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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Great Egg Hunt

Travel to Slovakia to learn about an ancient art form.

The great egg hunt of 2001 got its start in 1999 when I visited Slovakia for the annual tinkers symposium at the Povazske Museum in Zilina. Before then I knew that Slovakia, like Ukraine, had a long history of decorated Easter eggs and had often seen samples of this colorful art. The symposium, however, was where I first saw wirework eggs made by tinkers. Like other decorated eggs, they are made with blown eggs; unlike other eggs, they are decorated with woven wire. Two years later, again in Slovakia, I finally learned more about these unusual eggs and even ended up crisscrossing the country on an impromptu egg hunt.

Called kraslice in Slovakia, pysanky in Ukraine, decorated eggs are one of the oldest and richest forms of folk art found in Eastern Europe. They first gained attention in the 17th century but their origins lie in prehistoric times, when eggs were ascribed magical powers. Used in seasonal, agrarian and other rituals, eggs were symbols of the sun, light, fertility and spring, as well as the rebirth and continuity of life.

For centuries eggs and decorated eggs were used in countless rituals all over the world. For example, an egg held to a child’s lips was believed to encourage early speech. Placed in a plowed field, it ensured a good crop, while one under a barn entryway protected cows’ health and fertility. Eggs were important in wedding dishes and customs, as well as at Easter. They were also placed on graves to commemorate the dead.

As it did with many other customs and traditions, Christianity adopted the egg and “baptized” it, adding new symbolism associated with Christ’s passion, death and resurrection to the original meaning as well as to the designs.

The English word “Easter” comes from “Eostre,” an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess. In pagan times an annual spring festival was held in her honor, and some Easter customs developed from this and other pre-Christian spring festivals. In other languages, however, the word for Easter derives from the pasch, or Passover, and Christianity’s paschal feast.

Christianity was quick to see the symbol of Christ’s resurrection in the previously pagan custom. For example, Christians saw the egg’s shell as a symbol of the protective darkness of the life-giving tomb; a hatching chick represented the risen Christ emerging from the tomb on Easter morning. The egg’s shape, with neither beginning nor end, was both a symbol of eternity as well as of the “womb” of the tomb, where the Crucified was given new life.

In addition to the motifs drawn from nature, some egg designers added the symbols of Christ’s passion: the rooster, recalling Peter’s denial; the recurring thorn pattern for the crown of thorns Jesus was made to wear; or the nails and spear of the crucifixion. Primarily, however, the joyful nature symbols prevailed in egg designs, reflecting the joy of the Christian world in the Lord’s victory over death.

At first, Slovak decorated eggs were simple, dyed one color; later, ferns and flowers were applied to the eggs to imprint a design. Some of the common motifs still used today, such as the sun, stars and birds, are from the pre-Christian era. Geometric patterns of all kinds and stylized and realistic flowers and human figures were also common. All patterns were done freehand. By the late 19th century, aniline dyes came into widespread use and blown eggs replaced full eggs. Hen eggs are most common; duck, goose and ostrich eggs also are used.

Many kinds of kraslice are still made today. The simplest are dyed a solid color. Red, the color of blood and life, is common. Waxing, batik, etching, scratching and pasting are popular techniques used with kraslice. For the first, warmed wax is applied to the colored egg in relief designs. With batik, which is the most common technique, a design is drawn on the egg in wax, the egg is dyed, then more wax is applied. Going from light colors to dark, the procedure is repeated again and again, depending on the complexity of the design. Etching involves using an agent of some kind to make a design on the delicate surface of colored eggs. With scratching, the design is scratched on the colored egg with a knife, razor, needle or awl. In pasting, barley or oat straw, yarn, thread or the natural or dyed pith of cattails are pasted onto the egg to cover it in part or in whole.

Other decorative eggs include the wired ones made by tinkers, those of wood or glass and, rarest of all, the eggs decorated with miniature horseshoes, anvils, hammers, spurs and other items once made by blacksmiths to show off their skills. These elaborate eggs probably were not made for Easter. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the few that now exist only in museum collections.

Late in the 19th century, wirework eggs were made and sold by Slovak tinkers to celebrate the Easter holiday, but the custom disappeared when the tinkers did. Petr Musil, a Czech freelance artist, teacher, contemporary tinker and master egg decorator, is responsible for reviving the craft of wiring eggs.

I caught up with Petr at the 2001 symposium. In 1988, Petr explained, he took a class in egg decorating for a summer camp where he was teaching. A lecturer from Bratislava showed him a monograph with a photograph of an unidentified man and some wire-decorated eggs. Intrigued by the photo and technique, Petr wanted to know more. His search took him to the Center for Folk Art Production (known by its Slovak acronym, ULUV) in Bratislava and in 1993 to the tinkers symposium in Zilina, where he found more historical documentation and some antique eggs.

By then Petr had mastered the technique of making wired eggs. He asked some Slovak tinkers to make some and organized a group exhibit. Since then, Petr has taught many and inspired countless more to make the eggs.

The most common wire pattern in egg decoration is the basic fishnet, but in all, Petr uses about 30 different patterns for his handsome eggs. He also makes eggs of wirework only, including a mammoth one of 102 inches for the Guinness Book of Records. He recently led 340 people, including many first-timers, through an egg-decorating lesson in the main square of Pelhrimov, Czech Republic, to set another record for the most people working in wire at one time. Petr says that he became an artisan through “theory and practice.” He is dedicated to sharing both.

Lubos Skulec, who lives about 10 minutes from the museum, offered to show us his unique wirework eggs, which have been exhibited at the White House and the Sydney Olympics. A 33-year-old computer graphics designer, he started painting eggs with detailed miniature landscapes.

That was not enough for Lubos: He taught himself to make wirework eggs, which he also paints with tempera landscapes. Motivated to “do something no one else in the world is doing,” he next taught himself basket-weaving techniques and soon was crafting the densely woven, Fabergé-type wire eggs for which he is now known. He usually uses copper wire for these impressive eggs, which incorporate filigree and triple-wire techniques. One woven and painted egg takes about seven weeks to create. Needless to say, these eggs are for the collector, not the Easter basket.

Bratislava is something of a detour, but the ULUV headquarters there is worth it. Known for its shops and showrooms, ULUV has been instrumental for almost 60 years in preserving Slovakia’s rich tradition of folk arts through research, documentation, production, and marketing. The headquarters’ library also is an excellent source of information.

An Easter egg exhibit held in the city of Banska Bystrica is a celebration of the best in old and new techniques. The show features dozens of different kinds of eggs from all over Slovakia. Among my favorites are indigo-dyed eggs scratched with white designs that mimic traditional blueprint fabric and eggs covered in cattail pith dyed in Kenzo-like colors. Charming displays show eggs nesting in baskets and bowls and dangling from branches of pussy willow, a perennial symbol of spring.

One of the contributors to the exhibition is Margita Simkova, who started decorating eggs 27 years ago. To watch her at work I visited her sunny home in the village of Prievidza.

Margita picked up the craft from her mother, who supplied eggs to ULUV. Now Margita, too, makes wax- and straw-decorated eggs for ULUV.

Though white eggs painted with blue are popular, Margita usually dyes her eggs a solid color, then decorates them in white, using a candle wax and whitewash mixture. These days she gets pre-blown eggs from a supplier. The problem, she says, is finding white eggs, which yield brighter, clearer colors when dyed. Brown eggs are more common in Slovakia.

Margita usually works in her cellar workshop with a gas lamp, but for demonstrations she uses her “lucky Aladdin lamp” to heat the wax compound. Using a metal stylus, she deftly paints a red egg with a floral pattern learned from her mother.

In the past Margita made about 10,000 eggs a year; she now averages about 3,000 because the patterns, she says, have become more dense and complicated. ULUV uses only certain patterns in their egg catalog, which Margita finds somewhat limiting. She prefers to use a variety of patterns.

About 18 years ago Margita taught herself to make straw-decorated eggs, another popular staple of her repertoire. Patterns are made of tiny pieces of cut straw, which is often dyed. Margita uses dies to stamp out pieces and cuts all others with scissors. Then, without benefit of a sketch, she pastes the pieces onto the egg to make designs.

When lace eggs, decorated with intricate hole patterns resembling lace, became popular a couple of years ago, Margita started making them too. She drills the holes, then decorates the egg with white wax to complete the lacy effect. Because ULUV has yet to decide patterns for these eggs, Margita enjoys letting her imagination take over. Lace eggs are new to the Easter tradition and are stunning in their detail, especially when made by a professional such as Margita Simkova.

Prievidza turns out to be the last stop on the egg Odyssey. And just in time, too – I have more cartons of eggs than I know what to do with. Best of all, though, the trip has been an entertaining journey into one of the most fragile yet flourishing of Slovak folk arts.

Jacqueline Ruyak is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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