Painting Pysanky

The Beautiful Tradition of Ukrainian Easter Egg Art

Clockwise from left: Pysanky are colorful representations of the Resurrection message. An expert pysankar teaches little girls to ‘write’ a floral folk ornament on a pysanka during a class in Ukraine in 2018. Eggs reflect that Father Paul Luniw is also an expert pysankar.
Clockwise from left: Pysanky are colorful representations of the Resurrection message. An expert pysankar teaches little girls to ‘write’ a floral folk ornament on a pysanka during a class in Ukraine in 2018. Eggs reflect that Father Paul Luniw is also an expert pysankar. (photo: Shutterstock background; Aleron Val/Shutterstock; courtesy of Father Paul Luniw)

Colorful Easter eggs delight the eye and contribute to the joy of Easter’s celebration. The eggs that immediately make people marvel are a Ukrainian tradition called pysanky. These incredible, nonedible multicolored eggs are decorated with intricate designs of geometric patterns and symbolic figures in yellows, reds, greens, blues — an artistic array of colors. Eggs from chickens are not the only “canvas” for pysanky

Father Paul Luniw, pastor of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Terryville, Connecticut, who has made hundreds of pysanky, also uses ostrich, rhea, goose, duck and quail eggs. He learned the art from his mother and is an internationally recognized master of pysanky who has shared his expertise everywhere, from global and national media to workshops teaching the art. He presented a pysanka (singular) to Pope Francis, explaining the process to him. 

Father Paul Luniw, pastor of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Terryville, Connecticut, has made hundreds of pysanky. He presented one special creation to Pope Francis. Courtesy of Father Paul Luniw
Father Paul Luniw, pastor of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Terryville, Connecticut, has made hundreds of pysanky. He presented one special creation to Pope Francis. | Courtesy photo


“The pysanky really began in pre-Christian times and was more a pagan tradition,” Father Luniw told the Register, giving a brief history. “It goes back to the Neolithic days from the agricultural society,” he said, adding that “Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe.”

Then came 988 and the conversion of the populace. “With the dawn of Christianity, the pysanky took on a new meaning. A new life. A life in Christ,” Father Luniw explained.

The centuries-old art of pysanky took on new symbolic significance. Describing the transformation, he began with the lines running around the egg. Horizontal and vertical lines running around the egg with no beginning and end are symbols of eternity. 

The ancient meaning of dividing the egg in half with the vertical or horizontal line symbolized the goodness of the world over the badness, the evil. “In the new tradition it symbolizes the two natures of Christ, divine and human,” the priest explained. Lines also dividing the egg into four quarters symbolize that “the Gospel message goes to all four corners of the world. The Gospel of Christ will go to the ends of the world.”

Among the geometric designs, triangles once stood for the elements of water, fire and air. Now, they symbolize the Holy Trinity. The cross that once depicted the rising sun has become the symbol of the Risen Christ. Wheat symbolizing the staff of life has also taken on Christian meaning. “The bread in the Old Testament is the manna; in the New Testament, Christ is the Bread of Life,” Father Luniw added. Easter became associated with this art because centuries ago the pysanky were connected with the coming of spring — “but with the dawn of Christianity,” said Father Luniw, the connection was with “Christ dying on the cross and the Resurrection of Our Lord.”

Archbishop Borys Gudziak, metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, said in a video that the “pre-Christian symbols and this genre have become associated with Easter, which is a question of life and death.” The pysanka itself combines the power and beauty of the symbol, “but also the great fragility and delicateness of our life. It reflects the fragility that can lead to our death, but it is actually a sign of new life — an egg is something from which you know new life emerges.”

Christianity in Ukraine also brought about interesting legends connected to pysanky. Father Luniw shared one: “For example, the first egg created was by the Blessed Virgin Mary by her tears. The legend is that when Pilate was trying Jesus, she went with an apron full of eggs to Pilate, and when her tears fell on the eggs, they colored the first eggs. It was a miraculous event and to this day symbolizes the tears of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because she pleaded for the life of her son.”

On a video lecture, professional artist Sofika Zielyk, who concentrates on pysanky, explained another legend of the incident, which includes the Virgin Mary’s tears at the cross falling “down her cheeks onto the bright red eggs creating beautiful designs.” Red was one of the earliest colors used for the eggs. Simple geometric figures on pysanky are often filled with symbols and figures. Fitting this pattern in a grand way, Father Luniw has meticulously placed on one ostrich egg, all freehand, 40 symbols for the 40 days of Lent.Another image might be a dove symbolizing peace.

Pysanky are like distant cousins of icons, since they are considered “written,” not merely decorated. The word derives from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, meaning “to write,” because designs are not painted but written or inscribed using beeswax. Father Luniw explained the process. A stylus called a kystka is warmed in a flame and then dipped in beeswax to make designs on the egg. With each added design and color change, the egg is dipped into the dye and the beeswax-covered part is preserved. 

The designs might require several layers. “You always go from the lightest color to the darkest color,” he said. 

If multiple colors are used, that means starting with yellow, then green, orange, red, and royal blue or black, each of which can have their own symbolic meanings. When the whole egg is covered with wax, the wax is melted off to reveal the beauty of the pysanky design. And, through a tiny hole, the egg is drained of its contents, either before or after being decorated. Father Luniw said the eggs, if kept out of direct sunlight, “will last forever.” 

A fitting symbol for the Resurrection, indeed.

Register illustration by Melissa Hartog

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