History of the Art
The pysanka, a decorated egg which, since pagan times, symbolized nature’s rebirth in the spring, was common among all Slavic peoples. As a ritual object celebrating the cult of the sun, various forms of the pysanka were also prevalent among the eastern Mediterranean nations 5000 to 3000 years before Christ. With the coming of Christianity, the pysanka became a part of the Easter traditions of various nations, including Ukraine. Here it underwent the greatest growth and richest ornamentation.
The development of pysanka design in Ukraine has been explained by the Ukrainian ethonographer V. Shcherbakivs’kij. The original solar symbols used in pysanka design were brought to Ukraine through trade and travel by way of the Black Sea. In many other countries, these motifs disappeared under the influences of alternative art forms. The geographical location of Ukraine made it less accessible than other countries to new cultural influences so that the rich ornamentation of pysanka design was able to flourish and grow.
In the twentieth Century, this art form underwent a decline due to religious repression. The perpetuation of Easter traditions and customs was forbidden. Much of the knowledge which had been passed down through the generations was forgotten. Museum collections of pysanky were either destroyed or hidden. In spite of this, the art of the pysanka decoration was retained in many villages, particularly in western Ukraine.
The eventual rebirth of the pysanka was welcomed by Ukrainians in the free world. During Easter holidays, pysanka can be found in every Ukrainian home. They are often taken to church to be blessed and presented as an Easter greeting gift to family member and friends. This revival is evident by a flourishing interest in the technique, history, and symbolic significance of pysanka design.
However, this renewed enthusiasm for the art form is not without its problems. Pysanka ornamentation has its own deep-rooted symbolism which is expressed by the decorative designs and motifs. When the artist is unfamiliar with this symbolism or neglects to express it, the pysanka lacks authentic meaning. With the advent of new and more effective writing instruments, the emphasis has shifted from the meaning of the pysanka to the perfection of the technique. This has resulted in competitive attitude amongst pysanka artists. The beauty of every pysanka is not dependent on fine lines and a great variety of colors. A primitive pysanka in one or two colors, featuring simple but pleasing symbolic design elements, may surpass intricate designs which lack symbolic meaning and artistic expression.
Pysanka mosaics are the reflection of the belief that the creation of pysanka is more than an expression of beauty. Spiritual and symbolic significance are closely entwined with pysanka decoration. Together with the inherent optimism and love of life which each pysanka-maker brings to their art, these elements unite in the preservation of a treasured and unique art form.
Symbolism of the Egg
In many of the world’s cultures, the egg has represented the original source of creation. It was from this egg that the universe was originally born. During the spring cycle of festivals, the ancient pre-Christian peoples used decorated eggs to welcome the sun and to help the sun’s rebirth into power and warmth, ensuring fertility of fields, rivers, herds, and ultimately, of man. Ancient man believed that before anything else existed, there was only a great cosmic egg. He believed that to create this egg and decorate it with many symbols of fertility, power, and life, he would be able to assist the world in remaining alive, powerful, and above all, good. Ancient man believed that this original cosmic egg, due to some unknown but definite will, began to expand throughout the primeval night, until it burst, giving birth to all living things. Hence, the egg came to symbolize the greatest of all mysteries that man could experience – The Mystery of Life.
In many cultures, the egg was considered to be the origin of the creator god who was the soul of the world. The life-giving waters from which the world egg arose were also a popular female symbol, depicting the womb with its source of life. The fish, an inhabitant of the living water, came to represent the Christian soul emerging from the waters of baptism. French, English, and several Slavic cultures such as Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, White Russian, and Russian all show evidence of the cosmic egg belief.
The Persians calculated the New Year to begin on March twentieth, the Spring Equinox. To celebrate this festival of renewal, they would greet each other with krashanky (pysanka). The same custom was found among the people of France, Italy, Spain, as well as the Asiatic and Semite peoples. Thus. It may be seen that the egg, as the symbol of life and renewal, has been recorded as part of many ancient cultural rituals.
The symbolism of pysanka design blends ancient, pagan rituals with modern, Christian traditions. The pagans celebrated the joyous spring cycle - the rebirth of nature, where Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ - the spiritual rebirth of man. Both Easter and the spring season are a time for release from the sober cloistering of the cold winter and of the introversion of the Great Lent. These traditions were embodied within the interpretations of the decorated egg and continue to be so today.
Definition(s) of Pysanka
Pysanka – from pysaty (Ukrainian wording), “to write”- are raw eggs created with the wax-resist method (batik). The designs are “written” or drawn on the egg with melted beeswax, which flows from a writing instrument known as a kystka. These designs and motifs follow basic design principles conforming to the natural contours of the egg. The writing is done on successively different colored ‘fields’ or backgrounds. These fields are produced by dipping the egg in a series of dyebaths, progressing from the lightest to the darkest color. A beautiful and intricate polychromatic pattern is revealed when the wax layers are removed using an open flame and cloth.
Krashanka – from krapka (Ukrainian wording), “to colour”- are hard-boiled eggs dyed in a solid, brilliant colour, usually being red.
Drapanka – from dryapaty (Ukrainian wording), “to scratch”- feature a solid dark or pastel field onto which a floral design is etched or scratched with a sharp instrument. A design is thus carved into the egg, revealing varying pigments of the egg below the surface of the shell.
Malyovanka – from malyuvaty (Ukrainian wording), “to paint”- are created by painting a design with a brush using oil based or water color applications. There are no designs or colors specific to this style.
Lystowka– from lystya (Ukrainian wording), “leaves”- otherwise known as Natural Leaf, utilizes an organic resist method in which leaves and flowers are subjected to a natural onion skin dyebath, producing a subtle earthy appearance. This method was particular to northwestern Ukraine.
Krapanka – from kraska (Ukrainian wording), “a dot”- is a decorative egg style familiar to all regions of Ukraine. A Krapanka is a pysanka, using the same wax-resist techniques but different rules applying to the design. Only multi-colored dots of varying sizes can be written on these eggs – no symbols or designs. The process of decorating the krapanka is the same as that of the pysanka.
The art of decorating the pysanka was and is considered a holy and ritual task. Belief in the power of the pysanka was so strong that specific prayers were recited prior to beginning the work. These prayers guaranteed that the recipient would be endowed with a message of happiness, well-being, joy, good fortune, and protection from harm. The pysanka is believed to have power similar to that of the cross.
In various regions of Ukraine, specific times were set aside for writing pysanky. In the central Ukrainian regions, it was customary to begin during the great lent, three to four weeks preceding Easter. However, in western Ukraine, it was more common to begin during Holy Week or even on Holy Thursday. The common thread was the ritual preparation of pysanky and krashanky before Easter. In the words of one elderly grandmother “one has to know how to apply them, the proper times for writing, the ritual prayers before beginning to write and finally, how to choose the appropriate symbolism for a particular recipient.” On Palm Sunday and on Annunciation Days nothing could be done on the pysanky as it was believed they would spoil.
Fresh hen eggs were generally used, although crane, ostrich, goose, duck, and quail eggs were also used prior to the 19th Century. It was considered essential to use a live flame for the writing process as this was considered the talismanic descendant of the life-giving sun. Another magical ingredient of the writing process was the use of clean beeswax. This was again entwined with the sun cult. The wax was made from honey; the honey was collected from flowers; flowers grew because of the sun. According to the ancient belief, some souls became flowers after death, while souls were born of flowers.
According to Ukrainian traditions and the history of the pysanka, colors held significant symbolic weight. Although the earliest pysanky were often simply two-toned, and many folk-designs still are, some believed that the more colors there were on a decorated egg, the more power it held. A multi-colored egg could thus bring its owner better luck and a better fate.
The color palette of traditional pysanky was fairly limited, and based on natural dyes. Yellow, red/orange, green, brown and black were the predominant colors. With the advent of aniline dyes in the 1800s, small amounts of blue and purple were sometimes added. It is important to note that the meanings below are generalizations; different regions interpreted colors differently.
WHITE represents innocence, purity, birth, light, rejoice, and virginity. It is also commonly associated with weddings and new beginnings. White in particular in combination with other colors has unique symbolism based on the region of Ukraine.
YELLOW symbolizes light, purity, youth, warmth, hope, joy, happiness, hospitality and benevolence. Yellow can have a literal representation, such as the moon and stars and is an indication of celestial bodies and good fortune regarding agriculture and seasonal harvest.
ORANGE represents endurance, strength, and ambition. Orange can be understood as the color of a flame that represents passion, which is often paired and tempered with yellow colors - representing wisdom. Orange is also a representation of the eternal everlasting sun.
RED is of the oldest symbolic colors and has many meanings. It represents self-sacrifice, resurrection, charity, spiritual awakening, life-giving blood and often appears on pysanky with heavenly symbols. It represents happiness in life, joy, hope, passion, love and good marriage.
BROWN primarily represents the earth and all characteristics associated with its success. According to Ukrainian tradition, brown is associated with hard work and labor of the land, where various shades of the color suggest black soil, fertility, and life-giving power.
BLACK is a particularly sacred color, and is most commonly associated with the “other world,” but not in a negative sense. This color represents hopefulness, eternity of life and the afterlife. It illustrates the importance of darkness to better see the light.
PURPLE represents fasting, faith, trust, softness, femininity and patience. The purple hue is understood as a holy hue but can also be associated with mystery, royalty, and religious faith. In today’s modern age, purple is linked to wealth, exclusiveness, and prosperity.
BLUE represents blue skies or the life giving air, and is a talisman of good physical and mental health. The origins of Ukrainian culture suggest it was a color intended to be used sparingly. Later, it became much more desired and understood to represent inner stability and peace.
GREEN represents new life, fertility, growth, freedom from bondage, health, resurrection, the riches of vegetation, and victory over death. This color represents spring and is associated with joyfulness, new growth, new hope, and renewal of all flesh and thoughts.
BLACK + WHITE color combination represents mourning and respect for the souls of the dead.
BLACK + RED is a combination that was perceived as “harsh and frightful,” and very disturbing. It is common in Podillya, where both serpent and goddess motifs were written with the combination of these colors.
FOUR or more COLOURS bring good fortune and can come to represent a individual or family’s happiness, prosperity, love and health. It is a means to celebrates their achievements.
Coloring/ Dying Process
GEOMETRIC motifs are among the most popular (and most ancient) pysanka motifs, being simple geometric figures. The egg itself is most often divided by straight lines into squares, triangles and other shapes. These shapes are then filled with other forms and designs. Some of the most common geometric symbols include triangles, rhombuses, curls, spirals, tripods, dots, and even hearts.
SCEVOMORPHIC motifs are the second-largest group of designs in Ukrainian pysanka tradition as they are representations of natural and man-made objects that refer to agriculture. Agricultural symbols are very common, as Ukraine was a highly agricultural society, and drew many of its positive images from field and farm. Common symbols include wheat, the ladder, sieve, rake, comb, window, windmill and the saw.
PHYTOMORPHIC motifs are associated with plants and their parts (flowers, leaves and fruit). Women who wrote pysanky drew their inspiration from the world of nature, depicting flowers, trees, fruits, leaves and whole plants in the highly stylized fashion. Such ornaments symbolized the rebirth of nature after winter, and some pysanky with plant motifs were thought to guarantee good harvest for those in possession of them.
ZOOMORPHIC motifs are pysanka that illustrate a variety of different animal motifs. They are not as common as plant motifs, but are nevertheless found on pysanky - especially those from the Carpathian Mountains. Deer, rams, horses, birds, fish, insects and snakes are depicted in this style, with endless variations to the line work and designs of these animals. Each animal has a different meaning, where usually only one kind of animal is illustrated on a pysanka.
CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS motifs are indicative of religious symbolism. With the official adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 988, new symbols appeared, and the old symbols were reworked to fit with the new religion. Both sets of symbols can still be found on traditional pysanky, as well as the more modern ones.
COSMORPHIC SYMBOLS are motifs indicative of astronomy and spiritual beings. Pysanky often have symbols of heavenly objects, including the sun, the moon, and the stars. The pysanka that are entirely indicative of cosmic motifs illustrate the total embodiment of life on earth. It represents life-giving, all-embracing, all-renewing, birth-giving forces of astrology.
ETERNITY BANDS are among the oldest and most common motifs on pysanky. The “bexkonechnyk” or “meander” is a line that has no beginning and no end; it is a water symbol, representing infinity and immortality. The eternity bands can be found on pysanka in a wide variety of different styles and colors. They can often be found in the trypillian style with endless variations to its design.