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Paschal traditions: symbolism in popular Ukrainian Christianity
Synonymous with Ukrainian culture for many in the world is the Paschal tradition of the pysanky. For the neophyte the pysanky can be thought of solely from the perspective of being a highly decorated egg; a spectacular artwork - and something formed strictly to appeal to the aesthetic side of human nature.
Yet pysanky are a powerful sign and symbol pointing toward a rich tapestry of Eastern theology and mystery; and the skill of writing a pysanky is inextricably linked with Christian life in Ukraine.
There are many tales that relate to how the pysanky became such an important part of the Ukrainian Paschal tradition. Aside from the universally accepted legend of the egg symbolising both new life, and life coming from out of the tomb, the tradition of the pysanky also incorporates other stories.
First, there is the legend that Mary Magdalene, when she went to anoint the body of Christ with the other myrrh- bearing women on the morning of the Great Pasch, also took with her a basket of highly decorated eggs as a repast for the guards.
Second, among the Hutsulian people of Carpatho- Ukraine, there is the legend that Christianity will never die in Ukraine, as long as each year pysanky are still written.
Third, another aspect of the pysanky is that the egg represents the cosmos - all that is encompassed in God's embrace - and this embrace is symbolised by the shell - on which is written Christian symbols. Thus the pysanky symbolise that the Trinity contains all that is, all that is visible and invisible, and therefore all that is possible to be.
The very term 'pysanky' means in the English language 'to write' or 'something that is written', hence, as has been mentioned, pysanky are by their very nature more than an exercise in aesthetics but a deep and rich form of conveying the Paschal message through the means of symbol.
With regard to this symbolism there are specific patterns and colours that are used to express the Great Pasch. Of these colours, some are: white for purity; yellow for light; gold for wisdom; red for spiritual awakening; and black for eternity.
Intricate patterns also speak at a different level: forty triangles to symbolise the Great Fast, as well as the desert and the forty martyrs; large triangles to represent the Most Holy Trinity, as well as the elements of air, fire and water; diamonds as a symbol for knowledge; and spirals indicating life and death - divinity and immortality.
These are but part of the colours and patterns of writing pysanky and various combinations of these help write a Paschal story on each egg, for instance the use of four or more colours on an individual egg indicates peace, love and happiness for the family; or the use of black and white is a sign of respect for the souls of a departed loved one.
For some in the West the thought of an egg being used to ward off evil spirits is mere superstition and a remnant of paganism. But in Eastern theology God works His presence through touching our lives both by use of things invisible and visible; and nothing that is created by the hand of God, such as an egg, can be profane.
A further aspect to the pysanky is that they symbolise the Eastern mind and the Eastern approach to theologising. The way in which pysanky are made is by a wax-batik method in which areas that the author does not wish to be coloured by dye are covered in wax prior to placing the egg in a bowl of dye. The authors add and then remove the wax from the egg each time they wish to dye another colour.
This form of writing, is 'negative' in its approach. Rather than a positive painting one colour on an egg, the pysanky are written with a thought to what remains hidden by the wax.
Thus the pysanky reflect the Eastern approach to theology: to understand that what is hidden is of vast importance to what has been revealed. The whole process of writing a pysanky is about Revelation and the Cloud of Unknowing.
In fact each time authors of the pysanky approach their task of writing an egg they are thinking in a manner vastly different from the positive approach to theology.
In many ways the writing of pysanky helps train the individual author not only about how to contemplate the Paschal message, but how to contemplate this in an Eastern 'negative' manner - with respect and an eye to what remains unknown and hidden.
Many people when they begin to write pysanky make errors for want of thinking in a negative manner. Equally there are those who believe that God can be chained theologically by the written word, rather than at best be known only partially.
East and West
The West needs to understand that the traditions of the East are not quaint rituals for a simple and superstitious people, but an indication of a mindset that is distinct, yet complementary to the West; for neither the left lung, nor the right lung is superior in a healthy body; and so should it be in a Church that breathes with both lungs.
As Unitatis Redintegratio expressed it: 'In the investigation of revealed truth, East and West have used different methods and approaches in understanding and proclaiming divine things. It is hardly surprising, then, if sometimes one tradition has come nearer than the other to an apt appreciation of certain aspects of a revealed mystery, or has expressed them in a clearer manner. As a result, these various theological formulations are often to be considered as complementary rather than conflicting' (Unitatis Redintegratio, III, 17).
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is studying at Oxford University and is a regular contributor to AD2000.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 5 (June 2010), p. 14
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