Glass Beads Rainbows

84.jpg (264004 bytes)There is an ancient legend that tells a story of a demigod who had such a compassionate nature that seeing people suffering from pain and injustice he could not help weeping, and his tears, rolling down his cheeks and dropping to the ground turned to glittering precious stones.

For some inexplicable reason people are attracted by the sparkle of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and other gems, and this attraction has nothing to do with greed. Gems are tears of the Earth and pearls are tears of the Ocean. Anything bright and glittering is usually regarded as something cheerful and giving joy to the eye. Glass beads ornaments of rainbow colours have always been traditional embellishments worn by Ukrainian women.

Beads are known to have been used in ancient Egypt. Many civilizations of later times borrowed the idea and passed it on. Probably, through Byzantium, beads came to Europe, where the 13th century saw the first widespread flourishing of their use. It was Venice that started to produce glass beads ornaments in large quantities at the end of the Middle Ages. Since then Venice has often been referred to as “the capital of glass beads.” Even noblemen and even royal personages did not consider it to be below their dignity to wear glass beads ornaments. Starting from the 15th century some German states began manufacturing glass beads, vying with Venice for the first place as producers of these ornaments. In the 16th-17th centuries it was Bohemia and Moravia that came to the fore as major producers and users of glass beads, so much so that they were sometimes called “the glass beads lands.”

The use of glass beads came to the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a part then, in the 18th century in the wake of great reforms conducted by Peter the Great. Mykhailo Lomonosov, an extremely gifted man whose genius manifested itself in many spheres of human endeavour, set up a workshop — one of his numerous enterprises — to produce, among other things, glass beads. Unfortunately this production lived but for a short time.

It was through Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia that the use of glass beads ornaments came to Western Ukraine where they became very popular. At first glass beads were worn only by the local aristocracy and church top hierarchies, and only gradually fascination with glass beads spread among other walks of life.

Even now, at the end of the twentieth century glass beads ornaments are considered to be elegant additions to the holiday dress by many people living in the rural areas. In Western Ukraine, in an area called Karpaty (much of its territory is occupied by the Carpathian Mountains), glass beads are an integral part of the local national Ukrainian dress. The art of making glass beads ornaments has become a truly folk art which reflects the beauty of the Carpathian landscapes, the colours of the land. Typical combinations of colours and patterns of the glass beads ornaments can also be found on painted wooden bowls, embroidered towels, curtains and shirts, in decorative paintings.

The art of making glass beads ornaments is called sylannya. There were times, and not too long ago, when in the villages of Western Ukraine practically every girl would wear a sort of a pectoral ornament or a bracelet or some other decoration made of glass beads by the wearer herself. In some places women during holidays or festivals still wear holiday dresses embellished with glass beads ornaments of various kinds. Particularly popular is to decorate the cuffs of sleeves of long dresses with glass beads. But not only women find it nice to have their persons bedecked in garments decorated with glass beads. Men have been traditionally given snuff-boxes, wallets and even neck-ties decorated with glass beads as gifts on some special occasions. Girls give their suitors a bunch of threads of short lengths with beads on them, which are fixed to the hat bands.

Satin and velvet are popular fabrics to be decorated with glass beads and they are preferred in shades of black, white and silver. The play of colours on such backgrounds is truly captivating.

The colours and patterns used in glass beads ornaments and decorations are very similar to those, that are found on pysanky (painted Easter eggs) and in embroidery, and in fact can be traced back five or more thousand years. They vary from area to area, and sometimes from village to village. In one place shades of yellow predominate, in another it is pink and purple that are used more than other colours, and still in another it can be blue or green, the blue being a particularly popular colour.

Glass beads ornaments and decorations were believed to have some magic powers and there were charms made of glass beads. A charm made of black and red beads — it was considered to be the most potent combination of colours for a charm — was given as a gift to children, close relatives and lovers to show that the giver cared very much for people such a charm was given to. Even now, at the end of the twentieth century only those who are known to have a pure heart are believed to be fit to make glass beads ornaments. You must not make them when you are in a bad mood either because it is believed that your mood will be passed on to the wearer of the ornament you made.

The photos here show glass beadwork created by Mariya Chulak who hails from Kosivshchyna, an area in the Carpathian Mountains, famous for pysanky and embroideries made there. On the one hand she keeps to the age-long traditions, but on the other she introduces new colours and new patterns into some of her creations. Mrs Chulak has mastered several kinds of the decorative arts but glass beads ornaments remain her favourite. Her art is known beyond her native land. Several exhibitions showed her works in the city of Kyiv where it could be seen by very many people, foreign visitors including.

The rainbow is universally loved for its marvellous play of colours. Glass beads ornaments are man-made rainbows.

By Andriy Shestakov
Photos by Olexandr Mykhailov

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