around it was known as New Granada. Given his lifetime spent in Granada, Mutis was able to leave a lasting legacy. He created an impressive library complete with thousands of books on botany and the natural world. He also built a herbarium with over 24,000 species. Only Joseph Banks had a herbarium that rivaled Mutis, and Banks had more resources and more support from the English government.
Mutis approached the job of documenting the flora of Granada in a unique way; he accomplished his mission by enlisting others. During his time in Granada, Mutis worked with over 40 local Creole artists. He recruited them and trained them. He brought them to a studio where they could work all day long in silence. In short, Mutis set up a botanical production machine that was unsurpassed in terms of the output and the level of excellence for the times. At one point, Mutis had up to twenty artisans working all at one time. One artist would work on the plant habit while another would work on specific aspects or features. The Mutis machine created over 6,500 pieces of art - including botanical sketches and watercolors painted with pigments made from local dyes, which heightened their realism.
On the top of the Mutis bucket-list was the dream of a Flora of Bogata. Sadly it never happened. Mutis died in Granada in 1808. Eight years later, the King of Spain ordered all of the output from the Mutis expedition to be shipped back home. All the work created by the Creole artisans and the entire herbarium were packed into 105 shipping crates and sent to Spain where they sat and sat and sat and waited... until 1952 when a handful was used in a large folio series. Then the Mutis collection waited another 60 years until 2010 when they were finally exhibited at Kew.
Today, the thousands of pieces that make up the Mutis collection are housed at the Botanical Garden in Madrid, Spain. The pieces are significant - mostly folio size - and since they haven't seen much daylight over the past two centuries, they are in immaculate condition.

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José Celestino Mutis
José Celestino Mutis

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