COLOUR AND VISION & THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
"Through The Eyes of Nature"
The Natural History Museum's new exhibition, "Colour & Vision" features many wonders of nature. To demonstrate how colour is often a warning they use the cinnabar moth as an example:
"Orange stripes, red spots and black mouths are all warning signs that an animal is dangerous. Poisonous and venomous animals often warn off potential predators with dramatic colours and markings." Colour and Vision
I first encountered a cinnabar moth when I was on my way to the studio in Manchester a few years ago. The bold black and red patterns of the little winged insect caught my eye so I took a photo of it and looked it up. The patterns are so striking it had a real impression on me. I wanted to try and capture it in a ring, so it really a "Moth Effect" rather than a "Butterfly Effect"!
The larvae of the cinnabar moth eats the leaves of the ragwort plant making themselves and the adult moths they become poisonous. The red colour warns predators not to eat them as doing so could be fatal.
Red = DANGER
The cinnabar moth is actually named after the bright red mineral cinnabar, which is also poisonous.
A form or mercury sulfide, this mineral is highly toxic.
When ground it is used to create the pigment "Vermillion". Treasured for its vivid hue, it is the only red pigment that was known to the ancients. Vermillion was revered by the ancient Romans. They even used it to paint the faces of their victorious commanders during the "Roman Triumph" Ceremony.
Because pure cinnabar was so rare, vermillion became immensely expensive and the price had to be fixed by the Roman government at 70 sesterces per pound - ten times the price of red ochre.
The image above shows a fragment of Ancient Roman Fresco recently unearthed in Southern France, the colours still vivid after spending 2000 years buried in the dark. The use of the expensive red pigment shows how wealthy the inhabitants of the villa were.
You can read more about the history of this red pigment with Windsor & Newton's "Spotlight on Vermillion".