Why are there Ostrich Eggs in Medieval Churches?

By Lorris Chevalier

The peculiar practice of placing ostrich eggs in medieval church sanctuaries has left historians and theologians puzzled for centuries. 

The medieval treasure inventories mention natural curiosities – in addition to ostrich eggs, they include nautilus shells, ivory tusks, antelope or unicorn horns, fire stones, meteorites, griffin claws, not to mention giant teeth and bones – and sometimes specify their function, albeit more rarely their liturgical use. It is therefore necessary to grasp the context of the mentalities of the time to try to understand their purpose.


While the reasons behind this tradition (which is still common in Coptic churches) remain speculative, various theories have emerged to shed light on this enigmatic custom. This article delves into the intriguing history and potential explanations for the presence of ostrich eggs in medieval church sanctuaries.

This might be the earliest depiction of an ostrich egg in a medieval church – BNF Latin 757 Missale et horae ad usum Fratrum Minorum, 1385-1390, Milan, Lombardy, Italy, f.291v

The Ancient Sacredness of the Ostrich Eggs

Ostrich eggs, with their large size and distinctive appearance, have long been associated with symbolism in different cultures. Their use in sacred contexts is common among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Medieval Christianity certainly adopted this ancient tradition but also presents its own “mythology” around these eggs, whose size already lends itself to the marvelous.


In the Bible, ostrich eggs are mentioned in the Book of Job (39:13-17):

The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully,
though they cannot compare
with the wings and feathers of the stork.
She lays her eggs on the ground
and lets them warm in the sand,
unmindful that a foot may crush them,
that some wild animal may trample them.
She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
she cares not that her labor was in vain
for God did not endow her with wisdom
or give her a share of good sense.

Thus, the clergy of the Middle Ages decided to hang eggs so that none would be fickle and forgetful like the ostrich who forgets to brood over their eggs. If the faithful’s eyes rise and flutter to contemplate the church’s vault, they see a sign inviting them to be focused.

14th-century reliquary making use of an ostrich egg. Now part of the Collections of the Treasury of Sint-Servaasbasiliek – photo by Saliko / Wikimedia Commons

A symbol of the church

Furthermore, the hard and durable shell of the ostrich egg has been interpreted as a representation of the protective nature of faith. Just as the eggshell provides a secure environment for the developing chick, the Church sought to create a sanctuary that safeguarded the spiritual well-being of its congregation.

The ostrich egg, with its preciousness and fragility, also becomes a symbol of faith and good deeds (bona opera) that the believer must perform through faith, but always to be placed under the protective vault of the church. If one does their good deeds on their own, they will derive pride from it; the work will be in vain and futile. According to the image of the ostrich in the Book of Job, it may lead the believer to neglect their own children despite the beautiful plumage that God had given to the ostrich. Therefore, there is a denounced hypocrisy here in the son of the church who, by frivolity or pride, betrays by not giving all honour and glory to God for the good deeds performed.


The egg in its roundness is also a symbol of finitude and unity. The quote related to the ostrich in the Bible resonates with Jesus’ quote from Saint Matthew (23, 37): “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Assembler les gens ensemble (to assemble people together) is a common motif in moral poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. Following Saint Augustine’s advice, “Let us place our egg, our hope, beneath the wings of that hen.” (Augustine, Sermon 105, 11; PL 38, 623).

The egg is the imago of the church and its purpose to gather the faithful.

A symbol of repentance

Following the example of the ostrich, the medieval man, upon seeing the ostrich egg, should turn away from earthly possessions and strive for his heavenly treasure.


When explaining the ornamentation used in various churches, William Durandus, Bishop of Mende and member of the Roman Curia, says:

In some churches two eggs of ostriches and other things which cause admiration, and which are rarely seen, are accustomed to be suspended: that by their means the people may be drawn to the church, and have their minds more affected. Again, some say that the ostrich, as being a forgetful bird, leaves her eggs in the dust; and at length, when she beholds a certain star, returns unto them, and cheereth them by her presence. Therefore, the eggs of ostriches are hung in churches to signify that man, being left of God on account of his sins, if at length he be illuminated by the divine light, remember his faults and return to Him, who by looking at him with His mercy, cherishes him. As it is written in Luke that after Peter had denied Christ, ‘the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.’ Therefore the aforesaid eggs suspended in churches, this signifying, that man easily forgets God, unless being illuminated by a star, that is, by the influence of the Holy Spirit, he is reminded to return to Him by good works.

Brera Madonna by Piero della Francesca (c. 1472)

A Symbol of Ressurection Victory over Death and Jesus’ Resurrection

In Christian theology, the egg is a powerful symbol of Resurrection. The cracking open of the eggshell symbolizes the breaking of the seal of the tomb, leading to the emergence of new life. This parallels the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the subsequent promise of eternal life for believers.

The egg as a tomb symbol emphasizes the victory of Christ over death. The sealed tomb, like the closed egg, represents the defeat and containment of death. The breaking of the eggshell, akin to the opening of the tomb, signifies the triumph of life over death, symbolizing Christ’s victory in overcoming the grave.


It is therefore normal to find one’s eggs being used during the Easter festivities. The 13th-century troubadour-baron Savari de Mauléon wrote about a curious custom he observed during Matins at the abbey of St. Maurice of Angiers on Easter Day:

At the conclusion of matins, two chaplains take their place behind the altar curtains. To corbeliers (Cubiculares) is dalmatics, amices, and mitallae, with gloves on their hands, present themselves before the altar. The chaplains chant Quem quaeritis (3) The corbeliers, representing the Maries [at the tomb], reply “Jesum Nazarenum Crucifixum.” The others answer, “Resurrexit, non est hic.” The corbeliers take from the altar two ostrich eggs wrapped in silk, and go forth, chanting, “Alleluia resurrexit Dominus, resurrexit Leo Fortis, Christus, Filius Dei.”

One can also see the symbol of the Marys bringing perfumes and ointments to embalm the body of Christ. Or perhaps the eggs symbolize the gift of faith, which was granted upon hearing that Christ was resurrected. It is crucial to note the movement of the eggs from the altar to the hands of the corbeliers, signifying faith as a gift from God.

A cosmic sign to not forget GOD

Upon seeing an ostrich egg, the medieval man must not forget the graces received and should return to his creator. Just as the ostrich observes the stars, the faithful must observe the signs that God sends and that the clergy suspend in the churches to remind of the truths of the faith.

An asida (‘ostrich’) with eggs. Bestiary, in the Dicta Chrysostomi form, British Library Sloane MS. 278, fol. 53v

One 13th-century English Bestiary describes the ostrich thus:

There is an animal called the assida, ‘stratocameleon’ in Greek, whose real name is the ostrich. It has feathers, but it does not fly; its feet are like those of the camel. When the time comes for it to lay its eggs, it lifts its eyes to heaven and looks to see if the stars called the Pleiades have appeared; it will not lay its eggs until these stars have appeared. When, in about the month of June, it sees those stars, it digs in the earth, lays its eggs and covers them in sand. When it gets up from that place, it at once forgets them and never returns to its eggs. The peaceful weather seems to ensure that the heat of the summer will warm the sand and hatch the chicks.

If the ostrich thus knows its proper time, and forgets its offspring, laying aside earthly things to follow the course of heaven, how much more, O man, should you turn to the prize of summons from on high, for which God was made man, so that He wills snatch you from the powers of darkness and set you with the princes of His people in the kingdom of His glory.

By nature forgetful, the ostrich is reminded of its duty when a certain star appears in the sky and returns to brood over its eggs at the time of hatching. Similarly, man, enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, recalls God’s memory through the practice of good works.

These eggs thus serve to anchor the wandering mind, in the manner of an image – qua imago – and ultimately materialize the good works.

Father Vansleb was a 17th-century visitor who also described the Coptic custom of hanging ostrich eggs in the churches. He knew from an Arabic manuscript that the male and female ostrich hatches their eggs by using their eyes and staring at their eggs. He confirms that the ostrich eggs were placed in the Coptic churches to assist the priests to concentrate during their prayers and devotions away from any earthly problems.

Was it just admired or used?

We have seen that the egg had a particular significance during Easter. The church, a place where miracles are daily occurrences, preserves the mirabilia to ‘stage’ them and thus attract the faithful to its embrace. These natural curiosities function as exempla, meaning that these objects have a moral importance beyond being simple objects to admire. The ostrich egg, designated sometimes as struthio, sometimes as ovum striithionis in inventories, is now perceived through the moralized filter of lapidaries or bestiaries.

In his presentation of the church ornaments, William Durand specifies the reasons for which, on certain occasions, the treasure is displayed to the people: due to the solemnity of the occasion, and especially for the purpose of memory, to recall past donations and celebrate the memoria of the donors.

Ostrich eggs are rarities that exert a strong attraction on the faithful and evoke wonder, with a specific purpose in mind. It appears that from the 13th century onward, curiositas of this kind were entrusted to master artisans, sometimes transforming the objects for a specific liturgical use. For example, in Halberstadt, the two eggs were mounted as a pyx.

The tradition of placing ostrich eggs in medieval church sanctuaries remains an intriguing mystery, with multiple factors likely contributing to this enigmatic practice. While the exact reasons may remain diverse, the legacy of these eggs endures as a testament to the diverse and multifaceted nature of medieval religious traditions.

Dr Lorris Chevalier, who has a Ph.D. in medieval literature, is a historical advisor for movies, including The Last Duel and Napoleon.

Further Readings:

Mariaux, Pierre-Alain, “Curiositas et curiosités naturelles au Moyen Âge: quelques remarques sur les ‘naturalia’ au service de la liturgie,” In: Kunst und Liturgie im Mittelalter (2005), 6-11.

William Durandus, Rationale Divinum Officiorum, ed. Neville Blakemore Jr. (Fons Vitae: Louisville, KY., 2007), 59-60.

Kitat, Sara El-Sayed. “Ostrich Egg and its Symbolic Meaning in the Ancient Egyptian Monastery Churches,” Journal of the General Union of Arab Archaeologists (2014).