Ornamental eggs are a signature craft of Eastern Europe. The jeweled Fabergé versions once coveted by the Russian nobility are really just a high-end take on a humbler, older, and perhaps even more remarkable Easter tradition.
Done on a minute scale and entirely by hand, the art of painting eggs is a careful one. The designs may be simple or complicated, figurative or abstract, and consist of a few or many colors; nowhere, though, do they have the crisp, delicate geometry of the eggs produced in the northern Romanian town of Ciocăneşti. Located in Bucovina, a historic region that’s partly situated in present-day Ukraine, Ciocăneşti is so attractively preserved that it is considered a museum of Eastern European village life. The buildings here are distinctive for their elaborate, embroidered-looking motifs; the town’s several dozen egg-painters work in the same style.
Here’s how it works: First, the (duck, goose, chicken, or even ostrich) egg is drained, through a tiny hole. Then, using a method akin to batik, it is dipped in dye and painted one color at a time, with the painter applying beeswax to those areas she wants to protect from the next round of dying. The painting implement, called a kishitze, is a stick with an iron tip. (Previously, egg-painters would have used thorns or pig bristles.) The resulting object is likely to be offered as a gift at Easter, when it’s more fun to receive a beautifully painted egg than one that’s merely been dunked in a pot of dye.
There’s a Romanian saying that more or less says that when people stop coloring eggs at Easter, the world will end. Is it out of mortal fear that the craftswomen of Ciocăneşti continue to teach the skill to their daughters? Either way, it gets passed on.