MY INSPIRATION - SACRED ILLUMINATIONS
Tatiana Nikolova-Houston, Ph.D.
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My family taught me to love nature, the arts, and music. My father, artistic director of the puppet theater in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, has the soul of an artist and creates graphical images through crafts and painting. I studied landscape architecture and designed municipal gardens and parks, rich in color, flowers, and spaces for recreation and meditation.
In America, I received degrees in Biblical and religious studies from the Institute of Christian Studies/Abilene Christian University and Information science from the University of Texas at Austin. Pursuing the Ph.D. in Information Science, I encountered Slavic and Byzantine manuscripts in critical condition and pitied those poor orphans, left without love and care, locked away and hidden in the black dust of time in the HACI archive in Sofia. Insects, moisture, filth, and rot had pierced their clothes and bodies, while deep in their margins they hid a secret history of the Balkans and beautiful illuminations, texts, and marginalia. After an intense year of restoration, this darkness, dust, and chaos became one of the finest manuscript research facilities in Eastern Europe.
I resolved to save those treasures and to present them to the West. The project developed into publications, websites, and conference presentations, and most recently to my dissertation that explores historical marginalia inscribed during the Ottoman rule of Bulgaria. I seek to continue in the footsteps of those medieval scribes and to create in relative isolation simple and meaningful illuminations of beauty. The original scribes had a rather small color pigment spectrum and virtually no gold for illumination. Paper was scarce. I recreate their original designs, adding a bit of gold, somewhat enriched colors, and my prayers, to re-create what I believe to be their original vision.
In the spring of 2010, I began exploring a new style of illuminations. Somehow, I reversed the concept of the manuscripts, from the black ink on white paper into gold ink on black paper. This drastic change reflected the challenges of my father's suffering associated with his terminal disease and the end of his life. I struggled deep in my soul and constantly prayed for his recovery, endurance, patience, overcoming depression, and closer relationship with God. In a way, the dark background resembles that state of my soul -- the dark night of the soul.
This new style of illumination derives from that original discovery, applying gold to a dark background. When a drawing begins, the pen usually finds the center of the board, as if reaching the center of our being. Perhaps such a journey must start from within the human heart. From the earliest days, manuscript illumination has begun from within, from the heart, the place where God resides and where we achieve Theosis through prayer. It is as if we are our own blank pages, on which we write our own destiny, gradually becoming more and more illuminated. It is that simple! Start in the middle, and let your hand create without effort; without planning. Liberate your hand and allow the heart to speak through lines, shapes, tones, and figures. When it happens, you become illuminated as you create illuminations.
The gold pen creates the first layer and the foundation of the drawing. Jewels and gold leaf come later. The Spirit leads my hand. Later, I interpret the meanings of each work and apply a label. Still later, others discern patterns and decipher meanings for themselves.
THE TREES OF LIFE
My love for trees led me to discover the Tree of Life, a symbol found in many cultures. Bulgarian church woodcarvings inspired to some extent this Tree of Life. You will remember that two trees existed in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life that bestowed eternal life and communion with God. (Gen. 2:9)
The Tree of Life symbol brings us to the very basis of human life in its relation to God and the Creation. Fruitful as the work is, each piece requires months of conceptual development. The Tree of Life with the Holy Spirit has become the thematic title of a new series of these illuminations. The piece depicted here is very precious to me, because I associate it with my father's blessing just before his death. The piece required three months of conceptual development, and I finished it the day before my father died. I started with the central trunk, which developed into a candelabra, a sacred vessel our church keeps in the altar. From that tree trunk, two branches grow upward. The Holy Spirit descends to join the Tree of Life, pollinating the blossoms to become the fruits of the Spirit.
This Tree of Life stood uncompleted, until the time ripened and brought meaning to it and to its place in my life. During the last days of my father's earthly life, August 8-9, 2010, I discovered the manner of its completion. I added the root system and the two birds, peacocks that symbolize immortality. The Tree simultaneously blooms and produces fruit. God granted four months to my father so that he could see his granddaughter and me once again, coming from afar, and so that my father could become closer to God. When I drew the Tree, I did not seek symbolism intentionally. The symbolism just grew from inspiration, improvisation, and my prayers for eternal life for my father.
The Tree of Life also represents Jesus, the source of Life, as depicted in the Revelations of the New Earth. The Evangelist John spoke about the overabundance of fruits and about the healing power of the fruits of the Tree of Life: "[T]rough the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month..."
When I am in Bulgaria, I love to contemplate the great oak tree next to our home. Its incredible might and omnipresence in the landscape reminds me of God and inspired another Tree of Life. This Tree of Life rendition started when I seemed to see eye-like figures in the branches of the oak. I incorporated those eyes spontaneously, in place of the leaves. My new Tree of Life was a personification in itself. A central trunk and branches, creating shapes like eyes within. This interpretation is not unusual, because the oak is a sacred symbol also in other cultures.
Art can be therapy. It helps us to endure the pain and suffering while serving others and struggling ourselves. In my case, art helped me to appreciate my relationship with my father. It helped me to show him meaning in life during his last days and a way out of the profound depression that beset him through the pain and prospect of death. He taught me so much about art and creativity and critiqued my work eloquently. The most meaningful illustration for him was the Tree of Life with the Holy Spirit, which I showed to him just before he died. He asked for time to contemplate it. A half an hour passed, and he said that he was content with it as a complete conception, inspired and executed in terms of the Bulgarian tradition of church art. This was his final blessing.
I give my hand the freedom to explore, and I let the Spirit guide it. In the past, while writing iconography and tracing patterns of illumination, I was afraid of making mistakes; of contamination of the tradition. Yet, with the new style of illumination presented in this document, I have discovered for myself another dimension of spontaneous union with God, the dimension where you leave yourself in His hands, to guide you where he may. This perhaps is a form of "divine madness" or creativity that leads one to explore unseen, unexpected, and limitless "twilight" zones between the divine and the human, between the conscious and the unconscious.
This mystical illuminating process of creativity starts in the center of the page and the center of the human heart, where God resides in peace. With every line and stroke of gold, the space is transformed from utter darkness and despair into radiant gold light and symbols that enrich our understanding of our lives, ourselves, and our relation with God. Although somewhat aesthetically pleasing, with the gold and jewels, this imagery is just a shadow of the real Kingdom of God. The Tree of Life returns us to that primordial state of bliss and beauty. This new art is so simple, yet it helped to transform my life, piece by piece, line by line, layer by layer of gold, jewel by jewel, as we layer our human life by experiencing the Glory of God.
The Tree of Life represents God as the joined Mind and Heart, as the Crown and Roots of the Tree of Life that nourishes Creation. Above all is the all-seeing Eye of God, within the Trinitarian triangle. The heart is the foundation of faith and stability and the source of nourishment. The branches resemble the nervous system and the roots resemble the vascular system of nourishing blood. Around the crown are God's fingerprints. The Eye of God personifies and symbolizes His omniscience. The eye is the window to the soul and Spirit, an organ of spiritual perception. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel described God's glory and His throne upon wheels within wheels full of eyes