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Sacred Art: Etching Faith Onto Eggs
By Christopher Heffron
The egg and the Easter season both symbolize new life. With her Byzantine art, Sister Rita Keshock breathes new life into an ancient style.


The Art of History
Inspiring Faith
The Incredible, Venerable Egg

Sister Rita Keshock


THE BYZANTINE-STYLE images on these rounded canvases linger in the mind long after you turn away: Mary, with the arms of the Christ Child coiled around her neck, looks onward with a gaze that is somber, wounded and wise. Another depicts Jesus wearing his crown of thorns. Blood trickles down his anguished face as a tear escapes his eye. A third is of the Holy Family huddled closely together, halos like rays from the sun.

Byzantine art is hardly a new phenomenon, yet the vehicles for these particular pieces make them all the more extraordinary. Created on goose eggs—which are larger and easier to work with than the standard chicken egg—the icons themselves seem galvanized, taking on a three-dimensional feel.

The artist, Sister Rita Keshock, O.S.B.M., a member of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great from the Province of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, retired in 1985 from education after 36 years. Then she focused her attention on this form of expression. Skilled in art throughout her life, Sister Rita, now 79, saw a way to merge her faith and her creativity.

“I hated to leave the teaching profession, but I wanted to continue with art that I never had a chance to do before,” she says in a phone interview with St. Anthony Messenger.

“There was a local man who was teaching this technique and he showed all the sisters. I groaned and said, ‘Oh, my goodness! I don’t think it’s possible because there is so much detail.’”

That initial uncertainty was understandable. In the next 22 years, Sister Rita would experience both agony and ecstasy in developing that skill.

The Art of History

Byzantine art was the foremost method for the Eastern Roman Empire from around 330 to 1453 A.D. in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Its style is characterized by deep, opulent colors while the figures seem flat in appearance. The facial expressions are contemplative, sometimes weary. Its purpose is to showcase and inspire holiness.

Commonly referred to as “early Christian art,” the Byzantine style— unlike surrealism—is intended to be uncomplicated. Sister Rita has always focused on this approach. You could say it’s etched into her faith.

“I’m of the Byzantine rites, the Byzantine community. And this is our tradition. We have this type of art in our chapel and we try to promote it,” she says. (Her community is part of the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, serving Ruthenian-rite Catholics in western Pennsylvania and several other states.)

And it’s an arduous process. Preparing the eggs is the first—and least taxing—step. Sister Rita first acquires the double-yolk goose eggs pre-drained from a supplier in South Dakota. To give the eggs that rich brown hue, she boils them with onion skins for up to four hours, leaving them to dry overnight. By morning the shells have darkened.

With a utility blade that she uses like the point of a pencil, Sister Rita begins etching. The brown of the egg— the color she designates for the hair of Christ or the robe of Joseph or the lips of Mary—is the surface that is left untouched or “un-etched.”

The creamy skin of the figures or the whites of their large eyes is where Sister Rita has scraped away. Permanent ink or acrylic paint is often applied later in the process. After the etching is completed and the color is applied, she coats the eggs with polyurethane. They are then glued to a stand for display.

Not surprisingly, with art that requires such precision, it can be tiresome work, particularly for an artist burdened with arthritis. “It can be tedious and that’s why I only do a few hours each day. Sometimes it hurts my fingers so badly,” she says.

The amount of time to complete an egg varies with the intricacy of the artwork. Eggs with a simpler design take about a week; the more complex designs can take roughly three weeks. The process can be a strain on the artist’s eyes and hands.

“I keep saying, ‘How in the world did I ever get into this?’ But then I say, ‘Well, I started it and I’ve done it before and I know I’m going to do it again.’”


Inspiring Faith

It’s grueling work at times, but the finished product—as well as the task of creating it—has had a profound effect on Sister Rita’s faith. She hopes those who view or purchase her eggs have a similar reaction.

“I hope it’s a prayerful experience for people when they see them,” she says.

This unusual work certainly inspires prayer for Sister Rita. “I’m continuously meditating as I’m doing it and I’m observing the different facial features of Our Lord. It’s a prayerful experience to see it go from nothing to something,” she says.

The subjects of her eggs sometimes differ by religious seasons. Angels dominate Christmastime while images of Christ’s resurrection conquer Easter. But most of her eggs are year-round celebrations of faith. Each piece, regardless of its theme, requires the same degree of care.

That care is spent mainly on the eyes—often the most arresting feature of the icons. “The eyes are what I spend the most time on,” she says. “They are supposed to give the whole meaning. It’s just like they say: ‘The eyes are the windows to the soul.’

“And then I go from there,” she continues. “I’m very anxious to see how it’s going to turn out. I work at it and I work at it until I’m finally satisfied.”

As with any form of art, sometimes walking away is the most difficult step of all.

The Incredible, Venerable Egg

Though she’s a maestro with an egg, Sister Rita doesn’t limit herself to one medium. She’s a triple threat—gifted in painting and calligraphy as well. These other artistic avenues afford a more relaxing way of self-expression.

Sister Rita estimates that she’s made well over 100 eggs in her career. She has given them to seven bishops and dozens of priests and sisters. Laypersons enjoy them too: The eggs have been sold throughout the United States and have been featured extensively in magazines and in newspapers nationwide.

Father Kenneth G. Zaccagnini, pastor of St. Therese, Little Flower of Jesus Parish in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was given an etched egg by Sister Rita and realizes that its value goes far beneath the shell.

“What a beautiful way for Sister Rita to be using her artistic talents to glorify God,” Father Ken says. “I’m grateful for receiving it from the artist who meditated many hours on the likeness of Christ while preparing it for me. It was like giving me part of her soul.”

And she’s interested in broadening her work to an even wider audience. Currently she’s requesting from her provincial that a Web site be created for people to purchase or view her work. It’s still in the planning stages.

Needless to say, she hasn’t exactly slowed down, though many of her fellow sisters encourage her to do so. “People in my community tell me to slow down and center on one thing, but I can’t,” she says. “I get so much joy from working with art. I’m always investigating new things to do. One sister said, ‘That’s the artist in you.’”

And this religious artist wishes to spread the joy. “A friend of mine said that I am bringing beauty into the world. And that’s what I try to do,” she asserts. “I do this so that somebody can give something nice to another person.”

With a tone neither boastful nor unfounded, Sister Rita echoes her friend’s observation: “I’m just trying to work on putting more beauty into the world.”

Sister Rita cannot fulfill orders, but she welcomes your thoughts and questions. For more information, please write to: Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great, 500 West Main Street, P.O. Box 878, Uniontown, PA 15401, or e-mail: osbmolph

Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of this publication.


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