PY•SAN•KY (n.): A well-loved art form, rich in tradition and symbolism

February, 2016

If you can pronounce it, -chances are you’ve made one. Pysanky (a.k.a. Ukrainian Easter eggs) are intricately decorated ovals, steeped in religious and cultural traditions, as well as symbolism. Pysanky, how-ever, aren’t just a Ukrainian tradition or the domain of children looking to fill an Easter basket. This storytelling art form is practiced by Slavs, young and old, around the world -wherever Easter is celebrated and where the cultures of Eastern Europe look to demonstrate the meaning of their faith.


Pre-Christians prized eggs as a sign of hope and new life, decorating them to honour animals and Nature with symbols of passion, fertility, health, prosperity and protection against evil. While drawings of deer, wheat and the sun on egg-shaped clay might have been the precursor, it was the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and other Slavic countries that ushered in the pysanka we’re familiar with today: a blend of ancient tradition celebrating Nature’s rebirth, with new beliefs focused on Christ’s resurrection.


An artist uses colours and designs to tell a story on each pysanka, working with melted beeswax and dye in a step-by-step process to reveal a finished story, religious or otherwise. The circular shape of the egg itself is a symbol, that of eternity in a never-ending circle. The colours, too, have meaning: white stands for purity, birth and innocence, while red signifies happiness and passion. Green indicates spring and hope, while blue refers to the sky and good health. Yellow represents youth, orange is strength and black symbolizes the “darkness before light” aspect of eternity and the quiet and solemn time that Jesus lay dead in the tomb, before rising again.


Many Ukrainian and Polish childhoods are rich with memories of Easter traditions—preparing baskets filled with eggs, Easter bread, kielbasa, salt, butter and more for blessing at Church. Children decorated eggs on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, using everything from crayons and markers to traditional writing tools, beeswax, a flame and dyes. Drawings of leaves and flowers (love, charity and goodwill), animals and fish (prosperity, health) or ladders, rakes and wheat (for a bountiful harvest) were supplemented with squiggles of religious significance: fish and nets, a cross, triangles (for the Trinity —Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and drops (Mother Mary’s tears for Jesus).

Tools of the Trade

Chicken eggs are generally the egg of choice for making pysanky, but artists will also showcase their work on tiny quail eggs or large goose or ostrich eggs. Some artists even make pysanky that are beaded, crochet-covered or etched with cut-outs to resemble lanterns. The traditional writing tool, a kistka, is packed with beeswax, which is warmed over a candle so that the wax will flow through the writing tip, allowing the artist to draw delicate patterns. The drawing is done in stages, dictated by the colour scheme of the chosen pattern. Lines that are to be white are drawn first, and then the egg is dipped in yellow dye. Lines and shapes that are to be yellow are drawn next and then dipped in orange dye. The process is repeated—more drawing followed by dips in increasingly darker dyes until a multi-coloured pattern is built up. To reveal the pattern, the wax is melted over a candle and gently wiped away with a cloth. While children often work on boiled eggs, artists favour raw eggs and use a tiny pinhole to blow out the yolk once the wax is removed and the pattern is revealed. Pysanky are often varnished to preserve the vibrant colours and add shine.

Keeping Art Alive

Those with children attending elementary school in St. Albert might be familiar with the art form, as it’s often part of the city’s Grade 3 curriculum accompanying studies in world cultures. Artists from the Edmonton region regularly facilitate sessions through schools and in community craft classes, too. Art instructors at the Art Gallery of St. Albert, for example, will teach over 500 Grade 3 students how to decorate eggs this season alone. t8n

Fun Fact

The practice of decorating eggs is said to have started around 5,000 B.C. when ancient Ukrainians—the Trypillians—marked swirls, spirals and symbols on pottery.


Did You Know?

Eggs can be dyed with products found right in your kitchen—beets and onion skins, for example, turn the white egg shades of red, brown or purple.

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