Dyeing and colouring eggs is apparently an ancient custom, and when eggs became incorporated into the Christian tradition of Easter, it was only natural that they were decorated for the occasion. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday for many Christians, and in a week’s time for those of Orthodox churches, many adults and children will go on an Easter egg hunt. By comparison, the fad for chocolate eggs didn’t really get going until the late nineteenth century, when the chocolatiers Frys and Cadburys first manufactured their sweet products. It has been downhill ever since, thanks to the Easter bunny.
Today, I go on my own egg hunt through European paintings, where they’re surprisingly uncommon. I’ll start with the weirdest, and end up on the table.
By any stretch of the imagination, the story of Leda, the swan and their eggs must be the most incredible of all ancient Greek and Roman myths. In the Greek version, Zeus appeared to Leda as a swan. Both he and Tyndareus impregnated Leda at about the same time, but as Zeus was then in the form of a swan, her twin pregnancies resulted in two eggs: one hatched into Castor, who was human because his father was Tyndareus; the other hatched into Polydeuces (Latin Pollux), who was divine as his father was Zeus. Then when Nemesis was being pursued by Zeus she tried shape-shifting to avoid being raped by him. Unfortunately for her, when she changed into a goose, Zeus became a gander and she succumbed. Being a goose at the time, she too laid an egg, and that was found and taken to Leda to care for and presumably incubate with the two she had already.
This interpreted copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan, probably painted in the early 1500s and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, summarises a later account of these unique births, with two eggs and a fourth baby, Clytemnestra.
By comparison, the stories of Sinbad the sailor seem more credible.
Elihu Vedder’s The Roc’s Egg (1868) shows a scene from the second voyage of Sinbad, when he’s accidentally abandoned on an island where there are roc eggs. Rocs are enormous legendary birds which appear in various ancient sources. Here the sailors remove the contents of one of the roc’s giant eggs, and cook them on an open fire.
The Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani’s undated Lamb comes with symbolic associations of Easter, both the season for lambing and the Christian festival centred on the symbolism of the lamb. Shown are Easter eggs and a symbol of Easter, together with the meadow flowers of Spring. Around the lamb’s neck is a red and white ribbon, symbolising the death of Jesus Christ.
Eggs are most frequently seen in still life paintings, where they’re an opportunity for the artist to demonstrate their technical skills in depicting form.
The New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins painted Still Life Eggs, Tomatoes and Mushrooms in 1929, showing the preparation rather than consumption of a meal.
It may come as a surprise that Claude Monet painted some fine still lifes, among them this late Still Life with Eggs from 1907. This parallels his late style well with its dissolution of form.
Diego Velázquez’ brilliant Old Woman Frying Eggs from 1618 is one of his early bodegone. In addition to the frying eggs, he demonstrates his skills with a wide range of reflective and transparent objects, including bright reflections on the flask of wine, the cooking pot for the eggs, and the mortar and pestle.
In the same year, Velázquez mixed religious narrative in a bodegone, in Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In the foreground, the two women are busy preparing the food in their kitchen, in true bodegone style. Common to his earlier paintings are the mortar and pestle and eggs. Seen either in a framed mirror, or perhaps through an internal window such as a serving hatch, is the religious narrative of Christ with Martha and Mary.
These bring me to the eating of eggs.
In 1901, the Nabi artist Maurice Denis painted the most patterned painting I have ever seen in his Breakfast, with its superb backdrop of the coast on a windy day. As you might expect, there on the gingham tablecloth is an egg-cup complete with its boiled egg.
These days such traditional fare has been superseded by fast food, but even here the humble egg makes an appearance. Admittedly in Tjalf Sparnaay’s Sandwich Ham-Egg (2014) it has been hard-boiled and sliced first.
I wish you happy hunting tomorrow.