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.
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.
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.”
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”.
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).
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.