The Butterfly - In Art
Butterflies have been drawn and painted throughout the centuries. Historically butterfly collecting has been widespread. It was in the Victorian age that pinning butterflies became a very popular educational hobby. When Victorian artists painted a fairy they would most often depict them with a butterfly’s wing. It is therefore set within our inner most psyche that the closest living creature to our idea of ‘Fairyland’ is indeed the butterfly!
However butterflies have not always been seen as a creature of pure good and very often further back in history they were most often depicted as the embodiment of sin and evil doing. The still life paintings of Dutch artists are full of butterflies. They may be sitting in the darkness, or perched on a withered leafless twig; in the language of the painting, they stand for the darker side of one’s soul.
Sometimes the embodiment of evil was taken just a step or two further and a butterfly would be turned into a demon! An example of this can be found as far back as 1330 in an illuminated prayer book called the Luttrell Psalter, which was written by an anonymous scribe or scribes and certainly decorated by as many as five artists. It resides in the Illuminated Manuscripts collection at the British Library. It features a Red Admiral being pursued by an extraordinary bird.The dark wings streaked with scarlet blood, a demon being chased away by God’s angel.
Hieronymus Bosch found room for two real butterflies on his best-know painting, ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’ (1500 – 1505).He was a painter who specialised in visions of devils and hellfire! In the central panel is a blue thistle or cardoon and perched upon it is a devil with the forewings of a Small Tortoiseshell. In ‘the language of flowers’ the thistle is often seen as a flower of death. On the right hand side of the panel showing the horrors of hell, Bosch has painted another butterfly-devil with the sombre wings of a female Meadow Brown. We suppose that the colourful Tortoiseshell symbolises the pleasures of the flesh. The Meadow Brown shows where this leads, to eternal damnation and suffering in the underworld.
It so happens that the generic name for this butterfly is Maniola, which also alludes to the underworld. It means ‘little departed soul’. In Roman mythology ‘Mania’ was also the goddess of the dead, mother of ghosts. In the earlier myths of the Greeks she is the embodiment of frenzy and madness, the origin of today’s word ‘mania’.
Pieter Bruegel ( The Elder) painted ‘ The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ ( 1562) the main rebel is painted bearing the wings of a Swallowtail, although the tails are somewhat exaggerated to make it look more evil. It is believed that this was intended to be Lucifer himself.
The Red Admiral too has been depicted as the bearer of evil and disaster. Red in nature usually means danger. The Red Admiral having a scarlet pattern across its sooty wings was a good image to choose. To the French it is known as Le Vulcain, or Vulcan, blacksmith to the Gods, eternally hammering red-hot horseshoes. Some of the Old Dutch Masters saw this as the butterfly from hell, the embodiment of temptation and sin.
Another occasion in history sealed the Red Admirals reputation. In the year 1881 Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Throughout that year a vast number of these butterflies appeared across Russia. To superstitious peasants, the butterfly’s bloody wings seemed to forecast a tragedy. To confirm it, on the spread out hind-wings of this butterfly you can make out the ominous date of 1881! Indeed this oddity is reflected in the name the Spanish give this species they call it Numerada, ‘the number butterfly’.
How far we have come since the 14th Century; we no longer look for signs of divine purpose in a butterfly’s wing. We look on butterflies as creatures of beauty as harbingers of joy and happiness they are generally held in high regard across the world. However it is true to say that since time immemorial many of us have felt this earthly ancient species has an ethereal quality!
For me they have always been special, for as long as I can recall they have delighted me and given me pleasure. I paint them as I Iove their image. I know many of you will agree with me when I say that they are a very special creature, one that delights us with its innocent beauty.