Gilded opaque glass vase with enamelled butterflies, Bohemia, late 19th century
Butterflies have been popular subjects for artists in many cultures for thousands of years. As well as being very decorative, butterflies are often associated with religious beliefs or emotions, which can add symbolic meanings to a work of art.
The ancient Greeks created mosaics depicting Psyche (whose name translates as "spirit, breath, life or animating force") as a butterfly, or as a woman with butterfly wings. In their mythology, Psyche was originally a mortal princess of great beauty. Men began to worship her instead of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The furious Aphrodite ordered Eros (the god of love) to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest of men. However, Eros fell in love with Psyche himself and carried her off to his palace, while hiding his true identity. He forbad Psyche to look at his face, but she eventually disobeyed and was turned out into the world.
For years, Psyche searched for her lost love, and eventually crossed into the Underworld where she was reunited with him. Psyche and Eros were married and Psyche was given the gift of immortality. She became the personification of the human soul, purified through trials and adversity to prepare it for the final reward of true and pure happiness.
Later, Christian artists also used the butterfly motif to symbolise the notion of the soul as well as their belief in the resurrection – the humble caterpillar disappears into a cocoon and seems to have died, only to emerge eventually in a far more beautiful and powerful form. In Chinese culture, butterflies are a symbol of love, romance and pursuing the female. Two butterflies flying together represent love and marital bliss. The Chinese word for butterfly (die) has the same sound as another word meaning “eighty years of age”, so butterflies can also represent a long life. Butterflies are often depicted with plum blossoms, together symbolising longevity and beauty.
We don’t know if the artist who decorated this vase had any hidden meanings in mind or just liked butterflies. We do know that he (or she) worked for the Bohemian firm of Heinrich Ullrich at the end of the nineteenth century. The glorious butterflies on this glass vase were painted using a technique called enamelling. Coloured powdered glass was mixed with a liquid medium and painted onto the body of the vase, each colour being laid on separately. The vase was then fired at temperatures between 750 and 850 degrees Celsius. The powdered glass melted and flowed, eventually hardening to a smooth finish.
Gold leaf was then mixed with a fixative such as honey, mercury or egg white, painted onto the body of the vase and fired in a low temperature kiln. Finally, the gold would have been burnished to a bright finish, ready for the showroom. Heinrich Ullrich had glassworks in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) with a retail outlet in Vienna. His firm exhibited and won awards at all the major international exhibitions from the 1860s to the 1890s.