What Does the Egg Symbolize in Art?

Copy by Cesare da Sesto (1505-10) of  Leonardo da Vinci's  “Leda and the Swan"  also called “the lost painting.” is one of history’s great art losses.  The original of this is lost, probably deliberately destroyed, and was last recorded in the French royal Château de Fontainebleau in 1625.

Copy by Cesare da Sesto (1505-10) of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Leda and the Swan” also called “the lost painting.” The original is one of history’s great art losses, probably intentionally destroyed, and was last recorded in the French royal Château de Fontainebleau in 1625.

The dominant symbol for the mystery of original creation is the egg.  Throughout the world, the egg is a propitious symbol, suggesting luck, wealth and health. Magical eggs of gold or silver are guarded by dragons; and from eggs gods and heroes are born.  In one story, Helen of Troy came from an egg that had fallen from the moon. Alternatively she was born from an egg laid by Leda, queen of Sparta, after she had coupled with a swan (the god Zeus in disguise.) Later that night Leda also slept with her mortal husband. She laid two eggs; from on came Polydeuces and Helen, and from the other Castor and Clytemnestra. Also associated with the promise and hope of spring, the egg took a ready-made place in Christian Easter ceremonies as a symbol of resurrection.  Eucharistic implications are suggested by the tradition of eating eggs at the end of Lent. In Jewish custom, at the Seder meal the egg is a symbol of promise and traditionally it is the first food offered to Jewish mourners.

Piero della Francesca’s altarpiece  "Madonna and Child with Saints" (1472-74) Note the  large ostrich egg hanging from the shell in the apse above the Madonna

Piero della Francesca’s altarpiece “Madonna and Child with Saints” (c. 1450) Note the large ostrich egg hanging from the shell in the apse above the Madonna

A curious old folkloric notion that Ostrich eggs hatch themselves is connected to the use in art of an egg to symbolize the Immaculate Conception – as in Piero della Francesca’s altarpiece Madonna and Child with Saints (c. 1450);  ostrich eggs also feature as symbols of resurrection on tombs found in Coptic churches.  In many myths, ranging from Egypt and India to the Far East and Oceanic, the initial process of creation and birth begins when a cosmic egg (sometimes fertilized by a serpent but more often laid in the primeval sea by a giant bird) gives form to chaos, and from it hatches the sun (the golden yolk) leading to the division of earth and sky and the multiplicity of life, natural and supernatural.  The creation symbolism of the egg is strengthened by the egg shape of the testicles and by the sexual duality of the egg’s yolk and white:  in the Congo, the yolk stands for female warmth, while the white symbolizes male sperm.

The ancient Native American archaeological site in Adams County, Ohio called the “Great Serpent Mound” features a snake’s body with a coiled tail similar to that of the Kundalini lying dormant in the sacrum. In its mouth appears an egg, symbol of the potential actualization of Second Birth.  Is it possible, that the ancient Native American people were more than aware of the Divine Feminine as well as the symbolic, spiritual significance of the Serpent Power and the Primordial Egg?

•  Woods, Kim, Making  Renaissance Art, Yale University Press
•  Web Gallery of Art, www.wga.hu
•  Tresidder, Jack, Symbols and Their Meanings, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006
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19 Responses to What Does the Egg Symbolize in Art?

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