01 June 2018

Rushnyky - Stitched talismans from Ukraine - Part 2

Woven rushnyky.

This is a continuation of a blog post about an exhibit of rushnyky, Ukrainian ceremonial cloths, at the Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts. See Part 1 for more background info.  This exhibit was curated by Prof. Franklin Sciacca, of Hamilton College, in New York state, and the artifacts are mostly from his collection.

Some examples on display were not embroidered but woven.  From the exhibit text:
Woven Rushnyky

Spinning and weaving have been practiced in the territory of Ukraine since at least the 5th millennium BCE, as evidenced by the large number of archeological finds of pottery, spindle whorls (priaslo) and weights used with vertical looms.

Weaving on handlooms was a typical domestic practice well into the 20th century in most regions of Ukraine.  In these rushnyky, the designs are woven into the fabric rather than being embroidered later.  A skilled weaver cold create complex geometric patterns, beautiful pictures, and even include inscriptions.

From the mid-17th through 19th centuries, a cottage textile industry developed, as did weaving schools, in diverse regions such as Chernihiv and Galicia.  The most prolific weaving production took place in the town of Krolevets in the Sumy region.  The first mention of Krolevets woven rushnyky dates back to 1639, and by the turn of the 20th century, Krolevets textiles were sold at fairs throughout the central Ukrainian provinces.  Taras Shevchenko, the poet laureate of Ukraine, is said to have ordered Krolevets rushnyky in preparation for his wedding in the mid-19th century.  The oldest surviving Krolevets rushnyk, dated 1839, is preserved in the Museum of Krolevets Weaving.

Krolevets rushnyky were largely woven out of red and white linen threads alone, although on occasion multi-colored textiles were, and still are, produced.  The typical motifs are the Tree of Life and the double-headed eagle, the latter copied from the Russian imperial emblem.  These rushnyky often had the year of manufacture, the name of the town Krolevets, and sometimes the name of the weaver woven into the design.  The name of a prominent family of weaver -Ryndin - frequently appears in rushnyky from the first decades of the 20th century.

Production of woven rushnyky continued well into the Soviet period, when textiles incorporated contemporary political figures and themes in the designs such as Lenin, scenes of [rural] electrification, and the hammer and sickle.  In post-1991 independent Ukraine, the Krovelets hand looms have been adapting to contemporary needs and styles, as is evidenced by the multi-colored rushnyky depicting the Pochayiv Mother of God icon.

Rushnyk with image of writer Taras Shevchenko,

The exhibit text mentions Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861).  My knowledge of Eastern European literature is limited to folk tales and I had never heard of this monumental figure in Ukrainian history.
The text on the rushnyk is from an 1845 poem, "My Testament":
"...and don't forget to remember me
in the great family,
In a family new and free,
With a kind and quiet word."
 - trans. Michael Naydan
Today's protesters may wear "pussy hats;" a few bold Ukrainian women, more limited in their outlets for activism, stitched protest in rushnyky.  From the exhibit text:

Anti-Soviet Sentiments

The linen canvas, on rare occasions, served to promote Ukrainian nationalist or anti-Soviet sentiments.  One rushnyk, created in the 1920 - 30s, is from the northern Chernihiv region [shown below]. The composition depicts traditional apolitical village scene juxtaposed wiht an intriguing verse that is adapted from a common chastushka, a humorous or satirical song:

Dear Cow, eat the straw,
Don't hope for grass,
My darling was drafted
for the Soviet war.

Peasant resentment of the conscriptions, and the young women's anguish over drafted and maimed brothers and sweethearts, endured in the chastushka tradition.  The rushnyk variant takes on political significance in its reference to the "Soviet War," referred to in Ukrainian historiography as the "Soviet-Ukrainian War," which was waged between 1917 and 1921 for control of the Ukrainian regions of the former Russian Empire.

A second political Rushnyk, made in 1937 in the L'viv region, bears a boldly nationalist expression [shown below].  On it are the tryzubar trident, the symbol of Ukrainian independence, and the crest of the city of L'viv.  Both seals are surrounded by hovering angels holding a crown (no doubt a reference to the Galician-Volhynian principality) and bouquets of flowers.

This was produced in Western Ukraine before it had been annexed by the Soviets, in a pre-war atmosphere in which the creation of a free and independent Ukraine was a much anticipated possibility.  The proclamation in defense of Ukrainian nationalism is expressed visually and with inscriptions.

The four inscriptions repeat the single theme of independence: "Struggle, and you will over come" (from Taras Shevchenko's poem "Kavkaz," 1845), "Freedom in Ukraine," "God save Ukraine!" and "Ukraine has not yet perished" (from the Ukrainian National Anthem).

Rushnyk with satirical poem, 1920-30s.

Rushnyk promoting independence, with trident symbol, 1937.

Other figurative rushnyk are more personal, featuring young men and women standing near wells and fences. These are not just pastoral scenes - the stitching in fact conveys a narrative of attachment and separation.  From the exhibit text:

Wells and Fences: Locations of Courting and Separation

Many of the genre scenes that were popularly depicted on rushnyky in the late-19th through 20th centuries reflect the joys of young couples courting and the sorrows of their parting.  The trauma of separation of a young couple usually occurs in the context of the man going off to war, and occasionally due to the loss of the soldier on the battlefield.

Wells hold a sacred significance in Ukraine, and particularly revered wells were marked with a cross, icons and rushnyky.  The village well was a shared community resource, a place where young people could meet without the watchful gazes of family members.

This scene of meeting at the well shows the young man holding a flower, while the girl carries a yoke with water buckets.  A dove flies over the well.  The inscription comes from a popular Ukrainian folk song from the early 20th century, (with some variation of the text):

Here is the little well where a dove was swimming,
Here is the dear girl with whom I fell in love.

The understanding that men who encounter women at wells and end up falling in love and getting married is well attested to in Biblical narratives.  For example, in Genesis 29, Jacob find his future wife Rachel at the well.  The dove, a monogamous bird, is a symbol of faithful love, while the yoke with buckets filled with water symbolizes good fortune and prosperity.

In contrast, a fence functions as a barrier or obstacle, the fitting location for scenes of parting and separation.  In such scenes, the young man is in military garb, often carrying a weapon rather than a flower.  These are emotionally distraught rushnyky that commemorate the potential loss of a husband.

Embroidered rushnyk, mid 20th-century.

Rushnyk with scene of parting at a gate, mid 20th century.

Husband or sweetheart in uniform, leaving home.

Parting scene.

Sadly, not all the men who left their villages to fight came back. Rushnyky were also part of funeral rites, rituals and remembrance.  The act of stitching, as much as the finished product, embued the rushnyk with intercessional power during times of emotional upheaval and crisis. From the exhibit text:
Prayers and Lamentations

Rushnyky function both as talismans to attract good fortune and as amulets to protect against evil.  They are used both in ceremonies and to decorate the home.  Traditionally, a catalog  of symbols and motifs was utilized to indicate the specific function of a particular rushnyk, but during the 20th century, as literacy increased and understanding of symbols waned, textual incantations and prayers reinforced (or even replaced) the use of the motifs.  Inscribed prayer incantations are often addressed to God, the Mother of God, or a saint.

Sometimes reference is made to the prayers uttered by the creator such as: "With a sincere hand I embroidered [this] rushnyk while I begged God for good fortune for my beloved."  By the late Soviet period, overt Christian references were frequently substituted with more secular invocations such as: "May there be harmony and love in the family."

As obydennyi rushnyk is a ritual towel that is made in a single day.  These were believed to have magical talismanic powers and were often made as token of a vow, sometimes in time of famine, illness, or war.  Other rushnyky are private contemplations that express personal loss and tragedy and search for consolation.  Creating these rushnyky is an act of catharsis or emotional therapy, often in the context of the loss of a husband or child, difficulty in getting pregnant, an unhappy marriage, or some sort of social stigma.  Rushnyky of this sort were probably not intended for public display, but would have been secreted away in a chest for only the maker to view.

Overview of exhibit.

Funerary rushynky.

As traditional sewing and weaving skills were abandoned or lost after World War II, mass-produced, printed or machine-woven rushnyky were created to fulfill the role of the rushnyk in rituals and ceremonies. As stated in the exhibit, "One might lament the decline in craftsmanship, but must admire the tenacity of the tradition."

Contemporary printed and machine-woven rushnyky.

Exhibit visitor looking at books.

In one corner of the gallery books on Ukrainian embroidery and other folk artistry were available for perusal.  Finally, if you've made it through both Parts 1 and 2 of my rushnyky blog post, thank you. As there is little information on these artifacts in English, I decided to quote most of the exhibit text in the two posts, making these entries "wordier" than my usual entries.  Too often items which are stitched, instead of painted, printed or sculpted, are dismissed as "merely" decorative. I hope this exhibit, and my attempt to convey its curatorial content, have helped refute that assumption.

Stack of rushnyky.