Peculiar Pysanky: Незвичні Писанки

Ukrainians have been creating pysanky, decorative eggs produced using a wax resist method, for countless generations. Pysanky take their name from the Ukrainian word ‘pysaty’ meaning ‘to write’ in reference to the method used by artists as they draw or ‘write’ their designs onto the eggshell.

The act of writing a pysanka has always contained a ritualistic element, especially for early Slavic cultures for whom prayers to the gods and goddesses for health, fertility, love, and wealth, were an important part of decorating these eggs. As a result, many Ukrainian traditions have arisen around the creation of pysanky which incorporate not only pagan and Christian customs, but also contemporary Ukrainian values like togetherness, family, and culture.

These beautiful, delicate, and elaborate objects also have both symbolic and decorative significance for Ukrainians today. As many of the symbols commonly found on pysanky have ancient origins, their meaning adapted and translated over generations, many pysanka motifs have multiple meanings with their true symbolism known only by the artist creating them. There are, however, distinct decorative elements commonly found on pysanky such as geometric motifs, agricultural (scevomorphic) motifs, plant (phytomorphic) motifs, animal (zoomorphic) motifs, and both pagan and Christian religious motifs. Pysanky may also contain celestial symbols, eternity bands, or the symbolic use of colour. Additionally pysanky may reflect regional and ethnographic styles specific to various parts of Ukraine.

While Oseredok’s collection of more than 4000 pysanky contains many excellent examples of traditional symbols and motifs, Oseredok also has some unusual examples of this diverse art form. Highlighted below are six customary representations of pysanky which emphasize just how varied this form of creative expression can be when practiced by Ukrainians in Canada and beyond.

Peacock Pysanka: Писанка з Павою

Both wild and domestic birds are commonly found on pysanky and were traditionally considered the harbingers of spring. They were thought to be able to fly to heaven, and are sometimes pictured on Hutsul region pysanky carrying a letter in their beaks containing a message to the gods/God.

This Hutsul-style pysanka contains both traditional elements such as the inclusion of a bird motif presented whole and in profile, as well as more customary decorative imagery such as the depiction of a peacock displaying his feathers.

Lobster Pysanka: Писанка з Раком

Fish and aquatic animals are an ancient symbol of life, health, fertility, and vigilance. Beginning in the 2nd century AD, this same symbol began to take on Christian connotations and in modern Christian interpretation the fish symbolizes Christ himself. Pysanky decorated with the crayfish or ‘rak’ motif were traditionally associated with protection and the reversal of certain types of magic and bad luck. The crayfish’s characteristic movements through the world being either backwards or sideways, is thought to be the origin of this idea.

The crayfish is considered an unusual motif in the majority of Ukraine with the exception of Galicia in the Sokal region. Beginning in the early 1900s, local pysankaryky (master pysanka writers) began applying stylistic elements from china to their works and the crayfish was commonly used in this style. Even more unusual, isomorphic, rather than conceptual examples of crayfish began to be written, and this pysanka is a valuable example of this more contemporary style.

Trypillian Round Pysanka: Кругла Трипільска Писанка

The Trypillian Neolithic culture thrived in Ukraine between approximately 5400 BC and 2700 BC and the designs on this egg are an example of traditional Trypillian pottery design adapted for use as a decorative element on a pysanka. Trypillian designs often use geometric imagery combined with curves which trace the lines of the egg.

A common decorative element includes interlocking curves, spirals, and circles. This Trypillian style pysanka is unusual in that it combines not only elements of Trypillian pottery design, but also one of the oldest and most important pysanka motifs, the sun motif. The sun motif is especially significant as pysanky painted in the spring coincided with the spring equinox and represented a celebration of the return of longer days and protection from the evil eye.

Trypillian Snake Pysanka: Трипільска Писанка з Вужом

The colour schemes on Trypillian pysanky reflect those used in traditional pottery and include a reddish clay colour in combination with black and white which echoes the colours used by potters in their glaze. This creates a striking visual image.

Spirals and curves are prominent features of Trypillian design and this pysanka depicting a ‘haad’ or good snake draws inspiration from this stylistic feature. The ‘haad’ was believed to protect homes from evil in the world. This snake is often contrasted against the ‘zmiy’ or serpent, which is a symbol of bad fortune.

Embroidered Pysanka: Вишивана Писанка

A popular style found on pysanky is one which incorporates a variety of geometric figures such as those found on Ukrainian embroidery. These may include simple shapes like circles and triangles, or more complex ones such as crosses, hearts, or stars.

Also a popular element on pysanky is the eternity band or meander, known in Ukrainian as ‘безконечник’ (‘bezkonechnyk’ or eternal line). The line is without end and was adopted for both practical and talismanic reasons. Not only does it visually divide the egg into sections, the meander also has a protective effect as spirits which enter a home and land on the pysanka will be trapped forever by its lack of a beginning and end.

This peculiar pysanka combines these elements, creating an endless band pattern in a way that is reminiscent of traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

Pysanka with Song: Писанка з Піснею

This pysanka contains traditional geometric elements such as squares and rhombs which symbolize plowed fields. It also contains triangles, a representation of various trinities including those related to pagan elements (earth, fire, and water), life cycles (birth, life, and death), and more recently the Christian Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost).

What makes this pysanka peculiar, however, is the inclusion not only of written text, but also of music notation and the invitation by the artist to have the viewer join them in a song of spring celebration.

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