By Adele Kenny |
The art of decorating eggs is an age-old practice rich in history, steeped in regional flavor, and rooted in both secular and religious traditions. The egg is an archetypal symbol of creation, fertility, hope, and rebirth that has, since early times, captured the imaginations of artists, potters, jewelers, designers, craftspeople, and collectors throughout the world. Synonymous with the miracle of life, the egg’s smooth, symmetrical form lends itself well to the symbolic and to the ornamental.
Recognized for their mystical power to create new life, eggs were incorporated into the creation myths and arcane rituals of various pre-Christian cultural and religious groups. The earliest decorated eggs were ostrich eggs, some of which were found in Neolithic graves from pre-dynastic Egypt. The Druids dyed eggs scarlet in honor of the sun, and egg coloring has been traced to ancient civilizations in China, Greece, and Rome.
Decorated eggs are associated with pagan ritual and Eostre, a fertility goddess whose Ostara festival coincided with the vernal equinox. Legend holds that when Eostre changed her pet bird into a rabbit, it laid brightly colored eggs that she gave to children. Eostre’s festival probably gave Easter its name and place in the Christian liturgical calendar. Her hare myth most likely gave rise to the Easter Bunny and the tradition of giving decorated eggs as gifts. Ostara Eggs, dyed with symbolic colors obtained from natural herb and vegetable sources, are still prepared by practitioners of the old customs.
Christian legends that include egg “decoration” are common throughout the world where egg symbolisms changed from pagan representations of nature’s rebirth to the rebirth of humankind. For example, one Ukrainian folk tale describes a man who carried a basket of eggs from the countryside into Jerusalem. He came upon a crowd of people mocking a man who staggered and fell under the weight of a heavy cross. Dropping his basket, he ran to the man’s aid. Later, he returned to find his eggs and discovered that their shells had been transformed into beautiful colors. That man was Simon the Cyrene, and the man with the cross was Christ.
Various decorated eggs, antique and contemporary, include Pysanky, painted, colored, cloisonné, enameled, ceramic, sculpted, wooden, and glass styles. From a mixed history of ethnic, folk, and spiritual foundations, egg decorating reached the pinnacle of ingenious design and flawless workmanship under the direction of Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Fabergé’s fanciful, jewel-encrusted eggs represent an incomparable mix of meticulous attention to detail, technical perfection, and richness of material that has yet to be surpassed.
Peter Carl was the eldest son of jeweler Gustav Fabergé. Born in St. Petersburg in 1846, Peter was apprenticed to a goldsmith in Germany. By the age of twenty-four, he had inherited his father’s workshop in St. Petersburg and soon attracted the attention of Tsar Alexander III and his wife Maria Feodorovna. Around 1884, the Tsar commissioned Peter to create the first in a series of Imperial Easter Eggs as an Easter gift for the Tsarina. It consisted of a two-halved enameled, platinum shell that opened to reveal a round yellow gold “yolk” and a ruby-eyed golden hen sitting on a gold and enameled nest. The surprise inside, now lost, was a diamond replica of the Imperial crown and a tiny ruby pendant. Maria Feodorovna was so delighted with her gift that Alexander arranged with Fabergé to fashion a jeweled egg for his wife every Easter.
Some Imperial eggs were gloriously whimsical while others were executed with stunning realism. According to the Tsar’s only stipulation, each egg contained a surprise. Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, continued the tradition when he became Tsar and presented Fabergé eggs to his mother and his wife at Easter. Now internationally valued, these intimate tokens of affection were not widely known until after the Romanov dynasty came to its tragic end with the execution of Nicholas and his family. When the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna fled from Russia in 1918, she carried with her the Cross of St. George Imperial Egg that had been her son’s last Easter gift in 1916.
Fabergé has inspired many artisans, crafters, and companies. Using simulated egg forms in various materials and real eggs in every size from quail and robin to rhea, emu, and ostrich, the shells are decorated with beads, pearls, rhinestones, precious, semi-precious, and faux gems. Often small, hinged doors cut into the shells open to reveal figural depictions or special surprises in the manner of Fabergé.
Jeweled egg values are determined by condition, quality of craftsmanship, design, and materials. The most costly are made with precious metals and gems, but those crafted from modest materials are often equally lovely and more affordable. Numerous firms offer jeweled eggs, and some are sold through mail order catalogs for a wide range of prices. Others are featured in specialty shops and shows.
Years ago, I asked my mom, an eggeury artist, why she found such joy in crafting jeweled eggs. Her answer was, “Because taking a humble egg and raising it to eggs-quisite heights may make someone smile.”