Mother oeuf;The big picture

26th March 1999 at 00:00
How do you like your eggs? Fried, boiled, scrambled, made of chocolate or - like this lopsided landmark - painted? The small town of Vegreville (population 5,300) in Alberta, Canada, might seem an unlikely outpost of the ancient Ukrainian art of egg painting, but it is home to the largest example in the world.

Egg painting - or pysanky - began as a pagan ritual symbolising new life at springtime and became part of the Easter celebrations when Christianity came to the Ukraine 1,000 years ago. Vegrevillians of Ukrainian descent keep their traditions alive at an annual festival of culture with music, dancing and pysanky.

A pysanka is made by using a kistka (originally a piece of bone but nowadays a fine nibbed pen) to draw lines of molten wax on a raw egg which is then dyed. More patterns are added and successively darker dyes are used until the wax is melted to reveal the final design. The decorated egg has to be raw (denoting fertility) but a hard-boiled egg dyed a single colour - a krashanka - is eaten for breakfast at Eastertime.

This giant egg, nine metres long and six wide, has an aluminium shell, anodized in gold, silver and bronze, and features many of the geometric motifs typical of the art - triangles denoting the Holy Trinity, circular lines representing eternity and stars to bring good fortune.

There's a very good reason for keeping the custom going. According to Ukrainian legend, somewhere far away a big, bad-tempered monster lies shackled to a rock. His servants roam the earth, keeping count of all the pysanka eggs that are made. When the number goes up, the monster fumes and struggles but his chains tighten around him and people live in peace. If it goes down, his chains are loosened, and the world becomes a crueller place. But if one year there were no pysankas made, the evil monster would be released and rule the world forever.


Credit: Corbis

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