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Exploring the Beauty of Ukrainian Easter Eggs (Pysanky)

Updated on March 8, 2017
Dbro profile image

I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!

This Ancient Technique Melds Art and Spirit

Every year during the forty days of Lent gifted artists turn their talents to small "canvases" that most people take for granted and rarely notice - EGGS! These artists employ ancient methods to create their masterworks, using materials and techniques largely unchanged for centuries. These decorated eggs, known as pysanka (plural "pysanky") are more than beautiful objects; their symbolism and loving creation make them expressions of beauty and faith.

Method and Materials

The Ukrainian word "pysanka" actually translates "to write" in English. Pysanka artists literally "write" their designs onto eggs (chicken, duck, goose, even ostrich!) using a tool called a "kistka" (plural "kistky"). The kistka is heated in a candle flame so that beeswax can be melted into the "hopper" portion of the kistka. This melted wax then flows down through the tip of the kistka and onto the egg.

Kistky come with various sized openings for finer or thicker lines.
Kistky come with various sized openings for finer or thicker lines.

The process is based on a wax-resist method where melted beeswax is drawn onto the egg to preserve the color underneath. The first color preserved is white (or the natural shell color of the egg), so the wax is drawn over the parts of the egg destined to remain white. Once this wax hardens, the egg is dipped into the next lightest color in the design (frequently, but not always, yellow). Special vibrant dyes are used ranging from light yellow all the way to deep black with every color imaginable in between. When the dye is dry, the kitska and beeswax are used to cover the areas that are to remain that color. This process is repeated progressing through all the colors planned for the design from lightest to darkest. Each time, the latest color the egg is dyed is covered in wax where the artist wants that color to remain. Once the egg has been dyed the final, darkest color in the design, the process is complete. The egg is allowed to dry and then all the wax is removed to reveal the finished egg. To me, this is the best part of the whole process. To remove the wax, the egg is held near (but not over) a candle flame. As the wax melts it is wiped away with tissues. All of the wax is carefully removed, leaving a vibrant and beautiful work of art! At this point, the egg is usually covered with a finish (varnish, polyurethane, etc.) that adds shine and some small degree of strength to the egg.

This egg has the eight-pointed star as well as the pine branches.  The netting is a symbol for Jesus "fishing for men."
This egg has the eight-pointed star as well as the pine branches. The netting is a symbol for Jesus "fishing for men."
Again the eight-pointed star is present in this egg along with the pine branches.  Each egg usually has the main design repeated on two sides, with an intricate border separating them.
Again the eight-pointed star is present in this egg along with the pine branches. Each egg usually has the main design repeated on two sides, with an intricate border separating them.
Here is an egg with a fish design. The purple color represents royalty, faith, and patience.
Here is an egg with a fish design. The purple color represents royalty, faith, and patience.
This egg has the cross and triangles which represent the Holy Trinity.  I like this egg's unusual, almost African look.
This egg has the cross and triangles which represent the Holy Trinity. I like this egg's unusual, almost African look.

Symbolism and Meaning

Virtually every aspect of a pysanka has meaning beyond its surface appearance. Even the colors used on the eggs have symbolic meaning. For example, white represents purity and light; yellow represents the harvest, warmth, and perpetuation of the family; while red symbolizes hope, passion, blood, and the ministry of the church.

The designs on the eggs display Christian symbols as well as symbols for nature. Some frequently used symbols are, of course, the cross; as well as triangles, which represent the Holy Trinity. Meandering lines and pine branches symbolize eternal life and ladders suggest prayer or rising to heaven. Fish and the eight-pointed star are symbols for Christ.

Some symbols for the natural world are flowers, which denote femininity, wisdom, elegance and beauty, while birds represent fertility. Deer and horses are representations of wealth and prosperity.

Conclusion

Ukrainian Easter eggs are an ancient tradition that celebrate spring, nature, and religious faith. Each decorated egg is unique, yet inexorably tied to the traditions from which it arises. Creating these works of art is not only an exercise of manual dexterity and artistry, but also an expression of love and faith. There is much to learn from these delicate treasures, more than I can relate in one article. Many resources are available online and in books about this rich, vibrant art practiced each Lenten season. I would encourage you to explore them as well.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the fabulous world of pysanky. You can see more examples of the eggs I have made at my website, ruralgirlgraphics.com.

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    • Dbro profile image
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      Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks so much, Stephanie! If you visit my website, you can see more examples. I truly love this art form, and I create new eggs every year during the Lenten season, which means I need to get started soon! I'd love to be a contributor to your collection someday!

      There are very good resources for learning how to create these little works of art both online and in books. I actually got my start using a book designed for children to learn the art.

      Thanks again for your kind comments!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      I've long admired Ukrainian Easter eggs and have collected them when I come across someone who does them. Someday, I hope to learn the art and do some of my own! I love the ones you have pictured! If these are a sample of your work, they are incredible!

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Your comments mean so much to me, Pavlo! I'm flattered that you enjoyed my article. I love this beautiful tradition, and it means a lot that a "native" who was raised in this culture appreciates my efforts. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      As a Ukrainian I could not but stop and say - thank you for this hub! Traditions to paint eggs are some of the most cherished in Ukraine. We all like to do it and such a simple thing turned into a real art loved by all in Ukraine.

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for reading and commenting on this hub, Phdast7. I really enjoy the process of creating these eggs. It's so rewarding to take a "humble" item like an egg and turn it into something exquisite. You're right, it does require great patience - something all too rare these days! I'm glad to find someone who appreciates this art. Let me know if you'd like to add to your collection! :)

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for your kind comments, RTalloni! They are beautiful little works of art, aren't they? They do require a delicate touch and lots of patience. I really enjoy the process. It's nice to hear that people appreciate these little treasures!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Such meticulous work is required to produce these pieces. Thank you for this look at the art of pysanka. Your examples are beautiful.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Dbro- These are absolutely beautiful and the process obviously requires incredible amounts of time, patience, and talent. My Polish babcia made wax resist batiks, also incredibly labor intensive. I have a small collection of decorated wooden eggs that I got in Warsaw, but these are amazing. A great hub and thank you for introducing us to Ukrainian decorated eggs. :) SHARING.

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      No, Marla, not technically. Many times the contents of the egg are blown out before the dyeing process begins. These contents can be captured and used in recipes, etc. (that's what I do). Some pysanky artists leave the eggs intact and over time the contents dry up. The decorated eggs are little works of art and are kept for generations. I hope this answers your question.

    • Marla Neogra profile image

      Marla J Neogra 5 years ago from Parkersburg, West Virginia

      Do they eat the eggs?