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Easter art

March 30, 2010

The Sorbs of eastern Germany have a rich cultural heritage. With Easter not far away, some of them are busy decorating eggs using a complex technique passed down over the generations.

A woman decorates an Easter egg according to the Sorbian tradition
The craft requires concentration and nimble fingersImage: Markus Nowak

The Sorbs are a Slavic ethnic minority whose native region covers parts of Saxony and Brandenburg. Many Sorbian traditions have been preserved over the years, such as decorating Easter eggs, which dates back to the 17th century. There are even courses on this topic offered in the region, with a robust attendance rate in the days before Easter.

Twenty-two-year-old Susann Schurmann runs an egg-decorating course at a small Sorbian museum in the town of Dissen, in Brandenburg. For her, the sound of a cigarette lighter being clicked on marks the start of Easter preparations.

To begin decorating her eggs, she lights a candle under a spoon containing a lump of wax. In her right hand she holds a duck feather, in her left hand a hardboiled egg.

"I painted my first egg at the age of three," said Schurmann. "We have always done this in my family."

An old symbolic tradition

During Lent, visitors turn up every weekend to learn this complex craft under Schurmann's guidance.

The courses also serve as history lessons, as the museum's director Babette Zenker explains the symbolism behind the "jajo" - the Sorbian word for "egg."

"It's actually a fertility symbol," said Zenker. "Nobody could understand how something living emerged from a lifeless object, and that's why eggs symbolize fertility in all religions and all parts of the world."

A Sorbian artist's wax-decorated Easter eggs
The colorful patterns on the eggs contain symbolic imagesImage: AP

"Many Sorbian traditions go back to pagan customs, and there the egg also represented fertility," she added.

According to Zenker, people in the region used to roll eggs over fields to make the earth fertile and bring in a good harvest. After the arrival of Christianity, the eggs were blessed before being rolled over the fields.

Traditionally, the eggs were decorated with pictures and motifs that had a deeper meaning, explained Schurmann.

"Circles generally represent the sun or sunshine," said Schurmann. "Then we have triangles - wolf's teeth to drive away evil. The triangles also symbolize the father-mother-child trio."

At the Sorbian museum in Dissen, it is mostly women who participate in egg-decorating classes. However, a few men also come to try their hand at the craft - men like Gunner Kurt from the city of Cottbus, who tried his best to come up with an attractive-looking egg.

"All you need is patience and some spit," said Kurt. "As far as I know, there are men who spend weeks on certain techniques and produce some really high-quality eggs."

Waxing, etching, scratching - various approaches exist for decorating the eggs. No matter which technique is used, nimble fingers are an important requirement. The activity can be very time-consuming.

Before the eggs can be painted, their contents need to be blown out of the shells through small holes. The Sorbs have various recipes for the discarded yolks and egg whites - but that is a whole other tradition altogether.

Author: Markus Nowak (ew)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn