Pysanky: Icons of the Universe (Part 1: Symbology)
On view March 2 to April 15, 2023 – Now Extended to June 3rd!

Opening Reception for Pysanky: Icons of the Universe & Doors: Through the Horror of War:
Thursday, March 9, 2023 at 7PM

This exhibition explores the role of symbolism in pysanka-writing through a selection of traditional and modern symbols linked to this Ukrainian folk-art form. The eggs on display are drawn from more than 300 pysanky held in the Ukrainian Museum of Canada’s permanent collection.

Symbology is essential to the pysanka. It is a combination of a maker’s skill in “writing” pysanky and the viewer’s creative act of interpretation that gives pysanky their enduring sense of magic and intrigue.

Pysanky are ritual objects that, since pagan times, have represented the birth of spring and embodied notions of new life and fresh starts. Some of the symbols used in pysanky have ancient roots, originating over 9,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. Most are more recent, but still predate the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine in 988CE.

During the early years of Christianity in Ukraine, pysanky became associated with Easter. A pysanka that has received a priest’s blessing is still likely to be found in many Ukrainian homes during Easter celebrations. With Christianity, some old symbols were reworked to fit with the new religion. Christian and pre-Christian symbols are often found together.

Across the large territory of Ukraine, the names and meanings of symbols vary from region to region, and even from village to village. Symbolism is still generally passed down orally through the teaching of the art, rather than codified in books.

More than 100 years ago, when the first Ukrainian settlers arrived in North America, they brought with them the ancient art of pysanka-writing, along with an array of symbols, motifs, and designs. The significance of the symbols continued to evolve and modernize in their new settings, and today some symbols found in Canada cannot be found in Ukraine.

Pysanky: Icons of the Universe provides a starting point to the custom of interpreting pysanky symbology. There is no single correct interpretation of any given symbol. You must always consider the organic whole of the decorated egg and interpret the symbols in context.



In Ukraine, the practice of making pysanky was banned during the Soviet era. Although pysanky writing was greatly threatened during this period – as were the makers of pysanky, who could be killed if caught – some Ukrainians continued the practice in secret.

The art form was also protected and maintained by Ukrainians living in North America, and it eventually returned to public prominence in Ukraine itself, where it is widely practiced today.

The title of this exhibition honours the booklet Pysanka: Icon of the Universe, researched and written by Mary Tkachuk, Marie Kishchuk, and Alice Nicholaichuk, published in 1977 by the Ukrainian Museum of Canada in co-operation with the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. Ever since its publication, this work has been an invaluable English-language reference for the makers and protectors of pysanky worldwide. This book is for sale in the Museum’s gift store.

Pysanky: Icons of the Universe (Part 1: Symbology) is the first of three exhibitions planned to celebrate and honour the work of Tkachuk, Kishchuk, and Nicholaichuk.

Related Events:

The Art of Pysanky Workshops
Every Saturday from March 4 to April 8, 2023

Learn to Make Natural Dyes
Saturday, March 18, 2023