Ancient artform of Ukrainian Easter eggs preserves culture, history of a nation under attack


CHICAGO — Maria Fedachtchin’s fingers trembled a bit as she etched the first intricate lines of beeswax along the smooth, unblemished shell of an egg cradled in her palm.

She’s learning to design pysanky, the ornately decorated traditional Easter eggs of Ukraine, where the 60-year-old was born and lived until her 1991 immigration to Chicago.

But her focus was rattled by news that Russian rockets had just struck her hometown of Lviv in western Ukraine, the area where her parents, sister and other loved ones still reside.

“My hands are shaking right now,” she said, periodically glancing at her phone, hoping for text messages from relatives or news alerts. “You don’t know what can happen at any moment.”

Fedachtchin was one of about a dozen women attending a recent pysanky workshop at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago. The tenor of the room was solemn, in contrast to the brightly colored eggs on display around the museum, showcasing the artwork of different regions of Ukraine as well as various historical periods.

The class started about a half-hour after back-to-back airstrikes hit Lviv, a historical cultural center of Ukraine and, more recently, a haven near the Polish border for Ukrainians evacuating following the full-scale Russian invasion that began in late February.

Several workshop participants had spoken to relatives overseas and learned they were safe; others were still awaiting calls.

Artist and instructor Anna Chychula began the class by recounting one of the many legends surrounding pysanky: There is said to be an evil monster shackled to a cliff and each Easter egg — singular pysanka — creates another link in the chain that binds him. The fate of the world depends on the survival of these fragile eggs, according to ancient lore, or the beast will be unleashed upon the world.

Today, this mythical monster is widely believed to be embodied in Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose war on Ukraine continues in its sixth week.

“So you’re doing very important, beautiful work today,” said Chychula, whose pysanky have previously been featured at the Art Institute of Chicago and currently at the Field Museum.

“Make the chain stronger. Know that you are making a difference. Because a pysanka is a hope. It is a prayer. It is a wish.”

The war has ignited waves of egg decorating around the globe, from church groups to classes to pysanky fundraisers, with the proceeds from egg sales helping Ukraine relief efforts. The Facebook page Pysanky for Ukraine has more than 8,000 followers worldwide, many posting photos of their own eggs along with words of encouragement for those threatened or displaced by the war.

“This beautiful Ukrainian tradition was passed down to me from my maternal grandparents,” one woman from Indiana posted on the site, with a half-dozen images of her pysanky. “Prayers for peace to my family, and all families, still in Ukraine.”

“I’m from Ukraine,” wrote another woman, who lives in Khmelnytskyi in the western part of the nation. “Tonight the Russians fired on the city where I live. Firefighters put out the fire all night. … I am sure we will defeat evil. This Easter egg tells the world: The sun of Ukraine will rise! We will overcome the darkness!”

The word pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb “to write,” as the designs aren’t painted on the egg but instead are written in beeswax.

The artform uses a wax-resist method: Molten wax is applied to the shell of a raw egg with a traditional stylus called a kistka; the writing tool has a reservoir that’s filled with beeswax, which flows when heated under the flame of a candle.

The egg is then immersed in dye, with the wax protecting the covered portion of the egg from absorbing the color. The artist repeats the process, writing more wax motifs and submerging the egg in different colors.

“It’s like writing a prayer or a message,” said Chychula, who has been creating pysanky since she was 6. “So, your message to the world is through this. The color means something. The symbols mean something. The patterns mean something.”

Pysanky have been a part of Ukrainian heritage for centuries. An exhibit on Easter eggs at the Ukrainian National Museum explains that earlier in history, natural dyes were used, such as red coloring derived from logwood, yellow from apple tree bark and black from old walnut or oak bark.

While the artform originated in pagan times, it was later intertwined with religion when Ukraine accepted Christianity in 988 A.D. Pysanky were traditionally written during the last week of Lent by women of the family, who would gather, pray, and use patterns and colors typically handed down from mother to daughter for generations, Chychula said.

“This is our cultural identity,” Chychula said. “We have to have our humanity, our connections to the past.”

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