Unlike the other four articles under this menu heading, which were written for a Romanian audience, this was written for a British audience when I was attempting to help the egg decorators make sales in the UK. I think it was written in the late 1990s. Many of the sales were within church groups, although many shops in renowned tourist locations – like York – also sold them
The only changes I have made is I’ve made more paragraphs to be better suited to reading on the web; it was originally on paper.
Again, it may take me a while to find the pictures which were originally in this article, but I might soon introduce some from my own archive, which includes eggs displayed in my home in the UK, and the hand-woven woollen carpet with traditional designs, probably over 100 years old, which brightens the floor in our apartment.
Decorated eggs from Romania
Few people, seeing for the first time eggs decorated by country people in the Bucovina region of Romania, remain unastonished at the beauty of the product and the skill – or art – of the creator which each egg exhibits. The traditional eggs from this region are indeed works of art produced not only with skill, but wrung from the soul. They are also largely an essential means of securing a small income for many families who must live largely from the small piece of land on which they live, and the only source of income for many who do not even have this basis for living.
Although decorated eggs are produced in most regions of Romania, it is the region known as Bucovina which is most renowned for the skill of the decorators. Bucovina is the most northerly region of Romania which, from 1866 to the First World War, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the influence of which can still be seen today.
Several kinds of eggs, mostly from domestic fowl, are decorated but also even, for example, ostrich eggs when the decorator has the opportunity to acquire one. This has become increasingly rare because the cost of the shell – now about 500,000 Romanian lei (about £12 sterling) – is currently around one quarter of the Romanian average monthly income, which is in itself far, far greater than the income of most country people and egg decorators. But the favoured egg type is the duck egg, partly because of its whiteness and partly because it is rather larger than a hen egg.
Not ‘painted’ but masked and dyed
The dyed eggs are also not complete eggs but ‘blown’ eggs, that is egg shells. Although the decorated eggs produced in the Bucovina are often referred to as ‘painted eggs’, traditionally they may not be painted at all, or only partially; they are dyed with a series of colours, the designs of each colour being successively masked with beeswax. As the wax is heated and used for successive maskings it becomes progressively darker, providing a variety of shades from light brown to black, but the wax may also be mixed with a colour – particularly green and blue – to produce astonishing multi-coloured relief designs in wax only.
Until modern times natural dyes were used, taken from local plants and minerals. A typical example, which is still often used to produce the plain red Easter eggs, is onion skin. However, these colours generally fade with time and provide only a limited range of shades. Originally the eggs were given a lustre with cooking oil, and this is the case with the plain-coloured Easter eggs, but the more complex eggs decorated for display are now lacquered, which helps prevent the colours fading. More recently modern chemical dyes became usual.
Red eggs, leaves and beeswax
It is difficult to say when decorating eggs began; the longest tradition remembered by families currently producing decorated eggs in the Bucovina is six generations – taking us back to the mid-late 19th century. However, the tradition of making and giving eggs (complete eggs, not empty shells) dyed red at Easter is much older than this. It is believed that eggs were decorated in pre-Christian times and two techniques are recognised as being used in this distant past: drawing the design on the egg in black ink and subsequently painting in colour fills; producing designs in beeswax.
The traditional plain red Easter eggs symbolise the blood of Christ, and Romanians say that the tradition comes from the eggs which Mary Magdelen put at Christ’s feet while he was on the cross, and his blood ran onto them and stained them red. Although eggs of more colours now often appear on the table for the meal (one might rather say ‘feast’, after six or seven weeks of fast) after the Orthodox church service at midnight on the morning of Easter Sunday, the most usual colour is red and the eggs are knocked together as the ‘knocker’ says “Christ is risen”, to which the ‘knocked’ responds “Truly He is risen” (in Romania of course).
The more complex designs, involving perhaps several hours of work, are not cracked in this way (indeed the complex dyed eggs are usually empty egg shells) but dyed and painted ‘full’ eggs are often part of the basket of food which is taken to the church in the early hours of Easter Sunday for blessing.
Perhaps the tradition of decorating eggs began when a newly dyed egg was inadvertently put on something with a pattern which dried into the dye. In certain families eggs have long been dyed after affixing leaves, flowers and other ‘forms’ to the eggs before dyeing, and then removing them to leave the pattern in the dye. Many families continue this tradition (applying ‘modern technology’. The leaves etc are kept in place by putting the egg in a nylon stocking for dyeing).
An expression of Romanian ‘soul’
Despite the original Christian religious significance of the eggs, only one of the oldest symbols incorporated in the traditional designs has a direct association with Christianity – the Easter cross. Two others have a less direct association, the ‘wandering path’ – of life – (or path of lost ways) and the shepherd’s crook. Others are drawn from nature and agricultural life – stag horns, oak leaf, wheat ear and combs – but each has a special significance. The stag horns, for example, represent both the pride of the Romanian people in their heritage and the richness of Romanian nature.
Later symbols, but also with a long tradition (executed in yellow, red and black), continue to draw on nature and agricultural life but begin to introduce elements of the national costume: the fir tree, clover leaf, hay fork, ‘ruja’ (a Romanian flower) and 40 ‘cline’. The ‘clina’ is the diagonal piece of cloth introduced into the armpit in the ‘shirt’ of the traditional Romanian costume. The incorporation of 40 of them symbolises the Romanian Orthodox feast of 40 saints, in Spring.
Romanian national costume, together with woven and embroidered household items, has a long tradition of providing an outlet for creativity using stylised elements from human life and from nature. The symbols have been transferred to the eggs – typical traditional designs being ‘my waistcoat’, shirt sleeves, and Romanian ‘towel’. Panels of the traditional sheepskin waistcoats of the Bucovina region are a riot of embroidered colours; shirt sleeves have meticulously-detailed embroidered panels below the shoulder; rugs are woven in wool dyed in natural colours and incorporate stylised flowers, animals etc as well as geometric designs; Romanian towels, with similar woven or embroidered designs, have a much greater role in Romanian culture than just to dry the skin – eg, they are essential elements in the baptism and wedding ceremonies and are often used as decoration in the Romanian home.
All the above symbols are readily recognisable in many eggs created today, but sometimes they have become more and more stylised and only an expert can point to their origin. An example is the ‘spider’, which on the Romanian egg may have only four legs! A host of spiders on an egg symbolises Romanian hospitality – the house full of guests on every feast day. The traditional geometric designs have been added to in time with new designs created by the egg decorators, who also introduced new colour combinations: white-mauve, yellow-green, white-dark blue, white-’bordeaux’.
Designs using only beeswax have been mentioned above and the most ‘simple’ of these are eggs to which a ‘mask’ of beeswax has been applied but there is no subsequent dyeing. They include similar symbols and geometric designs as the dyed eggs and when finely executed can be extraordinarily attractive; they seem to appeal particularly to ‘western’ tastes, based perhaps on a lack of appreciation of the often flamboyant colour schemes typical in Romanian culture. These designs, executed in the beige of natural beeswax, have been augmented with different shades produced when the wax is heated and by adding colour to the wax. Wax is also used to ‘paint’ pictures on the eggs, popular themes being Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, other saints, the Easter cross, angels and Romanian monasteries and churches. Similar pictures are also produced by painting in colours. Painted designs also include flowers and floral motifs.
If now decorated eggs have become a source of income for Romanian country people with few other possibilities, it is perhaps satisfying that they are not produced for just this reason as are so many ‘craft’ items in Britain, but remain an essential element of Romanian culture, found in many if not most Romanian homes.
In the Romanian home they are usually simply displayed in a woven basket or pottery bowl to be admired by hosts and visitors alike. But you only have to voice your appreciation for an egg to become a gift – just one manifestation of the hospitality and generosity of the Romanian people whose ‘suflet’ – the word for both soul and breath – is reflected in so many of their art forms, the Bucovinian egg being the one most likely to take your breath away.