Celebrating Easter the Art History Way- Fabergé Eggs
The humble Easter egg has come a long way in symbolism both religious and artistic. It was first seen in Medieval times as rich individuals would gift each other chicken eggs as a symbol of Easter; the egg reflecting its message of renewal and a fertile promise of new life.
This practice flitted in and out of fashion over the resulting centuries, before being utterly revolutionised in 1885 by the Russian House of Fabergé.
The tale goes that the then Russian Tsar, Alexander III, was separated from his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna,by duties abroad. As it was the time the twentieth anniversary of their betrothal and, coincidentally near Easter, he called on Russian fine jewellers House of Fabergé to commission a love token to ease her loneliness on the date.
The fruit of Fabergé’s labour puts to shame every man who has ever celebrated a late remembered anniversary with a dash for some flowers at a petrol station forecourt. Known as the Hen Egg, the pure white enamel shell opened to reveal a golden orb evoking yolk. In turn this golden yolk opened to reveal a hen, with feathers painstakingly etched into the gold by hand. Within this hen was held the third and final surprise, a red ruby.
The Empress was enthralled with this gift, such that Fabergé was appointed ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’ and each year at their Easter anniversary, a new egg was commissioned.
With the added pressures each year of renown, resources and expectation, Fabergé worked to exceed expectations year upon year- resulting in more and more elaborate and exotic designs.
The crux of his design work was the element of surprise, consistently containing internal chambers or slots which could be tinkered to reveal yet more jewels and craftsmanship.
One modern understanding of it might be to imagine a Rubik’s cube encrusted with jewels, revealing yet more extravagant gems with each successful twist and alignment.
We might catch a glimmer of this pleasure in the unknown in the modern day Kinder surprise, which still contains little toys to be assembled, internal to the chocolate shell. I remember in my childhood the fun and intrigue of these eggs, focusing on assembling the little plastic toy during which time the chocolate itself would have often either been melted or scoffed by one of my brothers.
Whilst the stakes and value are not quite on parallel, shall we say, with these ornate Fabergé eggs, it has all the hallmarks of this reveal and conceal philosophy Fabergé brought to his work. Bringing a sense of suspense and mystery which makes each person, Russian Empress and modern child alike, a momentary treasure hunter.