Sacred Illuminations

BECOMING A SCRIBE

We glorify God through our works. Orthodoxy is Orthopraxy. "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17) Theory and practice go together, as practice providing the foundation and the testing ground for theory. This "scientific" truth has been always a firm belief in our Orthodox "science." Praxis (practice), the continual purification of human mind, body, and spirit, always precedes Theoria, the true state of knowledge and vision of the divine. For me, iconography and manuscript illuminations became my Orthopraxy and provided me peace in Christ to survive the challenges of my doctoral study. The process of laying the clay, sealing the gold leaf with breath, and laying down and sealing the pigments intrinsically can achieve spiritual transformation and union with God, known as Theosis.

 I would like to share my humble path to Theosis. After graduation, I fell into a depression because no one would hire me, a Ph.D. in library science, even to shelve books! After many rejections, I remembered that I possessed an electronic treasure chest of manuscript illuminations from my years of study. Since I first touched the crumbling Slavic manuscripts, I have felt attached to them. I wished to preserve them, to show them to the world, and to become a scribe, myself. People have asked me about my work with manuscripts, and here is what I answer.

Why are Slavic manuscripts illuminated less than Byzantine or Latin manuscripts?

Look at the historical context. Slavic scribes continued to create manuscripts during the Ottoman rule until the mid 19th century. You can't imagine the challenges scribes faced with lack of materials, the prohibition of the printing press, and the threat of death if they were discovered.

Did scribes have "fun" creating manuscripts?

This strange question erupted from an enthusiastic person attending an illumination workshop. The result of this weeklong workshop was the illumination of a single initial letter. This experience forced me to realize that medieval scribes did not have our sense of leisure time to "have fun" with manuscripts. I bow in respect to the medieval scribes. My numerous errors humbled me before the scribes and before God. Now, I can better appreciate what challenges those scribes faced. They constantly cried out: "Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for a human hand wrote, not divine, and made errors!" I made errors in the page design and in the situating of the words. I made errors in creating proper margins on all sides and in spacing the lines to allow readability. In this manner, I learned the value of spacing. Scribes had to provide sufficient space to let the words breathe and deliver the message. I made errors in crowding the page. It is challenging to predict whether you will have enough space on the page to fit the whole Creed or prayer, without cutting out any portions. While copying, I misspelled and left out words. Now I comprehend the scribes' physical exhaustion as my hand became heavier and my eyes grew weak.

            I wanted to produce the whole picture intuitively, without planning or trying different media. I prefer trial and error rather than trusting manuals. I desire freedom to experiment, although I consciously stick to traditional patterns. I want to incorporate myself in the colors and materials, not blindly following and filling in the blank spaces. I want to illuminate the blank spaces and complete the scribes' work. I want to use vivid and bright colors rather than traditional color pallets.

Am I faithful to the scribes?

Yes and no! I recreate their artistry with contemporary thought and materials. We have an incredible diversity of materials and media. Take for example pigments and paints. The recipe for writing an icon requires certain a color spectrum of tempera pigments, distilled water, and egg yolk. Yet, artists today may choose among tempera, oil, acrylic, and gouache paints. Which of those options is appropriate? Is the artist obligated to apply old techniques and recipes to write a spiritually valid icon? Medieval scribes illuminated manuscripts with gold leaf, probably because they had no other medium. I use gold acrylic, because it achieves the appearance of gold leaf, it is much, much easier to apply, and it dries quickly.

How far from reality is the thinking of our contemporaries?

Scribes wrote quite seriously, as a sacramental act of building the House of the Word of God. Until the middle of the 19th century, Slavic monks copied manuscripts to satisfy the liturgical or devotional needs of a church and as an ascetic practice to test their faith. They worked late into the night, in the freezing cold of winter or the heat of summer, isolated from the world. Marginal notes from the 12th century testify to the challenges of working through extreme heat, freezing cold, sickness, without light at night, without food, isolated from the world in a dark tower, etc. Listen to their voices:

Petur Ivanov, a smith, brought this parchment. I froze while I was writing, because I hurried before they take the Triodion [manuscript] away from me. Forgive me, brothers, all of us and the priest Georgi from Vupa. […] I suffered so much from cold all February, and also from toothache and other things. Remember me, grammarian Georgi, and let God remember you. Bitolski Triodion, 12th century, BAS p.54a, 70b.

I am writing at night, without candlelight, trying to find, forgive me. Gospel, 12-13th century, Zagreb, p. 11.

Woe to me! I cannot continue, because I feel sick. Woe to me! The wind feels so cold and strong. Four Gospels, second half of 13th century, Athens, 161b.

            For whatever reason, medieval Slavic scribes rushed to complete their manuscripts. They focused on the text, the Word of God, rather than on the illustrations. Decoration came last, when the text was completed. When illustration became possible, the selection of painting materials depended on availability. Gold came with luxury that only royalty and nobility could afford, and few Christian royalty and nobility survived under Ottoman rule. As a result, Slavic manuscripts produced during the Ottoman rule appear rough, naive, and less illuminated than Western manuscripts of the time. Some decorations were left blank, waiting for gold or pigments. I felt that I should fulfill the scribal intent by adding the gold and rich pigments.

            The scarcity of writing supplies meant that a scribe would carefully plan his work. A manuscript required approximately 300 sheepskins and one to three months of labor. Scribes planned the design and layout of each page, and visually separated the break points between chapters with miniatures or headpieces. This process required ruling each sheet evenly to inscribe words legibly, allowing the reader or chanter to understand and reproduce the text.

How did scribes without eyeglasses leave such exemplary legible text?

Slavic scribes did not have the luxury of time or materials during the Ottoman period. Further, they believed that perfection existed only in God. The human hand cannot make perfect lines, but leaves traces of the scribe's idiosyncrasies and sacrifices. The perfect lines produced by computers are lifeless and without soul, compared to manuscript illuminations. Art historian Michael Camile appreciated those traces of self-sacrifice of medieval scribes:

I am conscious not only of the manuscript but also of how in reception the parchment has been penetrated, of grease stains, thumb marks, erasures, drops of sweat, places where images have been kissed away by devout lips … every book [manuscript] is a relic of bodily pain, desire, and death.

The decorations I found in Slavic manuscripts indicated that, during Ottoman rule, Slavic scribes experimented and borrowed freely from Celtic and Latin sources, Persian carpets, and even Islamic arts. They incorporated motifs and elements from Bulgarian embroidery, metalwork, and woodcarving. They continued the legacy by not following blindly the classic Byzantine patterns. God does not judge by correctness of shapes and lines, but by the spiritual effort, by the spirit of repentance, and by the forgetfulness of oneself during the process.

            For example, some of the illuminations reminded me of labyrinths. Walking through labyrinths toward the center perhaps helped the medieval monks to pray and meditate. Now, those illuminations lead the eye to a focal center, the Holy of Holies, where supposedly resides the sacred Name of God. While looking at those illuminated labyrinths, we can pray by visually walking to the center, to the Heart of all things.

What is the purpose of this art?

           I desire to bring scribes' work to more people for contemplation, prayer, and meditation about the scribes' spiritual struggle and suffering. We forget so easily today, with printed books and electronic text transmission, the ancient ways of communicating the Word of God and the process of book production.

 

How did Slavic scribes and their manuscripts affected my life-path?

       During the last ten years, layer after layer, discoveries revealed to me the essence of Slavic manuscripts. As a librarian, I learned to preserve these treasures from the dust and damage of time and to provide access via the Web. As a scholar, I left learned to appreciate the literary and historical dimensions. Now, as a "medieval scribe," I am learning to fill in the blank spaces with the gold and pearls of their true aesthetic and historical value. The process illuminated my soul and brought me closer to God. My encounter with the Slavic manuscript treasures transformed my life, and I hope it will inspire others to appreciate the challenging work of medieval scribes working to preserve our Orthodox heritage.

            I feel that I have learned more about manuscripts by practice rather than by theory, by the process of recreating the manuscript design, decoration, and illumination. Slavic medieval manuscripts, although appearing at first glance to be poor orphans, have revealed themselves as giants of human dignity. Although not always adorned in gold or silver, they represent the sufferings of marginalized people during a truly evil time. We need them. What are we without our past? I humbly bow to the scribes and vow to continue to illuminate their words for others to read. I hope that some of you will join me.