Butterflies and Rebirth

During the Renaissance, collectors saw Morpho butterflies as beautiful, elegant, and rare creatures.  Their exotic origin and sophistication made these fascinating creatures the subjects of scientific observation, decoration, and symbolism.

Morpho butterfly wings have vibrant dorsal coloration, while the reverse side features brown camouflage. 16.5 in x 8.25 in x 1.5 in, Gettysburg Professor Kay Etheridge

Butterflies of the Morpho genus include a wide variety of marvelous, striking, and beautiful species.  Home to South and Central America, Morpho butterflies thrive in the rainforests of Nicaragua, Colombia, and Venezuela. When Renaissance Europeans began exploring American rainforests, they were quickly captivated by these butterflies. Morphos feature vivid blue coloration and iridescence on the dorsal side of their wings as well as a yellow-brown coloration on the other side.  Due to upwellings, or winds, from rivers and streams, these butterflies float around in the high canopies of rainforest trees. 1  As these butterflies open and close their wings, the iridescent scales reflect sunlight, creating a fascinating effect for anyone observing from the rainforest floor.  But because of their elusive nature, early collectors struggled to obtain Morpho specimens, thus making the butterflies rare and under researched. These exotic butterflies were a curious specimen that naturalists and collectors desired deeply.  As people began to discover the wide variation of Morphos, the butterflies became even more coveted. Naturalists saw Morphos as an opportunity to apply scientific classification systems, whereas others saw their diversity as profitable.  By offering a wide range of exotic Morphos, sellers could appeal to a wider range of buyers and collectors.  Today, Morphos retain their aesthetic charm but are better understood. One scientific study found that Morphos in captivity have low survival rates, possibly because they lack the interaction of a large rainforest ecosystem. 2  Renaissance collectors probably experienced these high death rates of captive butterflies as well, further limiting their ability to research and observe Morphos.

One insect researcher of the Renaissance, Maria Sibylla Merian, contributed greatly to knowledge of tropical butterflies, including Morphos.  She took an expedition to Surinam of South America to observe plants and insects in their natural habitat.  Because Merian went without the incentive of payment and the luxury of European settlements, she embodied the true curiosity of Renaissance naturalists.  Merian drew, observed, and cultivated butterflies and later published her findings in the book Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.  Her butterfly images showcased eating habits, life stages, and natural habitats, contrasting the typically ‘perfect’ and symmetrical diagrams of butterflies presented by other Renaissance naturalists. Throughout her book, Merian remarked on the brilliance and rarity of butterflies, explaining that their “beauty cannot be rendered with a paintbrush.”  She also noted that Metamorphosis is a book for lovers of insects and art, exemplifying the Renaissance interconnection of art and nature. 3  Click here for to view Merian’s book.

Butterfly images by Maria Sibylla Merian often showcased multiple life stages in a natural habitat. From Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Images of butterflies from Merian’s Metamorphosis book have been used to construct this 3-D model, located in the Gettysburg Cabinet.

Other Renaissance naturalists collected and displayed butterfly specimens as well.  James Petiver, an English apothecary and naturalist, placed his butterflies in a book immediately after collecting so that the wing color would not be rubbed off.  He then pressed his butterflies between sheets of mica, a transparent mineral, so that both sides of the wings could be studied.  In later years, naturalists instead opted to display butterflies in glass boxes with their wings spread open.  In both cases, collectors prioritized protecting the specimens.  Collectors also considered the aesthetic appeal of butterflies and often displayed them artistically 4 The upper-class especially wanted to show off butterflies as art to emphasize their rarity and elegance.  Because of their significant visual appeal, butterfly collections often served symbolic rather than scientific purposes. 5

Emblematic, or symbolic, decorations of butterflies during the Renaissance stem from ancient butterfly art.  In ancient Egypt, Tiger butterflies were painted on the temple walls of the Tomb of Nebamun. 6 These Tiger Butterflies were also featured on other Egyptian tombs, and they were often depicted as disproportionately large.  Size was an important factor of Egyptian art, corresponding to an animal’s hierarchal importance.  By enlarging the butterfly, Egyptians symbolized the high-class of butterflies. 7 In a similar way, Renaissance collectors displayed butterflies as high-class objects to elevate the elegance and quality of their collections.

Tiger butterflies (near the hunter’s elbow) painted on an Egyptian tomb wall. Tomb of NebamunThe Open University.

Ancient Roman symbols also influenced Renaissance interpretations of butterflies.  One image of a crab holding an open butterfly appeared on Augustan Roman coins.  Renaissance scholars viewed the butterfly on the coin as symbolic of Psyche, the Greek goddess representing the human soul.  Other interpretations viewed the butterfly as a symbol of life, immortality, victory over death, and hope (because butterflies are drawn to light).  The rebirth of caterpillars into butterflies also represented the rebirth of knowledge in the Renaissance.  As a result, Renaissance book makers, such as Paul Frellon, used the image of the crab holding the butterfly as a publishing trademark. 8

Publishing mark of Paul Frellon, circa early seventeenth century. Marques typographiquesL.C. Silvestre.

The historic symbolism of butterflies contributed to the emblematic and aesthetic appeal of butterflies in the Renaissance.  However, some naturalists, such as Maria Sibylla Merian and James Petiver, did devote time to observing butterflies in a scientific manner. Whether displayed scientifically, artistically, or symbolically, butterflies were beautiful creatures that captured the imagination of the Renaissance.

The Gettysburg Cabinet displays blue Morpho butterflies and a box of additional butterflies, both courtesy of Gettysburg College biology professor Kay Etheridge.  These displays represent the type of exotic and beautiful insects that were collected and showcased during the Renaissance. The Cabinet also features a 3-D display of Merian’s butterfly artwork, constructed to show the life stages of metamorphosis observed by Merian.

For an audio description of Morpho butterflies, listen below.


For an audio description of Maria Sibylla Merian and the constructed display, listen below.


  1. DeVries, P.J.; Martinez, George Eujens.  “The Morphology, Natural History, and Behavior of the Early Stages of Morpho cypris (Nymphalidae: Morphinae)-140 Years after Formal Recognition of the Butterfly,” Journal of the New York Entomological Society 101, no. 4 (Oct 1993): 515-530.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Attenborogough, David; Owens, Susan; Clayton, Martin; Alexandratos, Rea, Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  4. MacGregor, Arthur. Curiosity and Enlightenment.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  5. Ibid.
  6.  Attenborogough, David; Owens, Susan; Clayton, Martin; Alexandratos, Rea, Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  7. Haynes, Dawn.  “The Symbolism and Significance of the Butterfly in Ancient Egypt.”  M. Phil. Thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2013.
  8. Deonna, W. “The Crab and the Butterfly: A Study in Animal Symbolism,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17, no. 1/2 (1954): 47-86.