Madder Eggs

No, no, the eggs are not mad. I only mean the color.

Madder red is the older term for alizarin crimson, known to the pharaohs and the residents of Pompeii. A crucial coloring agent for textiles during the Industrial Revolution, it was also the first plant-derived pigment to be produced synthetically in the nineteenth century. As splendid as it was ubiquitous, it became the most popular color for Easter eggs in European folk traditions.
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Madder was cherished throughout the Czech regions, in Hungary, even into northwest England where eggs were dyed by being wrapped directly in the plant leaves. Madder was the traditional choice for dyeing Easter eggs in Greece, Russia, and Cyprus. A Macedonian children’s rhyme asks: “Oh when will Easter come, bringing red eggs?”

Boris Kustodiev. Easter Morning (1911); Regional Gallery, Astrakhan, Russia.
Boris Kustodiev. Easter Morning (1911); Regional Gallery, Astrakhan, Russia.

European folklore is drenched in madder red, believed to avert harm, ward off evil. History gives us the witness of one Nicholas Kirchmeyer-Naogeorgus, writing in 1553 of Alsatian parents giving their children a red egg on Easter morning to insure rosy cheeks, a promise of long life. Scandinavian and Transylvanian legends testify to madder’s more cosmic protective powers: red Easter eggs are a stay against the Antichrist who seeks the end of the world. Earthly love gets a boost from madder as well. “The Heavens are blue, The eggs they are red, And I will love thee, Until I am dead!” So goes an old German pledge.

Anonymous illustration of an Easter festival. Poland (c. 1920-30)
Anonymous illustration of an Easter festival. Poland (c. 1920-30)

Association between divine love and the color red existed in ancient Roman. It was said that a hen laid a red egg when Alexander Severus, last of the Severan emperors, was born. The egg signaled Alexander’s claim on divinity in death.
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Christian lore, with its magpie genius for appropriation, adapted the symbol to its own purposes. In parts of Austria, they say that while the Easter Hare, a famously randy little fellow, produces eggs in a promiscuous range of colors on Easter Sunday, it only lays red ones on Maundy Thursday in honor of the Passion of Christ.

But do hares lay eggs? Only a Gradgrind would ask. Stick with the program and you’ll find out that, in the old Yugoslavia, the Virgin Mary brought eggs stained at the foot of the Cross by the blood of Christ. In Russia, Mary Magdelene could be seen carrying an egg which turned red as proof—a living argument—of the Resurrection. Anthony Jenkinson, traveler to Russia on behalf of the British Crown in the 1500s, noted that ordinary Russians carried red eggs at Easter, while the Better Sort had theirs gilded.

Madder red even has its own historian: Robert Chenciner. His Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade plucks the rainbow to tell you everything a curious person wants to know about the culture—in every sense of the word—of one brilliant segment of the spectrum.

• • • •
I’ve saved the best image for last. Those of you who stayed to the end of this meandering précis of Easter egg scholarship have your reward. Herewith, the loveliest Easter egg of all:

Egg crackingThe photo was sent a few days ago by a friend who raises chickens on his property in Indiana. This egg is still in the incubator. Feathers wet with amniotic fluid, the chick has just begun to peck its way into the world. It performs its first fragile rite, the liturgy of birth repeated down the ages. I think of Hopkins: “He fathers forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.”