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PYSANKA: The Ukrainian Easter Egg
March 26 – November 27, 2011

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In attempting to understand creation, ancient people developed myths in which the egg was perceived as the source of life, the sun, and the universe.

The Ukrainian pysanka (plural: pysanky) was believed to possess enormous power, not only in the egg itself (which harbored the nucleus of life), but also in the symbolic designs and colors drawn on the egg in a specific manner, according to prescribed rituals. Pysanky were used for various social and religious occasions and were considered to be a talisman, a protection against evil, as well as harbingers of good.

In ancient times pysanky were decorated only by women and young girls. The eggs were chosen with great care – only fertilized eggs were used, from chickens that had laid eggs for the first time. The decorating process was carried out in secret, away from the eyes of strangers, lest someone cast an evil spell on the egg. In pagan times, pysanky were decorated in early Spring; with the introduction of Christianity, this was done before Easter.

The symbolic ornamentation of the pysanka consists mainly of geometric motifs, with some animal and plant elements. The most important motif is the stylized symbol of the sun, which is represented as a broken cross, a swastika (an ancient Sanskrit symbol), a triangle, an eight-point rosette, or a star. Other popular motifs are endless lines, stylized flowers, leaves, the tree of life, and some animal figures such as horses, stags, and birds. The influence of Christianity introduced such elements as crosses, churches, and fish.

The most popular method of decorating pysanky is the wax-resist method, known as batik. A special instrument called a kistka or ryl'tse is used to "write" the design. (Pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, to write.) The dyes used to decorate pysanky also had a symbolic meaning. Red symbolized the sun, life, joy; yellow stood for wealth and fertility; green was the symbol of Spring and plant life. In the not-too-distant past, artisans prepared their own dyes, using natural products such as the bark of oak or ash trees, twigs from sour apple trees, saffron or willow tree leaves. Today, chemical dyes are used.

It took a long time for the Ukrainian pysanka to develop and achieve perfection. Although contemporary artisans continue to employ ancient symbols and traditional colors on the egg, the pysanka is no longer considered to be a talisman, just a beautiful folk art object.


About the Museum
The Ukrainian Museum was founded in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Women's League of America as a showcase for Ukrainian culture. Since its founding, the Museum has amassed extensive collections of folk art, fine art, and archival material. It mounts several exhibitions annually; publishes accompanying bilingual catalogues; organizes courses, workshops, and other educational programs; and hosts a variety of public events. In April 2005 the Museum moved into a new, state-of-the-art facility in New York's East Village, funded entirely by the Ukrainian American community.

 


 

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