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History and Technique

I've heard about the Easter Egg Hunt in the United States, and I am very curious about my future experience on this Easter Sunday. At the same time I want share with you my own excitement about Ukrainian Easter eggs, one of the most sacred elements of our culture.

You’ve probably already heard something about it; this ancient form of art is common for many other eastern European countries. Still, just one and a half years ago during archaeological research in my hometown Lviv, a 500-year-old Easter egg was discovered. Also, ceramic eggs have been discovered in Ukraine dating back to 1300 B.C. In my country, this tradition is passed down from generation to generation.

Geometric motifs on Ukrainian Easter eggs, some from the Neolithic Trypilian era, Skvyra county, Kyiv gubernia, 1906
Geometric motifs on Ukrainian Easter eggs, some from the Neolithic Trypilian era, Skvyra county, Kyiv gubernia, 1906 (from V. Shcherbakivsky's Ornamentation of the Ukrainian Home (Rome 1980).

The traditional method of drawing intricate patterns on eggs involves a stylus and wax. The word ‘pysanka’, that we use for naming Easter egg, comes from the Ukrainian word ‘pysaty’, which means to write. This is because the ornamentation is most commonly applied with a writing tool (called ‘kistka’ or ‘pysal’tse’) through which melted beeswax flows in the same manner as ink flows through a fountain pen. 

Pysanky are decorated by a complicated dye process similar to batik. Melted beeswax is applied with a stylus to a fresh egg—raw, and clear of blemishes. The egg is dipped into a succession of dye baths, starting from the lightest, usually yellow, and ending with the darkest, typically black. Between each dipping, wax is applied over areas where the preceding color is to remain. After all the designing is complete, the wax is melted off and a hard glaze is applied. Bees wax is used because it stays liquid longer than paraffin, is more pliable, and has an adhering quality; and, of course, bee-keeping was very common in Ukraine, so a large natural supply was on hand.

Symbol(ic) and Ornament Meaning

Many researchers say that pysanka was a symbol of microcosmos in representations of ancient people. Or the Earth, where the crust is a shell, the magma is an egg white, and the core is a yolk. Nowadays it plays role of transmission of spiritual culture from ancestry to our generation, from us to posterity. As an expression of our personal spiritual ‘I’ through lines, colors and composition, using our own mental and esthetic endeavours.

Pysanky were considered to be a talisman, a protector against evil, as well as harbingers of good. The symbolic ornamentation of them consists of geometric motifs, with some animal and plant elements. The most important motif is the stylized symbol of the sun, which is seen as a broken cross, triangle, an eight point rosette, or a star. Other popular motifs are endless lines, stylized flowers, leaves, the tree of life and also some animal figures such as stags, horses, or birds. The pagan superstitions were replaced by religious beliefs and legends. The Christian influence brought elements such as the cross, the church, and fish. Much detailed explanation of the ornaments with illustrations you can find on the English-language website about pysanky.

Colors also are very important. The eggs are dyed in warm colors dominated by red, representing the life-giving substance blood, which stands for love and happiness. Other colors are yellow—the color of ripe crops, honey, amber, and gold represents the moon and wishes for a good harvest. Green symbolizes the growth power of plants. Brown and black, the Mother Earth. White symbolizes purity.

Traditionally pysanky are kept in the home from year to year as decorations and as protection from evil, fire, and lightning. Friends exchange pysanky that have been blessed on Easter morning to commemorate Christ’s teachings of peace and love. And now it is really common to gather with friends or family for writing pysanky every year before Easter. In Kyiv National Center of Folk Culture "Ivan Honchar Museum" there even was started annual festival-competition for families with the following exhibition afterwards.

Traditional & Contemporary

Design motifs and colors can be traced to different areas in Ukraine, most which have been modernized due to the natural evolution of the art. Traditional pysanka designs from centuries past have been almost lost, but the technique lives on. There are a lot of different kinds and used ornaments, which you could easily find in the internet. I decided to make a more specific overview to illustrate this topic.

On one hand, I've chosen to present you the traditional pysanky from particular region of Ukraine—Carpathian Mountains, where people still keep alive all of the ancient traditions in their daily life. Here you will see exhibits from Pysanka Museum in Kolomyia, Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Pysanka Museum
Both from: Rohatyn, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 2007.

Pysanka Museum
From: Stari Kuty, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1988.

Pysanka Museum
Top from left: Torhovytsya, Horodenka district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1985; Kosmach, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 2007; Shepit, Putyla district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1990.

Lower from left: Stari Kuty, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1988;  Kobaky, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1985; Dzhuriv, Snyatyn district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 2008.

Pysanka Museum
From:  Kosmach, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 2007.


Pysanka Museum
From left: Krasnostavtsi, Snyatyn district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1987;  Dzhuriv, Snyatyn district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 2007; Kosmach, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1985.

Pysanka Museum
From: Chervonograd, Lviv region, 2002.

To summarize this traditional part, I want to suggest that you watch a short video about one Ukrainian woman, who is making pysanky—keeping with all ancient traditions.

On the other hand, I want to show how this technique could be used by modern artists. Dzvinka Zagaiska is a young artist from Lviv, graduated from Lviv National Academy of Arts, where she's currently working. Besides that, she's in love with folk art and traditions and an active member of Plast National Scouting Organization in Ukraine.

Dzvinka Zagaiska

Dzvinka Zagaiska

Dzvinka Zagaiska

Dzvinka Zagaiska

Dzvinka Zagaiska

Dzvinka Zagaiska

What I really love about this is that you don't have to be an artist at all. You just need a little bit of imagination. This process of 'writing' pysanky is quite addictive, especially when you're making it for your good friends. I hope that, as pysanky are the symbol of new life in nature, that this article will bring a piece of spring to your daily life. 

While writing this post, I used materials of The Ukrainian Museum in New York City; Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland; National Museum of Hutsulshchyna and Pokuttya Folk Art in Kolomyia; pysanky.info.

Photographs: Pysanka Museum, Dzvinka Zagaiska, Iryna Bilan.

By Iryna Bilan on