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Flowers and stars on hope chests and walls


From time immemorial, the Ukrainian peasant house, its exterior and interior, and things therein, were lavishly decorated with painted floral and other patterns  the walls, the stove, the ceiling, benches, mysnyky (shelves for plates), plates, cups, trunks, window shutters, and almost anything else that was used in everyday life. Malyovane derevo, or The Painted Tree, a book about Ukrainian folk painting of the 18th-20th centuries, written by Lidiya Orel, art historian and ethnographer, and recently released by the Rodovid Publishers, Kyiv, is a rich source from which we have gleaned a lot of interesting information some of which we offer below.


The available archaeological evidence suggests that as far back as the concluding centuries of the first millennium B.C., many items of everyday use of the peoples who lived then in the territory of the present-day Ukraine, were decorated with paintings. Traces of painting were also discovered on sarcophagi.

In later times, particularly beginning from the 11th century AD, a growing number of items were decorated with paintings. In the 13th century and onward, it is not only the furniture, cups and plates, candleholders and other similar things that were decorated with painted floral and animalistic patterns, but beams, girders, ceilings and doors in the houses of more effluent people were likewise adorned. In some of the icons of the late medieval times we can see tables, wooden beds and chairs gaily decorated with painted stylized flowers and ornaments. By the end of the 16th century, in the Cossack era, the doors of the houses, walls and furniture pieces began to be decorated not only with ornamental patterns but also with narrative pictures. Gradually, such pictures spread onto baby carriages, cradles, carriages, wagons, sleighs, window shutters, yokes for carrying buckets, winnowers, yokes for horses used in wedding processions, and even coffins.

Painting was a craft practised by unprofessional and semi-professional painters whose main occupation, in most cases, was carpentering. Trunkwrights, for example, often painted the trunks they made themselves; as often as not they were also their own salesmen though in some cases their wives or relatives helped them paint their wares and sell them. At the same time, a lot of naive folk painting was done in the home, mostly by women or young girls.

The ornaments, patterns and colours of decorative paintings varied from village to village.



The peasant houses, adobe or wooden, were decorated both inside and outside for many centuries and this tradition was kept very much alive until the mid-twentieth century, and even now it is not completely dead. Modern ethnographers still find many decorated houses in the villages where the Cossacks used to live, particularly in the land of Poltavshchyna.

In Southern Ukraine and in eastern Podillya it was mostly the adobes that were decorated, predominantly with coloured clays or soot. In the land of Polissya where the houses were mostly made of wood rather than of clay bricks, the interior wooden walls were covered with a layer of yellow clay and then decorated with floral patterns drawn with soot. The subdued colour schemes may be possibly explained by the fact that most of the houses in Polissya were of the kuren type (a kuren house did not have a chimney and the smoke from the stove escaped through the door, and consequently no colourful decorations inside were sustainable).

In the land of Kyivshchyna, in those houses which were mostly made of logs and did not have a layer of clay covering the walls [nemashcheni], the windows had wavy white clay patterns around them. The tradition of decorating the windows on the outside with these kryvulky  windings  is still maintained in some villages.

Of course, painting with oils made the pictures much more durable and colourful but it was also much more costly and could not be afforded by many. Also, it required more skills. Naturally, the patterns were much more variegated  floral and animalistic, stylized human shapes, and narrative pictures. One of the most popular subjects was Cossack Mamay which contained a lot of symbolic meaning, with every detail having a reason to be there.

In Western Ukraine, in the land of Lemkivshchyna, the exterior of the peasant houses used to be painted four times a year. The dark background, which was created with the help of such materials as ochre, natural oil, or finely crushed bricks mixed with cooking oil, was decorated with patterns of mostly floral kind. Stylized representations of the sun, birds and butterflies, as well as purely ornamental zig-zag or winding patterns were liberally added. Since predominantly white and yellowish colours were used they stood out cheerfully against the dark background.

In the land of Slobozhanshchyna, where the houses were made of carefully squared timber, the interior walls were whitewashed rather than plastered, or even painted with oils. If linden timber was used for building the house, then the unplastered walls which were of the warm, honey colour were decorated with pictures painted with oils, with the subjects ranging from the symbolical Tree of Life, angels, through biblical scenes and even to quotations from the Gospels. More often than not, the Biblical quotations were painted on the beams and girders. Sometimes, the painted messages of the following kind could be encountered: By the Grace of God this House was built by the Slave of God Christian Trokhym, son of Borys in the Year of Our Lord



Trunks were an integral part of a peasant house (probably, only the poorest families did not have them) throughout the centuries. Trunks served as a storage place for a great multitude of things  clothes, linen, towels, personal decorations and bric-a-brac. Hope chests contained cushions, blankets, linen, embroidered shirts, tablecloths and necklaces, the usual brides dowry. The more hope chests contained, the more positive was the image of the bride and her family  a well-stocked hope chest spelled diligence, industriousness, care and indicated that the bride was well-off. Marriage entailed moving the hope chest to the grooms place and it was an important event since the whole village watched the transfer. In some of the older peasant houses, one can still see dowry trunks which are kept as a relic from the past.

As a rule, trunks and hope chests were placed at a conspicuous place in the house, and were covered with pieces of embroidered cloth and on holidays with festive rugs. Trunks were made to order or were purchased at fairs. A good trunk was supposed to have: pictures or brightly coloured floral patterns on all sides with the picture on the main side being the brightest and most elaborate; wide enough strips of metal to provide durability and resistance to crush; a lock that could produce cheerful sounds when locked or unlocked; small wheels underneath for convenience in moving it around.

A trunk was also to have special compartments inside for necklaces, threads, needles, corals, bric-a-brac and other similar things.

Trunks were made mostly of linden, poplar, birch, willow or alder wood. The peak of the demand for them fell on the fall when most of the marriages were concluded and that is why the trunkwrights wanted to make as many trunks as possible during the summer season, each trunk maker producing about twenty trunks on average. The planks out of which trunks were made, were glued together rather than nailed. When the trunk was ready for painting, the surface to be painted was grounded with oils; when it was dry it was painted over with stylized flowers, fabulous birds, red apples on a dark background. The background was usually dark green, or dark blue, or deep purple and the bright colours stood out gaily on it. The better painted trunks were highly prized possessions.

The trunks made in the Carpathian Mountains differed considerably from those made in Central and Eastern Ukraine, both in shape and decoration. Carpathian trunks were mostly made of hard wood such as beech, cedar or oak. The frame had four massive vertical supports in it which also served as legs. Geometric ornaments of wavy lines, circles, curves and crosses rather than flowers were carved into the surface with a dark background provided by the application to the wood of natural dies made of berries or barks.

Old decorated trunks have begun to be collected and they can be found in the interiors of private homes in growing numbers.


Icons and paintings

Up to the 1920s, it would probably be impossible to find a single peasant house without at least one icon in it. In some cases one whole wall rather than just a corner was given to icons. Most of the icons were painted on wooden boards; some were painted on canvas, and some on glass (the latter to be found exclusively in the Carpathians). Icons painted by village bohomazy  literally: those who painted representations of God  were unsophisticated and naive with the faces of the relatives and even of the bohomazy themselves often appearing in them as saints and Biblical figures. Most often, the icons showed Christ the Saviour, Bohorodytsya, or The One Who Gave Birth to God (the Virgin Mary), saints who were regarded as protectors of husbandry, handicrafts and who provided protection against all kinds of evils. The garments of the saints represented were often of a typically peasant kind, with the background in the icon decorated in floral patterns.

Icons were draped with embroidered rushnyky  lengths of usually white cloth. A meal would not begin without a prayer before the icons; the icons were addressed with requests to help the kith and kin who were ailing or who were away from home. Icons were held in front of the newly-married couples by their parents blessing their wedlock; icons were given to young men drafted into the army for protection against harm; icons were placed into the coffins before the burial.

When an icon was passed from one person to another, it had to be covered with a rushnyk or wrapped in a shawl; icons could not be given to strangers; icons could not be sold. Icons that were damaged or became too old were either burned or floated on a stream that would carry them away.

In addition to icons, primitive art pictures were to be found in many peasant houses in central Ukraine, with the Cossack Mamay theme in the folk art of the 17th18th century being by fare the most popular. Cossack Mamay representations with their many symbolic meanings and references were painted on the walls, doors, trunks, ceramic tiles, that is on practically all available surfaces in the house and outdoors as well  even beehives. Cossack Mamay was invariably shown sitting cross-legged on the ground, wearing rich zhupan (a sort of a coat), sharovary (wide, loose pants), with a bandura (many-stringed Ukrainian musical instrument) in his hands and a pipe in his teeth, oseledets (literally  herring; here: a long lock of hair growing from the top of the head, with the rest of the hair shaved off), Cossack style, on his head. Some distance away a stallion can be seen patiently waiting for his master; by Mamays side a sabre, a musket and spear stuck vertically into the ground complete the assortment of details that always appear in Mamay pictures. Cossack Mamay, among other things, symbolized and pictorially embodied the Ukrainian patriotic feelings, readiness to fight for freedom, nostalgia for the glorious past to be sung in songs, and poetic strivings.


Plates, sleighs and wagons

Big wooden plates, used only on holidays for holding Easter eggs, for example, and other similar special purposes, were richly decorated with painted floral patterns. Gaily decorated big dishes were used for putting the wedding cakes on them. Floral motives in red colour schemes were the most popular.

In the land of Podillya, the backs of sleighs and wagons were decorated with birds, stars or flowers painted against dark backgrounds.

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