Several years ago, I was introduced to the work of Halifax-born Father Paul Luniw, a Roman Catholic priest who is an internationally recognised master of the Ukrainian decorative art tradition called pysanky. Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanka, are often beautifully decorated using a wax-resist (batik) method and are characterised by their unique, intricate, often traditional designs. The technique, dating back to the pre-Christian era, is also used by other Central and Eastern European ethnic groups to decorate eggs at Easter.
Pysanka derives from the verb pysaty, ‘to write’ or ‘to inscribe’. The designs are ‘written’ (inscribed) in hot wax, with a pinhead or a special stylus attached to a funnel holding a small amount of liquid wax. There are many other types of decorated eggs ornamented in this Ukrainian tradition, varying throughout the different regions of the country.
Ancient symbols of new life
While today they are widely admired for their artistic merit, historically they were thought to be items of spiritual significance. In ancient times, women and young girls would design pysanka eggs each spring. This practice was believed to have powers that would bring fertility and good harvests in the new season. This was partly due to the eggs still having life inside of them (fertilised eggs were used), as well as their vibrant, colourful decoration.
Whilst stone, clay and bone versions of pysanky eggs dating back to prehistoric times have been excavated, the oldest ‘real’ remaining pysanka was excavated in Lviv in 2013. It is believed that it dates to the 15th or 16th century.
Ukrainian culture enriches our own
Luniw was raised in a Ukrainian immigrant community, his parents having arrived in Halifax in 1948. The artist trained as a nurse and worked at Halifax Royal Infirmary. In 1972, he appeared on the children’s television programme Blue Peter, talking about his eggs. It was around this time that he was introduced to Venetia Newall, both president of the London-based Folklore Society and fellow of the American Folklore Society. Luniw presented her with examples of his work.
He later studied for the priesthood at the Ukrainian Seminary in Rome and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1982. From 1982 to 1987, he worked in the Ukrainian community in Philadelphia, later returning to the UK to work in Ukrainian communities throughout Lancashire before eventually moving back to the United States.
He has continued to decorate eggs wherever he has lived and has presented these intricate artworks to both Pope John Paul II and to Pope Francis. He has exhibited pysanka in Italy, the US and the UK – examples of his work are displayed in the British Museum. The pysanka below is inspired by the pottery of the Neolithic Trypillian culture of Ukraine.
Contemporary artisans such as Luniw, continue to use ancient symbols and traditional colours on the eggs. At this dark time in the country’s history, I am sure that Ukrainians and many people across the world will be hoping that Pysanka continues to be a source of good luck, as well as a beautiful, highly significant and enduring work of art.