Scenes of honey hunting dating back 6,000 years appear in the Cave of Spiders, near Valencia, Spain. In ancient Greece, stone artists such as Phidias, Callicrates and Myrmecides enjoyed the technical challenge of creating tiny insects in sculpture. Monks in the Middle Ages faithfully copied documents and adorned them with naturalistic figures of plants and insects. Insects also appeared as heraldic symbols on clothing and armor in medieval Europe. But it was in medieval Japan where the depiction of insects on family crests reached an artistic height in simplicity, balance, and aesthetic quality.
The family crest in Japan is called ka-mon. Ka denotes “family with own genealogical trees” and mon means “crest” or “emblem.” Ka-mons date back to the 11th century, when warring families struggled for control of feudal lands. They were used on banners, flags, weapons, and hanging screens to identify camps and headquarters.
Ka-mons served a practical purpose: crests identified men on the battlefield and became a routine part of a warrior’s survival in an era plagued by war. Masked and armor-clad Samurai wore their lord’s ka-mon into battle. The ill-fated Taira clan, which lost a decisive battle in the late Heian period, was particularity fond of the butterfly design.
When the Heian period ended in 1185, the Kamakura period ushered in an era marked by allegiance to a shogun. Ka-mons became part of the general attire of a noble family. They appeared as markings on the kimono (outer garment) in at least three places: the back of the neck and one on each sleeve. Some kimono markings included a ka-mon over each breast, bringing the display of the family crest to five.
The family ka-mon was typically carried by the genealogical male of the noble class. A woman was occasionally allowed to wear her own family ka-mon from her father’s family. By doing this, she would be representing the origin of her own family, even though this emblem would appear smaller than her husband’s. Today, over 4,000 ka-mon serve to trace family lineage back hundreds of years.
The butterfly pattern was a favorite among Japanese nobility. The elegance of the insect is undeniable: its gentle grace is in stark contrast to the bloodletting reached during the peak of Japanese feudalism. The contrast between the brutality of war and the docile butterfly serve to remind us of the duality of the samurai. The code of bushido required the samurai’s fierce loyalty and obedience to a lord, yet each warrior strove to perfect the gentle arts of poetry, art and calligraphy. The butterfly image represents elegant symmetry achieved through the evolution from lowly caterpillar to noble insect.
Among designs based on living creatures, the butterfly motif was the most popular by far in medieval Japan. Look closely at these pictures of hand-drawn butterflies. Can you see how the balance and symmetry of the butterfly captivate the eye?