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Eternity in Fragility

The symbol of an egg is present in many ancient cultures of the world. The egg features in the ancient cosmogonic myths. It is from the primordial egg that gods and heroes were born. The egg also features prominently in fairy tales, legends and rituals. In Ukraine, one of such rituals is decoration of eggs done shortly before Velykden The Great Day Easter.

Shortly before the Feast of Christs Resurrection, all across the Orthodox Christian lands eggs begin to be decorated in a great many ways they are painted, pasted over with little pieces of all kinds of materials, wound around with multi-coloured threads, and gilded; Easter eggs are made of stone, metal and decorated with enamel, beads and precious stones. The most popular way to decorate Easter eggs in Ukraine is to paint them. The patterns used in decoration are not arbitrary they have their own symbolism that goes back into the misty past. Pysankas Ukrainian Easter eggs are distinctly recognizable among any other Easter eggs. Pysanka has become a sort of trade mark of Ukrainian culture; pysankas are collected, the symbolism of the painted patterns is researched and studied. They are beautiful to look at and they appear on the covers of books; they prominently feature in magazine articles; pysankas are one of the most popular souvenirs to be brought home from Ukraine.

There are many legends and stories about the origin of pysanka. One of the legends has it that on the day when The Virgin Mary gave birth to a son, a hen laid an egg all in red dots. It was looked upon as an auspicious sign and the egg was presented to The Virgin. Thus originated the tradition of decorating eggs on Easter and giving them as presents. Another legend tells a story of The Virgin painting eggs in different colours to give them to the Infant Jesus to play with. Still another legend has Mary Magdalene presenting a painted egg to the Roman Emperor Tiberius and saying, Christ is Risen! and then telling the emperor the story of Jesus Christs crucifixion and resurrection. In the past thousand years, pysanka in Ukraine has been associated with Christianity, but the tradition of painting eggs goes back thousands upon thousands of years; the evidence of it was discovered in archaeological excavations at the sites of what came to be known as Chernyakhiv Culture and Ternopil Culture; the painted-egg tradition can be traced to the times immemorial in the lands of Hutsulshchyna and Pokuttya. The typical symbols used in egg decoration were: the swastika or the circle with a dot in the centre the sun symbol; the square and the rhombus with a dot in the centre the symbol of a sown field; the symbol of water and time (at present the symbol of infinity); the trident the symbol of life; the stylized female figure the symbol of the puerpera (woman in childbirth) and protectress. Similar symbols feature in other ancient cultures of the world. They also appear in Ukrainian embroidery, in patterns used for decorating earthenware. These symbols reflect the mystical experience of the nation and its understanding of the most important phenomena of life, and pysanka is a reflection of ancient tradition, philosophy of life, calendar and prayer.

Many rituals are associated with pysanka. The first Easter meal begins with an Easter egg the head of the family chooses the best decorated pysanka, breaks the shell and removes it, and then the egg is cut into as many pieces as there are members of the family; then the head of the family walks around the table at which the family are sitting, beginning from the eldest and down to the youngest, kisses each one three times, and gives every one a piece of the Easter egg saying Christ is risen! The shell is thrown either to the henhouse it will cause the hens to lay more eggs, or into the field it will ensure a good harvest, or it can be saved and kept hidden until the time a new house is to be built then it will be put into the foundation and will bring happiness to the inhabitants of the house.

In the times of old, in the land of Hutsulshchyna, women used to lie down on the tilled field and throw pieces of the Easter egg shells up into the air the higher the pieces flew, the taller the wheat would grow. The girls used pysanka in fortunetelling: they let pysankas roll downhill, watching the way they rolled if the egg broke, the girl who launched it would not find anyone to marry in the next twelve months.

The patterns with which pysankas were decorated contained codified wishes of rich harvest, health and wealth. Pysankas were kept close to the stove so that all the evil that the eggs protected the inhabitants from, would leave the house with the smoke from the chimney. Pysankas were suspended near the icon in the house; pysankas were used by girls as love messages to young men. Pysankas were also used to put a spell on people, to cause illness or even death.

The town of Kolomiya, the administrative centre of Hutsulshchyna and gateway to the Ukrainian Carpathians, boasts a pysanka museum, the only such museum in Ukraine. Its collection is made up of more than 10,000 pysankas from all the regions of Ukraine and from foreign countries. Pysankas for this museum began to be collected in the 1950s, with some of the Easter eggs dating to the late nineteenth century. The original collection was exhibited in the Blahovishchenska (Annunciation) Church built in the sixteenth century. A new museum was built to house the pysanka collection in 2000, the year when the 2nd Hutsul Folk Festival was held in Kolomiya.

Back in 1972, Mariya Boledzyuk, a museum research worker, discovered a way of preserving painted eggs for longer periods of time. The thing is that a pysanka is a painted egg whose contents have not been emptied and it can be preserved only for a couple of months; the use of ancient technologies can stretch this time to a year or two. To lengthen the preservation time, pysankas were carefully cut in two and the rotten contents were scooped out, but no matter how carefully the cutting was done, part of the ornament would be damaged. Mariya Boledzyuk invented a method of breaking the egg with a metal implement; the shell pieces are then cleaned out of all the remnants of the organic matter and disinfected; pieces of paper are pasted onto the inside surfaces, and then all the pieces are reassembled to form a whole. The use of this method makes pysankas good for an indefinite time.

In the centuries that have passed since Ukraine was converted to Christianity, the patterns and principles of decoration have gone through many changes, and todays pysanka may carry patterns and decorations which do not contain ancient symbolism and are purely decorative. But in the country-side, the tradition of painting Easter eggs in patterns of highly symbolic nature lives on, and todays peasant decorating pysankas is thus linked to the peasant of old who turned to the pre-Christian gods with a prayer to send warmth, sunshine and good yield, with the pysanka being a prayer vehicle. Those of us who decorate Easter eggs before Velykden are the followers of the ancient traditions of prayer and fortunetelling.

Iryna Pronina, an artist from the city of Lviv who specializes in painting textiles, paints Easter eggs when the time comes to do so, and then gives them to her friends. It is her way of praying for their and worlds well being.

Says the artist: I used to decorate pysankas in traditional ways, using the ancient techniques and patterns, but these days I do not do it any longer I feel itd be wrong to use the symbols and patterns of many centuries back in the present-day world. So many things have changed, and we have changed too. In the times of old, pysankas were decorated in the belief that life on Earth would go on no matter how many wars were fought or how many times harvests failed. The world of today is so different the earth itself is in danger of being destroyed in conflagration of a nuclear war or by an ecological disaster. And our prayers should be different now. That is why I use several themes in decorating Easter eggs, which seem to be particularly relevant today. I seek inspiration in the Old Masters, in Pieter Brueghel the Elder, for example. His Winter is of a particular significance for me. Our world is so much different from the one that we see in that picture. It seems to me we have lost something very important that the people and the world in Brueghels times used to have, and when I paint tiny replicas of this picture on fragile eggs it is more than a reflection of my nostalgic sadness for the times long gone it is my way of praying for the humanity to find a new path leading away from destruction. I seek the beauty to show it in various ways in tapestry and on the Easter eggs. It is my calling out to the world look for beauty, support life.

Why do I choose eggs to carry my message? Eggs are so fragile and brittle, but art is also something that is so easily destroyed. A work of art can be broken, cut in pieces, burned but if we look upon art as the embodiment of our thoughts and feelings and creative energies, then we realize that art is eternal.

An emptied egg is a very delicate thing that can be so easily broken, but at the same time the egg is a symbol of life, it is as fragile as life itself is. The egg shell contains calcium, the same element that is present in the human bones, and at the same time the egg shell reminds me of a freshly plastered wall upon whose pristine surface we can paint a fresco. The curving surface of the egg is a living canvas which has been created by nature for me to paint on; the curve makes painting a magic act. When I move millimetre by millimetre painting the egg shell, I feel as though I were looking at our planet from the orbit of a satellite There is an artist in Japan, a great calligrapher who draws hieroglyphs on the asphalt with water the water dries and the artistic hieroglyphs disappear it is art which is created in a minute and which is gone in a minute, but the act of creation has taken place. In a way it is akin to what you do painting fragile egg shells theres a special kind of charm in creating art objects that are so easily destroyed. Life can also be terminated so easily and yet it goes on and on in our children.

How long your creations will live depends on what you intend to put into them. Fragility is just another chance to remind others and yourself of memento mori the work of art is your message to history, to mankind, its an act in which the material you use is an integral part of the magic of creation.

By Natalya Kosmolinska
Photos by Roman Shyshak, Ivan Dudkin,Oleksiy OnIshchuk

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