Eggcellent Art: Egg Symbolism in Art History
Have you ever looked at a painting, read a book, or watched a movie and thought, “Why do I keep seeing this same thing repeatedly?” More than likely, it is a symbolic motif. Directors often use colors in actors’ clothing to emphasize an allegory in their plot. We saw this in Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller “Us.” Pelle wanted his antagonists to wear red throughout the film, to appear like bloodstains on the screen. Authors and public speakers use anaphoras, a rhetorical literary device, to repeatedly make a point or to emphasize an idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used anaphoras in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. King used succeeding lines with the same beginning: “ I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi…I have a dream that my four little children will one day….I have a dream that one day in Alabama….” This literary device strategically places an emphasis on his goal to persuade his audience.
Artists use the same strategy. Often, they will use inanimate objects to symbolize a more profound meaning. Candles represent time passing; skulls and bones, unsurprisingly, represent death; flowers represent life and growth; the sun represents the strength of the male figure; the moon represents the strength of the female figure. But the commonplace yet powerful egg symbolizes all the aforementioned objects.
If you aren’t constantly analyzing art pieces, you may think of an egg as a breakfast choice. Fried. Scrambled. Over-easy. You might think of the infamous, existential-crisis-triggering question, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” Maybe you recall fond memories of Easter egg hunting when you were younger. These immediate associations are common; more literal interpretations of eggs are certainly understandable. However, creative thinkers and artists have conceptualized the humble egg’s larger purpose.
Artists have been using egg symbolism for hundreds of years. Beyond breakfast, eggs can represent the seemingly contradictory ideas of new life and death. Eggs are a common symbol of loss of innocence but also purity because of their white shell; we see this correlation in white wedding dresses and the Pope’s cassock. Likewise, cracked eggs represent the tainting of one’s integrity. Artists also use eggs to symbolize fertility and a woman’s reproductive system. In this way, eggs convey sentiments of both the beginning and end of life.
Eggs in Different Cultures and Religions
Aside from the egg’s symbolic meaning in paintings, many cultures and religions use eggs as a symbol that aligns with their beliefs. Asian cultures view the egg as a symbol of wealth, life, and longevity. It is a tradition in China to gift red eggs to families who recently had a baby; the child is given the red eggs until puberty. Ancient Japanese medicinal practices frequently used eggs, extending one’s longevity of life. Some ancient civilizations viewed eggs as the beginning of everything, tying the Earth and egg as one.
Easter eggs are among the most prevalent uses for eggs regarding traditions and religions in the Western world. As previously mentioned, eggs symbolize new life. Christians celebrate Easter as Jesus’ rising from the dead and ascension into heaven. Decorating and displaying eggs represents Christians' worship of Jesus and his new life in heaven.
On a lighter note, American pop culture popularized the egg in 2019 when an anonymous account posted an egg on Instagram, with the goal of getting the most likes on a photo. At that time, Kylie Jenner held the record for most Instagram likes (18 million). The egg soon gained fame and surpassed the previous world record, reaching 60.2 million likes and features in brand deals. After the egg gained over 18 million likes, the account revealed it was a campaign to promote mental health.
Eggs in Art History
Salvador Dalí is famous for incorporating eggs into his pieces for many reasons. His use of this symbolism is so prevalent in his work that the architects integrated the egg motif into the design of Dalí’s theatre and museum in Figueres, Spain.
Dalí is one of the founding fathers of Surrealism. His paintings contain multi-level meanings that viewers can interpret in many ways. As stated earlier, eggs can symbolize new life and new beginnings. Dalí’s Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man (1943) subliminally depicts a man emerging from an egg while two people look on. Further examination shows that the New Man’s head represents North America, and his hand resting on Europe symbolizes America’s ascent into power during WWII, which was supported by its European allies. Dalí uses the egg to portray new life and beginnings in this piece. The New Man is hatching from an egg, symbolizing birth; he also uses the egg to comment on his contemporary political climate. Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man is a fantastic example of how politics and war affect art history.
Like every other art movement, Surrealism has key characteristics that help viewers define its genre. Dalí perfectly illustrates these details in Eggs On A Plates Without The Plate using obscure landscapes, oversized proportions, and a surreal approach to the physical world. The form of the egg is worth noting because unlike Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, this piece features a fully cracked egg, sunny-side up style. Though a minor detail, a sunny-side-up egg reveals a more profound meaning—a life that could have been. Without fertilization, the hen lays a lifeless egg. Dalí said he experienced intra-uterine memories; this painting depicts what he saw in the womb: “grandiose, phosphorescent, and very detailed in all the folds of their faintly bluish whites.” This memory could be why eggs are so prevalent throughout Dalí’s career.
Although Dalí’s use of egg symbolism is by far the most popular, many other artists used his techniques in their own ways. Andy Warhol, known for his bold-colored pop art, created a not-so-subtle painting titled Eggs (1982). With the focus solely on eggs, you can’t help but wonder if there is a more profound meaning or if because it is so simple, there has to be more than meets the eye. As mentioned earlier, eggs often symbolize Easter in Christianity. Unlike Dalí, who often associated eggs with new life, Warhol created Eggs with faith in mind. Initially, this painting was given to family and friends during Easter, with multiple versions made.
Egg symbolism did not originate with Dalí and Warhol. As early as the 1400s, eggs have been the pinnacle of new life. Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna (1472-74) illustrates a scene with the Virgin Mary and Federico III da Montefeltro’s son, Guidobaldo. Above the Virgin and the baby is an egg attached to a string. The egg placement may represent Mary’s fecundity; she has the power to produce children without the need for fornication.
Aside from birth and death, one of the egg’s most common representations is of feminine fertility. In recent years, female artists have observed the longstanding imbalance of male artists depicting the experience of women. Thus, several talented women decided to take back the narrative.
Deborah Czeresko’s primary subject matter centers around male and female sexuality with undertones of feminism. After winning Netflix’s glass-blowing series Blown Away, Czeresko’s career took off with newfound attention. Her “Buffet Collection” features eggs in various forms, meats, and other common breakfast foods. Without context, this is a cute, eclectic glass-blowing collection. But when viewers understand Czereko’s beliefs, “Buffet Collection” becomes a feminist art exhibit with sharp commentary. With a display of cracked eggs and different types of meat, Czereko humorously contrasts female and male anatomy. Her approach to egg symbolism encapsulates multiple meanings: food, life, sexuality, and femininity.
Heather Glazzard is a well-known celebrity photographer who also dabbles in personal projects. Her photo “Egg” (2018) captures an uncooked, cracked egg delicately enveloped in cushion wrap. Glazzard’s choice to use an uncooked egg is worth mentioning. Its raw state represents its fragility and loose nature. This form may resonate with femininity and what living in a world made for men feels like—constantly needing to protect yourself.
Eggs In Film
Of course, paintings and sculptures aren’t the only types of art. Film and videography are at the centerfold of creativity. From costume design to motifs hidden in set design, movies are an “eggcellent” example of art.
Similar to Dalí’s collection of paintings, there is a recurring egg theme in Olivia Wilde’s 2022 film “Don’t Worry Darling.” Alice (Florence Pugh) cooks the same breakfast for her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), every morning—bacon and eggs. One morning, when she goes to crack the eggs, she finds they are empty. As previously mentioned, eggs are a symbol of fertility and life. Finding empty eggs symbolizes the emptiness Alice feels as a stay-at-home wife going insane.
The Hours (2002) is another psychological drama with women at the plot's core. There are various scenes with Clarissa (Meryl Streep) baking in the kitchen. In addition to the scenes’ emphasis on traditional domestic roles, The Hours touches on the stereotypical notion of women’s emotional fragility. Moments after baking a cake—cracking eggs—Clarissa has a mental breakdown after feeling the pressures of motherhood.
Scrambled or Symbol?
Though eggs might first evoke this morning’s breakfast, these hard-shelled balls of protein signify more than food. Eggs symbolize life, death, domesticity, fertility, and wealth across several cultures and religions. Art is an outlet for artists and filmmakers to meticulously create deep meanings from the tiniest details. Whether eggs are depicted to emphasize a geopolitical stance or to communicate the experience of womanhood, they carry a powerful significance. Sometimes, eggs symbolize a miscarriage—a life of what could have been. And sometimes, eggs are just eggs.
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