Becoming a Scribe: Creating New Vessels for the Word of God

by Tatiana Nikolova-Houston

Discovery is a journey from revelation to revelation. Studying Slavic manuscripts and icons revealed God and my faith to me. God led me to America in 1990. I built a family, started a new career, and earned advanced degrees. My dissertation explored medieval manuscripts – the predecessors of the printed Bible that we hold in our hands today. Christopher de Hammel’s History of Medieval Manuscripts inspired me. The gold and silver illuminations illuminated my soul. What dedication and selflessness did scribes have! What a harmony of the Word of God with the beauty of illumination.

My first encounter with the manuscripts was a total surprise. No gold or vivid colors. Just simplicity and balance between words and images. The degradation, however, appalled me. These giants of the human spirit had become orphans, covered with dust, pierced by insects, dismembered and undressed from their precious covers. I promised God to make them visible again to the world.

Figure 1: Performing preservation needs assessment of the collection and measuring each manuscript for archival box storage
Figure 2: Damaged manuscript, HACI

Approximately 5% of early Slavic manuscripts have survived foreign invasion and neglect. Roughly 8,500 manuscripts survive in Bulgarian collections. I chose the 1,500 manuscripts in Church archive in Sofia. I gave them a computer, scanner, and digital camera, and they allowed me to document the collection, page by page, fighting the black dust of ages. Almost all of them required special care. The Order of St. Ignatius gave me $10,000 for this project, which succeeded.

Figure 3: Gospel Book from Slepchevo Monastery, 16th century, St. Luke’s Gospels
Figure 4: Damaskin from Pirdop, 18th century, HACI
Figure 5: Gospel, made by Ioan Kratovski, 16th century, HACI

Before the Ottoman invasion in 1393, Bulgarian manuscripts were more artistic than their Western counterparts. But the Ottomans prohibited schools and writing materials among Christians, so Slavic manuscripts after 1393 pale in comparison to Western manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. All, however, have value. De Hamel warned us about the dangers of manuscript elitism: “[We] cannot explore a mountain range by looking only at the peaks.” 

Value rests beyond aesthetics if we view from God’s perspective. Value rests on a holistic comprehension of texts, images, and historical marginalia, the notes written in the margins. Elaborate or simple, manuscripts tell us stories of human suffering. Michael Camile wrote: “every book is a relic of bodily pain, desire, and death.” 

Figure 6: National Library, Gospel 1544

The marginalia became my dissertation topic. They reflected social marginalization and revealed a secret history of the Balkans during Ottoman rule.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Pity on me…When I wrote this, hiding in the corner of the closet, they came to gather janissaries. But my children are not of the age for janissaries…

Scribes faced many challenges. They fought for paper, ink, and pigments — forget about gold or gemstones! They wrote: “I froze while I was writing.” “I am writing at night, without candlelight. forgive me.” Yet, they struggled on, focussing on the Word, rather than on illustrations. That is why Ottoman-era Slavic manuscripts might appear rough, naive, and less illuminated than Western manuscripts.

Illuminations and iconography then became my Orthopraxy. Icon writing starts with laying the clay for the halo, sealing the gold leaf with breath, and laying down and sealing the pigments. This process works spiritual transformation and union with God, that is, Theosis. We are the clay sealed by the Holy Spirit to receive the divine light.

The electronic treasure chest of manuscript illuminations I developed in Sofia helped me to refine, enrich, and offer them the world as part of my ministry “Sacred Illuminations”. Where paints were faded or left out, I added colors, gold, and crystals, recreating what scribes would have done with the proper materials. My first attempt at “illumination” imitated a labyrinth-like headpiece from a 16th century Gospel. Walking actual labyrinths helped people to pray, so my humble rendition leads the eye to a focal center, where resides the Sacred Name of God – XC.

Slavic manuscripts display an eclectic spectrum of cultural influences, Celtic, Persian, Islamic, and native woodcarvings. The floral style of illumination, featuring flowers and trees, represents the Tree of Life. It appears in the woodcarvings of the Bulgarian church iconostasis. This particular design reminds me of the Babylonian Tree of Life and inspired my illumination of 1 Cor.13 “Love is patient”.

Figure 7: Headpiece from Menaion, Etropole monastery, 1638, HACI
Figure 8: Babylonian Tree of life
Figure 9: my recreation of the manuscript illumination
Figure 10: Labyrinth IC – my interpretation of the headpiece of Gospel book, Slepche monastery, 16th century, HACI

God blessed me to discover the manuscripts, to preserve and recreate their illuminations that inspire others to come closer to God. The poor manuscript orphans are, in fact, giants of human dignity, representing the endurance of marginalized Christians during truly oppressive times. I vow to continue the legacy of the scribes – to create new vessels for the everlasting Word of God (Matt. 9:17).

Figure 11: Lenten prayer of St. Ephraem of Syria, recreation of manuscript illumination from Four Gospel book, 1577, HACI

Tatiana Nikolova-Houston was raised in Bulgaria, inspired by her father, an artist and theatre director. She came to America and earned advanced degrees studying Bulgarian manuscripts. Today, she re-creates Slavic iconography and manuscript illuminations. Her illuminations reflect the joy of the Holy Spirit, the Light,  and the Tree of Life.

2 Responses to Becoming a Scribe: Creating New Vessels for the Word of God

  1. I love seeing this. My grandfather was a 20th-century scribe of sorts. He was an engrosser. He machined his own pen nibs (ordering spring steel from Germany). He cut reeds, dried them and filled them with sand, and capped them with wax to achieve the balance for his work. He mixed his own inks (including those with precious metals) for his illumination. A newspaper reporter who interviewed him in the 1960’s concluded that he was surprised not to see gothic spires outside his studio windows.

    His works are in churches all over as well as my alma mater and even the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

    I still have some of his pens in his taboret (a piece from the early 1900’s from his apprenticeship, dark oak with whalebone).

  2. Very impressive. You are realizing your calling. Best wishes on your journey of savoring and saving precious icons. Grace and Peace, Sharon