True Bugs



        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.  During the Middle Ages, monks faithfully copied documents and adorned them with naturalistic figures of  plants and insects.  Insects also appeared as heraldic symbols on clothing and armour in  medieval Europe.  In medieval Japan, though, 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 eleventh century in medieval Japan, when warring families struggled for control of  feudal lands. Ka-mons were used on banners, flags, weapons, and hanging screens to identify camps and headquarters. Ka-mons served a practical purpose.  The crests identified men on the  battlefield and became a routine part of  a warrior's survival in an era plagued by war.  Masked and armour clad Samurai  wore their lord's ka-mon into battle.  The ill fated Taira clan who 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.  Ka-mons 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.  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.  The family ka-mon was typically carried by the genealogical male of the noble class.  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. The gentle grace of the butterfly 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.

       Our Insecta Inspecta graphics team has captured the timeless beauty of the butterfly.  Among designs based on living creatures, the butterfly motif was the  most popular by far in medieval Japan.  Look closely at the handrawn pictures.   Can you see how the balance and symmetry of the butterfly captivate the eye?

Return to Top