At Large  April 15, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

Pysanka: The Ukrainian Easter Egg

Flickr. Photo by couleewinds.

Ukrainian pysanky are more than beautifully decorated eggs. The folkloric tradition has lasted for centuries and its core tenets have even been linked to more widely-spread ancient practices centered on early human understanding of creation and life.

Though they can now be found across the world, especially around Easter, these eggs and their associated traditions remain deeply Ukrainian. This is to such an extent that particular designs vary greatly from one oblast, or province, to the next. 

In 1874, exactly 2,123 of these eggs were gifted to the Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities of Lubni upon its founding. In New York City, one can visit the Ukrainian Museum's 400-strong pysanky collection in the ongoing exhibition Pysanka: Guardian of life.

Thomas J. Watson Library.

Detail of illustration depicting the pysanka-making process from Ukraïns'ka narodna pysanka, 2005.

The term pysanka comes from the Ukrainian word pysaty, meaning to write.

The name aptly emphasizes the process of inscribing the pysanka and the symbolism of the inscriptions themselves—both of which have enormous cultural, sometimes religious, value. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, pysanky take a great deal of time and effort to make.

The designs are applied in multiple stages via the combination of a wax-resist, or batik, technique and dyeing process.

The pysankarka (or pysanky maker) applies melted beeswax with a kistka, a drawing tool comprising a small metal funnel on a stick. The first application of wax coincides with any part of the final design that is meant to retain the eggshell’s natural white. The egg is then dipped into the design’s lightest color and more beeswax is applied, this time to any part of the shell that is meant to stay this lightest color.

The process continues through each stage: Wax is applied to preserve the most recent shade of dye where appropriate and the egg is dipped into progressively darker dyes until every color has been applied. Once this is finished, the wax is melted and wiped away.

Primarily green, black, white and purple pysanky designs. plate 23 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899
Thomas J. Watson Library.

Plate 23 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899.

Primarily red and white pysanky designs. plate 4 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899
Thomas J. Watson Library.

Plate 4 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899.

A mixtures of colors and representational designs. A few 'sacred heart' eggs are featured here with yellow dye. Plate 33 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899.
Thomas J. Watson Library.

Plate 33 of Opisanīe kollektsii narodnykh pisanok, 1899.

The decorations of pysanky vary greatly—from geometric to figurative, simple to complex, purple to black and white, and so on—but they are generally influenced by Slavic folk art. Many consider the stylized sun to be the most significant motif. The sun certainly appears incredibly frequently on pysanky and, like the egg itself, it has long been associated with human understanding of creation.

Regardless of design specifics, every pysanka is packed with meaning and carries great cultural significance. Today, pysanky are typically presented as gifts to respected community and family members and are thought of as talismans, protectors against evil.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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