Pysanka, the traditional Ukrainian folk art of decorating Easter eggs traces back to ancient times, wherein myths were crafted about the egg as the source of life, the sun and the universe. Ukrainians still strongly adhere to many of the ancient traditions associated with the egg.
The Ukrainian Museum in New York City presents their annual Pysanka: The Ukrainian Easter Egg through October 5, 2014. For many people, especially Ukrainians, spring holds the promise of rejuvenation and rebirth to signal the season for Easter traditions. The museum showcases approximately 300 pysanky, the exceptional Easter eggs known throughout the world for their elaborate and colorfully decorated designs. The exhibit draws from its extensive folk art collection from a range of regional styles, colors and assorted motifs.
Since the 10th century or possibly earlier, the art of creating Ukrainian pysanky has been handed down through the generations. The Ukrainian pysanka (from the word pysanky meaning to write) was said to have incredible power not only in the egg itself, which held the nucleus of life, but also in the symbolic designs and colors that were drawn in a precise manner, according to set rituals. The intricately decorated eggs were used for various religious and social occasions, and considered to be a benevolent talisman.
Many legends still flourish about the pysanka but the Hutsuls’ (Ukrainians who inhabit the Carpathian Mountains) lore is the most widespread. They trust that the fate of the world rests on the pysanka. If the decorating ritual endures, the world will exist. However, should the custom be forsaken, malevolence in the form of a horrifying serpent who is chained to a cliff for all eternity, will ravage the world.
Each year, the serpent dispatches his underlings into the world to see how many pysanky have been produced. If the number of eggs is minimal, his chains are undone, and the serpent is at liberty to roam the earth causing chaos and destruction. Conversely, if the number of decorated eggs has increased, the chains are tightened and good prevails over evil another year.
The ornamentation of the pysanky is composed of geometric motifs, with plant and animal elements. There are hundreds of variations but the most significant motif is the stylized symbol of the sun – a broken cross, triangle and an eight-point star or rosette. Other popular designs include stylized flowers, the tree of life, endless lines and leaves. Christian elements may include the church, the cross and fish.
Using only fresh, uncooked eggs, each piece takes approximately four hours to create. The process of decorating pysanky is through a wax resistant method or batik using candle or beeswax to the parts that will remain white.
A specialized stylus called the kistka is used to write the design in hot wax. Eggs are then dipped into a series of colored baths with wax applied after each dipping. Once the final color has set, the egg is dipped in hot water and all of the wax is removed. A hard glaze is applied to protect the egg from damage.
According to Sofia Zielyk, author of The Art of the Pysanka, since older people’s lives are already complete, they should receive an egg with rich designs and/or darker colors. Whereas, younger people’s lives are still considered a blank page, so their pysanka should have white as the predominant color.
Color schemes hold a symbolic meaning. Red symbolizes the sun, joy and life; green represents plant life and the rebirth of spring; yellow symbolizes fertility, wealth and a successful harvest. In the past, artisans used natural elements such as beets, onion skins, bark, saffron and twigs to prepare their dyes. Artists nowadays use chemical dyes, and everything from petite quail eggs to huge ostrich eggs is bedecked.
In pre-Christian times, eggs were believed to be magical objects, and were honored during spring festivals as the source of life. As a result, the power of the egg became a mysterious entity to pagan believers. With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, the egg became a vital element of the Easter ritual associated with the new religion. In modern-day, the art of the pysanka was brought with Ukrainian émigrés to South and North America when Soviet rule eliminated the practice due to its religious connotation. However, today there is a return to the ancient art of pysanka both in Ukraine and around the world.
By: Dawn Levesque