Here you’ll find informations about Polish pisanki (decorated Easter eggs):
- Short history
- 8 types of Polish Easter eggs
- Gallery of Polish pisanki
The custom of decorating the eggs – an ancient symbol of life and rebirth – was already known in the antiquity. The oldest discovered examples are over 5,000 years old: eggs with various decorations were unearthed in Assyria, ancient Mesopotamia. The custom was popular in many parts of the world, for example ancient Egypt, Persia, Rome and China (where the colorful eggs were gifted with the arrival of spring). It prevailed in all the Slavic cultures up until today.
On the Polish lands, the oldest decorated eggs discovered so far come from the 10th century. They were unearthed during the archaeological excavations in Ostrówek (near the city of Opole) where remnants of a Slavic settlement from the early Piast Dynasty era (the first Polish ruling dynasty recognized by the Holy Roman Empire) were found and examinated. Similar eggs were discovered in numerous other archaeological sites, for example in Giecz (located in the region of Greater Poland) from the same time period. The discovery in Ostrówek is the most remarkable: the archaeologists discovered there preserved remains of not only coloured eggshells but also 7 life-sized ‘egg sculptures’: 4 made of limestone and 3 out of clay, some of them covered with green and yellow stipes and trails. The clay eggs were created in a method similar to the process of making vessels, however some of them were decorated by the batik method: with the use of wax, just like in the contemporary times (article in Polish about that discovery: here).
The tradition of decorating the eggs was present on the Polish lands throughout the centuries. The best sources describing the custom come only from the 19th century, the time that marked the beginning of the widespread ethnographic research as systematized professional studies in Poland.
The word ‘pisanki’ is commonly used to name all the ‘easter eggs’ in Poland nowadays, but that word was originally used to name only one (the oldest) type of the decorated eggs. It is derived from the verb pisać – to write. Sharing and gifting the pisanki to family and friends was common as symbolic wishes of health and abundance ‘written’ with symbols on the eggshells.
Ritual of ‘writing’ on the eggs was performed strictly during the times of fasting (Lents) before Easter. In many regions of Poland it was a custom reserved for women (if a man entered the room by accident, he’d be rushed out and a ritual of ‘purification’ of the room with salt was performed). Pisanki could’ve been prepared as early as 3-4 weeks before the Easter on wydmuszki (emptied eggshells), but no later than on the day of the Holy Friday. The motifs painted on pisanki have a deep symbolic meaning, connected to rebirth, fertility, beauty, protection, and sun symbolism (vitality).
Pisanki are then added into special Easter baskets along with other symbolic food products, and blessed on the Holy Saturday in churches. These food baskets are called święconki (singular: święconka).
Pisanki made fresh out of the boiled eggs are later eaten on the Easter Sunday during the main Easter breakfast. They are divided into small portions and shared around the table with all the people present by the Easter table (similarly to sharing of the opłatek during Christmas – see my earlier post about Polish Christmas).
The blessed food products are remnants of ‘pagan’ Slavic food offerings for the spring, syncretized over the centuries with the celebrations of Easter. Before the dominance of the Christianity in Poland, the eggs were decorated for the spring equinox: Slavic feast called Jare Gody. The original background of the custom is almost forgotten nowadays, but gains popularity revived by the Rodnovery movements (Slavic Native Faith).
8 TYPES OF DECORATED EASTER EGGS
Here are the most popular types of the Polish Easter eggs:
– word derived from verb ‘krasić’ (to decorate / to dye / to beautify)
The eggs are in a solid colour, and they are usually dyed with the use of natural dyes (nowadays also with commercial food pigments). We can say that those are the most ‘minimalistic’ ones, and they come with no further decorations. Such simple eggs were especially popular in the region of Pomorze (Pomerania). Many regions of Poland prepare kraszanki by boiling the eggs in onion peels, what creates the eggshells in a wide range of reddish-brownish tones.
– word derived from verb ‘pisać’ (to write / in old-Polish also: to draw)
The actual pisanki are created by drawing on the eggs with the melted wax (natural beeswax is the best for this method) and then dipping them into dyes. This method is generally known as batik (method of dyeing textiles). Various tools were used for applying the wax on the eggs, such as pins, needles, penknives (koziki), different types of awls or simple straws and pieces of wood.
The process of dyeing has to be organized from the lightest to the darkest colours of the dyes. The wax protects the parts of the eggshells underneath it from being dyed, and when it’s melted the patterns are revealed. The best eggs for this method are those with white eggshells (in the past many housewives were putting the eggs into water with vinegar for a short time to make the eggshells whiter). When using many colours, applying of the wax has to be planned precisely: first you need to draw the lines that have to stay in the white colour of the shells and then you put the egg into e.g. a yellow dye. Let it dry, and then draw further lines on the dyed yellow parts with the wax: those parts will later stay yellow. Then put it into e.g. a red dye, then draw lines that will stay red – and so on. The last layer of dye was often either dark brown or black. In the end, the wax is melted or being scratched off, revealing all the layers from the phases of dyeing in their respective colours.
Pisanki have also many subtypes, because there are many different methods for applying the wax and dyeing. For example, coloured wax can be used and then left on the eggshells as the decoration (without further dyeing of the shells). The process of dyeing and scratching off or melting the wax afterwards can be done in either one or many phases.
Various regions of Poland had their own styles of decorations, but regardless of the ornaments’ styling, this technique was the most widespread and therefore, as mentioned above, over the time the word ‘pisanki’ became common as a reference to all kinds of the decorated Easter eggs in general. This method is also popular across other countries in the Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania Russia, Romania, Hungary, and so on).
– word derived from verb ‘drapać’ (to scratch)
These decorations are created with the use of a sharp tool: the eggs are dyed like the kraszanki and then the coloured surface is delicately scratched off, revealing the white colour of the eggshell. Drapanki can have detailed, lace-like ornaments on them, depending on a scratching tool used. This method is also known across Poland, and the most famous examples come from the region of Silesia.
In some regions of Poland drapanki can be also called kroszonki (in Silesia) or skrobanki.
– word derived from “malować” (to paint)
These eggs are decorated with paints, very often on natural (undyed) eggshells. It’s a follow-up of an older tradition of painting on the eggs with coloured wax. Naturally, this method is the most flexible as it comes to the final effect: from the traditional geometrical shapes and floral patterns to almost realistic images.
Sometimes malowanki are made on life-size ceramic forms or wooden pieces with carvings – such ‘eggs’ could last for years, or even centuries (like the ones unearthed during archaeological excavations).
Side note: the word ‘malowanki’ is rarely used in this context nowadays, and became associated rather with e.g. children’s coloring books.
– word derived from verb ‘nalepiać’ (to stick on / to glue on)
This method is particularly popular in Łowicz, some parts of Kraków, and other regions where wycinanki (papercut arts) are a common tradition. This method could be compared to decoupage, but authentic nalepianki should be made with multiple layers of precisely cut pieces of paper glued one on the top of another, leaving natural colour of the eggshells in the gaps between the main parts. In the old days natural materials like thin pieces of straw or dried leaves, herbs and flower petals were used. An old tradition of decorating the eggs with the straw is still very popular for example in Slovakia or Czech Republic.
Nalepianki can also be called naklejanki. This method is sometimes confused with the method of oklejanki (point 6 below).
– word derived from verb ‘oklejać‘ (to cover or overlay sth / to tape over or around sth)
This is a very old method of covering the eggs completely (as opposed to the nalepianki described above) with the use of various rather thicker materials. In the old times, dried herbs, flowers, various types of bulrushes, straw or parts of material were used. Nowadays glossy paper, fabric, threads, wool, beads or blotting / crêpe paper are common for this type of decoration as well – the endless possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the creators. In the regions of Kurpie or Opole an old tradition was to use bulrushes (their white stems) with colorful wool.
– word derived from verb ‘dziergać’ (to crochet)
Those are eggs covered in tight knitted ‘pouches’, sometimes with elements like lace or bows as well. In the modern days the knitted forms are often wrapped around glass or plastic forms to create a transculent effect, and can hang around the house as a decoration.
They can be also called pisanki szydełkowe (szydełko is another Polish word meaning crochet).
– word derived from noun ‘ażur’ / adjective ‘ażurowy’ (an openwork texture)
This is a modern technique of creating perforated eggs, made from wydmuszki (emptied eggshells). They can show the natural colour of the eggshels or be covered with white acrylic paints. This method originated in Czech Republic or Germany, and quickly became very popular also in Poland. It requires a steady hand and very precise tools (thin drills) that can deal with the delicate eggshells without breaking them.
Important note: The types described above are only examples of the most popular methods of decorating the Easter eggs in Poland. Because the word ‘pisanki’ was generalized over time, the types as described above can be also named with proper adjectives for example: pisanki oklejane (instead of oklejanki), pisanki malowane (instead of malowanki), pisanki dziergane (instead of dzierganki), pisanki ażurowe (instead of ażurki) etc. This linguistic detail might be important for people who’d like to find more reference pictures of the certain types.
As mentioned above, the old types of Polish pisanki are full of ancient symbolism, meant to ensure the yearly rebirth of the nature and to provide fertility, beauty, protection, and vitality for the closest family and for the whole community. The protective symbols come from old-Slavic traditions and can be often found not only on the Easter eggs but also in embroidered clothing or elements of interior decoration like tableware, furniture or painted walls, and so on.
Below you can see some plates with historical examples of the symbols found on the Polish Easter eggs, collected by various ethnographers. The plates can be used as a reference for creating old types of traditional Polish pisanki. In a next section below, I included also a gallery of photos of the contemporary authentic Polish pisanki (with many examples from ethnographic museums).
Two plates from ‘Chełmskie : obraz etnograficzny’ T. 1, 1890 by Oskar Kolberg:
Two plates from ‘Rok polski w życiu, tradycyi i pieśni’, 1900 by Zygmunt Gloger:
Examples of patterns from the region of Lublin in eastern Poland collected by the project Patterns of Europe (organized by Cultural Workshops in Lublin) – I highly recommend reading the article ‘Traditional design of the Lublin region – popular motifs‘ where meaning of these symbols is explained:
And here’s a small chart by kissmeimpolish.com:
GALLERY OF POLISH PISANKI
Below are photographs of the oldest examples of Polish pisanki with various symbolic motifs, many from ethnography museums (links to sources are in the captions under photos).
Examples of pisanki with various geometric symbols:
Examples of pisanki with tear-shaped motifs (mostly with sun and stars symbolism):
Examples of lace-like ornaments of drapanki (pisanki where ornaments were scratched off a dyed eggshell):
Examples of pisanki with motifs from Łowicz (nalepianki type):
Side note: this article was updated in March 2017 (corrected grammar and added a few photographs of pisanki).