Those of us who love Renaissance festivals tend to have an eye for beauty and a passion for history. And though we are often quite familiar with the history of Europe and specifically the United Kingdom, there is rich heritage and art to be celebrated to the East! We think these exquisite eggs are worthy of note. And we’d love to hear if your family has a special Easter egg tradition, from simple PAAS dips to elaborate painted creations.
By Stacy Bakri
For nearly two millennia, Easter has been celebrated as the highest holy day of the Christian faith beginning with Holy Week extending from Palm Sunday commemorating Christ’s arrival into Jerusalem in the days leading up to Passover, to Good Friday which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion, through the end of Holy Saturday. Easter morning rings in the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and the Eastertide Season. And just as Christmastime is laden with symbolism in all shapes and forms, Easter carries its own set of traditions represented with numerous forms of traditions, iconography, and symbolism. The variations in practices, rituals, iconography, and symbolism between the Western Church and the Eastern Church are often cultural in nature, with the Eastern tradition steeped in its own brand of holy mysticism with roots hearkening back to the days before Christianity. For millions of Slavic peoples, who are generally adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy, the mysteries and solemnities of the High Holy Days are observed with great reverence elaborate rituals of worship and iconography.
Spring and the Easter season have been celebrated as a time for rebirth, renewal, and spiritual awakening for non-Christians and Christians alike for millennia. Apart from pure religious iconography, one of the most ubiquitous symbols of the season is the egg. Eggs represent birth and new life as chicks begin emerging from their shells as the weather warms in the beginnings of spring, and the refreshing renewal of the spirit for the faithful takes hold as the cold and bitter weeks and months of winter thaw. With resurrection as one of the main tenants of the Christian faith, during the Lenten and Easter season eggs are the perfect representation of that new life, rebirth, and renewal. Eggs of all kinds are often decorated, some very simply with basic colors, and some very elaborately with intricate patterns incorporating symbolism of their own. There are as many ways of decorating eggs during the season as they are people in the world, so of course many cultures have developed their own traditions over the centuries.
There are many myths, legends, and folktales of how brightly colored and decorated eggs became a beloved tradition at Eastertime. One of the oldest and best-known stories tells of a young woman walking home from the town market carrying with her a jug of water and basket of eggs. Along the way she met a stranger sitting on a rock. Thinking he must be a tired traveler, she kindly offered him a drink of her water and when he handed the water back to her, she was surprised to see that he had wounds on his hands. The stranger said nothing, but got up and walked away from the young woman in the opposite direction. When she arrived home, she uncovered her basket and discovered that her eggs had been beautifully transformed with colorful decoration. The stranger had been Jesus Christ, and their miraculous encounter took place that first Easter morning.
Mary Magdalene figures into the Easter Egg legendry as well. The story goes that on the morning after the Sabbath, after Christ’s crucifixion, she and her companions were on their way to the tomb to prepare His body with the traditional herbs and dressings required for His enshrouding. They had taken along a basket of hard-boiled eggs to eat after their work was completed, but when they arrived at the tomb, they discovered that the stone doorway had been aside and found that the tomb was empty. When they joyfully left the burial place, believing that Christ had risen, they discovered that their eggs had been changed into many bright and beautiful colors.
In Russia, legend says that Mary Magdalene appeared to the Roman Emperor Tiberius who was skeptical of stories he had heard of the resurrection of Christ. He compared the resurrection from the grave to that of an egg spontaneously turning red, declaring both to be impossible. But as he was uttering these words, Mary presented him with an egg and in front of his very eyes, its color transformed into a deep red at that very moment. Simple red eggs are the standard tradition in Russia, but with many beautiful and elaborately decorated variants including wooden eggs painted with flowers, flourish designs, and scenes from myth and folktales carrying associations of good luck. These eggs have been produced by generations of folk artists and crafts persons whose work through the centuries has become infused into the Russian cultural identity.
The pinnacle of Russian Easter Egg design is undoubtedly the famed Fabergé egg. Manufactured by the House of Fabergé in Saint Petersburg, Russia between 1885 and 1815, there were estimated to be as many as sixty-nine of these gorgeous masterpieces created under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé. Most were commissioned by Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas the II as Easter gifts for their mothers and wives, and of the fifty-two “Imperial Eggs” originally manufactured, a known forty-six survive today in private collections, the Kremlin Armory Museum, and other museum collections around the world. The eggs were typically elaborately crafted with precious metals, with brightly colored enamels, often inset with gemstones of varying size, cut and color, and many were satin lined in the interior to house a “surprise” of some kind. Surprises were commissioned along with the eggs and would be jewelry, timepieces, miniature portraits, or miniature figurines of varying themes. Several of these objects d’art have unfortunately been lost and the surprises from many are also missing, however for many, photos, descriptions, and the original purchase receipts for many of these lost works still exist.
In Ukraine, Easter Eggs are known as pysanka, or pysanky (plural), and along with this unique brand of folk art comes fascinating lore of its own. Evidence shows that egg decoration began around seven thousand years ago with the Cucuteni–Trypillia Culture of southeastern Europe which included substantial parts of western Ukraine and northeastern Romania. Folk tales say that the people who lived in the region now known as Ukraine worshipped the sun which warmed the earth and thus was the source of all life. Eggs decorated with nature symbols were chosen for sun worship ceremonies and became an integral part of spring rituals serving as benevolent talismans. Atar, the sun god, was the culture’s primary deity and birds were Atar’s chosen creations for they were the only creatures who could go near him. Humans were not able to capture birds on the wing, but were able to gather the eggs the birds laid. Thus, to this ancient culture, the eggs were magical objects, a source of life. As with many cultures, the egg was also honored during rite-of-spring festivals as eggs represented the rebirth of the earth. The long, hard winter being over, the earth burst forth and was reborn just as the egg miraculously burst forth with the tiny life contained withing its shell. With the advent of Christianity the symbolism of the egg was adapted to represent the rebirth of man. Christians embraced the egg symbol and likened it to the tomb from which Christ rose. Many symbols of Atar worship survived and were adapted into Christianity to represent Easter and Christ’s Resurrection and the decorated pysanky continued to play an important role in Ukrainian Christian religious traditions and rituals.
A Ukrainian myth of how the Easter Egg came to be so brightly colored states that the Virgin Mary presented a basket of eggs to Roman soldiers at Christ’s crucifixion, and the tears she shed as she cried and begged them to be merciful to her son fell upon them splashing them with brilliant color and decoration which she then gave to the soldiers. This myth is very prevalent in the many variations of pysanky created today.
One ancient Ukrainian myth which carries over to this day comes from the superstitious Hutzul people who have lived in the Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine and Romania for centuries. They believe that the fate of the world depends upon the pysanka. As long as the egg decorating custom continues, the world will exist. If this custom is abandoned then evil, in the shape of a horrible serpent who is forever chained to a cliff, will overrun the world. Each year the serpent sends out his minions to count the pysanky created. If the number is low the serpent’s chains are loosened and he is free to wander the earth causing havoc and destruction. If the number of pysanky rises, the chains are tightened and good triumphs over evil for yet another year. Superstitions were attached to the colors and designs on the pysanky. Ukrainian folklore centers on the wisdom of giving older people gifts of darker colored and more richly decorated eggs as they have lived very full lives, while younger people should be gifted predominantly white pysanky as their lives are still blank canvases. Another Ukrainian superstition says girls should never give their boyfriends pysanky with no designs on the top and bottom of the egg as that represents baldness and the boyfriend will soon lose his hair.
Even the crafting of pysanky is steeped in ritual and superstition as relayed by one Ukrainian woman’s own family experience. Anne Kmit says:
“It is said that before a Ukrainian woman was allowed make pysanky, she was to be in a perfect spiritual state of mind. The previous day was to be spent peacefully; she would avoid gossip, deal with her family patiently and cook a good dinner.
Pysanky were to be made at night after the children were asleep. Only women in the family would be permitted to work together and no one would be allowed to peek since the purpose of creating pysanky is to transfer goodness from the household to the designs and chase away evil. This was a spiritual endeavor and not a social event. The fresh eggs were gathered from hens where a rooster was in residence, for, according to belief, if pysanky were made on non-fertile eggs, there would be no fertility in the home.
The women in the family asked different blessings for each egg, for they believed their good wishes traveled with the pysanka. Special songs were sung quietly, so the souls which were said to inhabit the night, would not be disturbed.
Small clay pots were used to hold the dyes which had been made using secret family formulas. The wax lines were drawn on the eggs, and slowly, the simple shells became filled with ancient symbolism, color and harmony. The most important quality of the pysanka, however, is the power and love which the egg conveys. The process took several evenings to finish. In a large family, 60 eggs would be completed by Holy Thursday.”
The involved and dedicated process of creating pysanky continues as a beloved tradition to this day. Pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty,” which means “to write.” The eggs are made by drawing lines of melted wax onto the surface of the eggshell, then steeping them in a light color dye. The areas covered by the wax will either remain white, or the wax later removed during the process and egg steeped in another color of dye. The areas that are to retain a certain color of dye are subsequently covered in wax, and then dropped into a darker color dye. The process is repeated over and over until the darkest dye is applied. The eggshells are then heated over a candle or other heat source and the melted wax wiped away with paper or a cloth. What results is nothing short of a work of art that has been perfect by generations of folks artisans.
Anne Kmit continues, “The pysanky would then be taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed, after which they were given away. Below is how the eggs were distributed:
1. One or two would be given to the priest.
2. Three or four were taken to the cemetery and placed on graves of the family.
3. Ten or fifteen were given to children or godchildren.
4. Ten or twelve were exchanged by the unmarried girls with the eligible men in the community.
5. Several were saved to place in the coffin of loved ones who might die during the year.
6. Several were saved to keep in the home for protection from fire and storms.
7. Two or three were placed in the trough where animals ate, so they would have many young.
8. At least one egg was placed beneath the beehive to insure a good harvest of honey.
9. One was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring.
Everyone from the youngest to the oldest received a pysanka for Easter. Young people were given pysanky with bright designs; dark pysanky were given to older people. A bowlful of pysanky was invariably kept in every home. It served not only as a colorful display, but also as protection from lightning and fire. Some of the eggs were emptied, and a bird’s head made of wax and wings and tailfeathers of folded paper attached. These “doves” were suspended before icons in commemoration of the birth of Christ, when a dove came down from heaven and soared over the child Jesus.”
The traditional art of creating pysanky continues to this day, some artisans having perfected and honed their skills so that the process is lightning fast, while some have elevated the craft to a fine art creating masterpieces that are collected by art lovers and displayed in museums and high end galleries. And regardless of one’s faith, these beautiful creations can be appreciated by anyone. If you would like to learn more about pysanky and how to make your own, helpful links and tutorials are included below. To everyone, a Blessed Easter, and a Blessed Spring!
How to dye eggs in the traditional Russian way using onion skins.
The pysanky art of S. J. LeBlond
Elaborate pysanka tutorial
Simple Pysanka Tutorial
What does a gal with bachelor’s degrees in Art and Russian from the University of Texas do with her life? OBVIOUSLY she becomes an actor, director, theater producer, wife, full-time stay-at -home mom, history buff, crafter, wine lover, paralegal, and general over achiever. Stacy Bakri loves every role she’s played from stage classics, to the iconic Mona Lisa at the Texas Renaissance Festival, to being a hands on mom to her own kids and for anyone else who needs it, and helping people plan for what happens after their timely demise. Her mission is to make life for those around her a little bit easier.
2 thoughts on “The Sacred Art of the Pysanka”
Great article, Stacy! I have a couple of the recreated Faberge eggs, including a tiny one that goes on a necklace. I got them at the Kremlin Armory Museum on a trip to Russia. Those and the Pysanky eggs are exquisite! Thank you for this wonderful article!
Ooh! We’d love to go to Russia! Thanks for reading and commenting, have a great day.