The Art of Pysanky

text by Burnette Grega
photos by John Maio

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Of all the traditions brought to the United States by the eastern Slavs (Ruthenians, Slovaks and Ukrainians), one of the most impressive is the delicate art of pysanky; better known as Ukrainian Easter Eggs.

Prior to the Slavs’ adoption of Christianity before the end of the first millennium, the egg signified life and was associated with magical characteristics; it was used as a talisman to appease the forces of nature. Imagine the importance of the first eggs of spring to the largely agricultural societies of Eastern Europe long before the era of the climate-controlled egg farm; egg production dropped dramatically during the long winter.

After the Christianization of the Slavs, these pagan symbols took on Christian interpretations. Today, these pagan symbols prevail in the art and customs of the eastern Slavs.

The circle or unbroken line is special – in a less cynical age it was magical. The newly baptized Slavs believed the lines encircling the egg signified life itself. Two lines or a ribbon depicted the journey of life. Small lines crossing the ribbon indicated a ladder or the steps in one’s journey to heaven.

The sun, which was worshipped by the pre-Christian Slavs, also figures prominently in pysanky. The sun takes many forms, which illustrate not only the sun’s role as a light for the world but also Christ as the light of the world.

Stylized portrayals of plants and animals are also included. Wheat symbolizes Ukraine (literally, “Hinterland”) as the breadbasket of Europe. Pussy willows, as the earliest flowering plants of the season, are also popular. Decorated pussy willows replace palms usually reserved for Palm (Passion) Sunday; hence the use of “Willow Sunday” in Slavic churches here and abroad for this triumphant feast.

Every color has a special meaning. Red symbolizes not only the blood of Christ, but the passions of life – happiness and hope. Green represents spring, the renewal of life and wishes of good health. Black, which signifies remembrance, dark red and purple (the royal color of faith) are reserved for the elderly. The lighter colors epitomize youth.

Pysanky (pysanka is the singular form) are made using the batik or reverse wax method. Fresh eggs, traditionally left whole but now blown, are dipped in dyes beginning with the lighter colors and ending with the darker pigments. The designs are drawn on each color with hot beeswax. When the process is complete, the layers of hardened wax melt away by placing the egg near a flame, revealing the egg’s jewel-like tones.

The finished pysanky are given to friends and loved ones during the Easter season with the traditional kiss and words, “Christos Voskrese!” – Christ is Risen!

From eastern Slovakia to eastern Ukraine, from southern Poland to northern Croatia, these eastern Slavs developed a strong culture based on a deep faith in religion and family, and a love of the land. Always subjugated, and often persecuted, the eastern Slavs were driven from their homes in large numbers at the turn of the century and migrated to the land of opportunity. Drawn to the mines and factories of central and western Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and New York, they built their own churches and schools – some would say they built whole cities.

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