Exploring the Beauty of Ukrainian Easter Eggs (Pysanky)
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.
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.
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.
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.