The old shell game: Pysanky eggs

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What a stunning display! A Pennsylvania redware bowl brimming with these Easter jewels known as Pysanky.

Simply put, Pysanky is a batik style of art on eggshells otherwise known as Ukrainian egg decoration – a custom focused around the Easter season. The procedure of this art is quite involved from the choice of dyes that were traditionally taken from objects found in nature to the numerous patterns that are instilled with symbolism. Other factors equally significant in the Pysanky process are the diet of the birds, the quality of the eggs, and the way the eggs are processed and cleaned.

The early tradition of creating Pysanky was typically female – a ritual passed from mother to daughter. The Ukrainian people believed that these beautiful works of art possessed magic powers. To receive a Pysanky was not only viewed as a token of friendship and/or esteem but protection from harm as well. To have Pysanky in one’s home would ensure good fortune, health, wealth, along with protection from lightning and fire. There is also a sense of mystery intrinsic with each Pysanky that is threefold – the symbolism of the egg itself, the symbolism of the design, and the selection of color. That’s a lot to command from one modest egg!

My first encounter with these breathtaking works of art took place in my high school years. I happened by a deli on my way home from school. A basket of vividly colored eggs sitting in the front window caught my eye and I had to go inside to see if they were for sale – not simply a seasonal display. The owner explained that her daughter had decorated them and seeing that I was wearing a school uniform, sold me one of these beauties for mere pennies. I still have that egg to this day.

It wasn’t until several years later in a casual conversation with a co-worker that I discovered that I had been working side-by-side with the artist of my Pysanky! Fast forward to the late 1990s; I had married and moved into a neighborhood that happened to have a Ukrainian Community Center. Each year they hold a bazaar two Saturdays before Easter, and they sell Ukrainian crafts and delicacies.

Each time I attend the bazaar and open the door to the auditorium my nose is overwhelmed with the mouthwatering bouquet of scents from the variety of meats and baked goods displayed on long tables groaning from the weight of these seasonal treasures. My olfactory sense adjusts, only to have my eyesight delighted by the Pysanky treasures spilling from dozens of displays set around the perimeter of the room. Fighting off the urge to start buying the first examples I lay eyes on, I steel myself to the task of examining all the wares and making a decision based on my love of design and color. I realized that after following this process (three years in a row) I always ended up at the same location – the Badulak family table.

Theirs is a three-generation endeavor with Helen Badulak as the matriarch, her daughter Antonina (Nina) Badulak-McDaniel and Nina’s daughter, Kristina (Krissy) Schaeffer. Helen has garnered so many awards – too numerous to list – but I was especially impressed with the title 1992 Master of Pysanky bestowed upon her by the National Egg Art Guild. She has also authored a book, Pysanky in the 21st century.
I have been a faithful customer; each year I make a beeline to the Badulak table. I would like to share a few pieces of my collection with you and describe, to the best of my ability, the symbolism of both the design and the color chosen for each egg.

As you can see from the photo, the central theme of the first egg is a fish, which is a symbol of Christianity that suggests abundance, baptism, regenerative powers and sacrifice. The white background indicates purity, virginity, innocence and birth.

It seems that I’m drawn to the eggs decorated in the star pattern if my collection is any indication. The Star is most commonly found in its eight-pointed form. It is one of the most beautiful and versatile of the geometric representations and is said to signify purity, life, and the giver of light, the center of all knowledge as well as beauty, elegance and perfection. In the religious context, the star becomes the herald of Christ’s birth, a symbol of God’s love toward man.

The Triangle is a very basic ideogram and always signifies a trinity. In pagan times, the trinity represented was the elemental air, fire and water, or the heavens, earth and air. In Christian imagery, the Holy Trinity is most represented. The color Yellow is a representation of light and purity. It speaks of youth, happiness, the harvest, hospitality, love and benevolence. It is the color consecrated to the light deities and is the Christian symbol of recognition and reward. Red is the magical color folklore and is considered a positive color signifying action, fire, charity, spiritual awakening. It also glorifies the sun and the joy of life and love. Consequently, pysanky with red fields or motifs are typically designated for children or youth. Used in Christian imagery, it denotes the divine love and passion of Christ.

The Pine Tree pattern’s qualities of permanent greenery and endurance symbolize strength, boldness, growth and eternal life. The Green background symbolizes the breaking of shackles, freedom from bondage and is the color of fertility, freshness, health and hopefulness. In the Christian context, it represents bountifulness, hope and the victory of life over death. It is the color of Christmas, Easter, and the Epiphany.
The Spider was first seen as a variation of the sun motif with projecting strokes or rays. Its meaning is one of patience, artistry and industry.

When used in Pysanky, the color Purple speaks of fasting, faith, patience and trust. As an aside, anyone who knows me is fully aware of my passion for the Halloween holiday. I bought a number of these eggs as gifts for my three close friends who happen to share this love of mine.

Formed by a series of dots, there are many linear variations – too numerous to list – but you will easily discern a few examples of this form on the last egg. The Straight Line encircling the egg symbolizes eternity or the continuous thread of life. The Ribbon or Belt (double line) is almost always seen in unbroken form so that the thread of life will not be broken. The Indented Line or Saw (zigzag) represents water or waves with its growth and cleansing properties. The Meander (wave) emphasizes harmony and motion depicting infinity, waves and immortality. Also, take notice of the Stag, which signifies leadership, victory, joy and masculinity.

Hard to believe but this is just a mere sampling of Pysanky design – ranging from the simplistic to complex, all steeped in symbolic imagery.

These pieces range in price  according to the complexity of design and the size of the egg. The smallest one in my collection is a decorated canary egg, and through the years I’ve attempted to build an eclectic variety of eggs that includes quail, chicken, duck and goose. The largest that I’ve seen is an ostrich Pysanky decorated by Helen Badulak, which won first prize in a publicly judged contest in March of 2004.

More Images:

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The Fish is a symbol of Christianity in Pysanky.
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The Triangle pattern although simplistic in form, shows off its bold imagery.
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Both the Spider and the color Purple used on this egg suggest patience. I loved the design because if reminded me of Halloween!
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I believe this is the most detailed Pysanky that I own. Many, many hours were spent in making this miniature work of art.
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The front row (from l to r) shows a canary egg, a robin's egg and a quail egg while the back row, again l to r, features the egg from a chicken, duck and goose. The spool of thread which I used for display, give you an idea as to how small the canary egg is and how tedious it must have been to paint all the details in such a small scale.
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A versatile assemblage of star-patterned Pysanky. There is much symbolism attached to this design but the qualities that are most self-evident are beauty, elegance and perfection.
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The feathery lines of the Pine Tree design, painted on a duck egg, suggest strength, boldness, growth and eternal life.

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