Sacred Illuminations


NEW ILLUMINATIONS

            I began exploring a new style of illuminations in the spring of 2010. 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.

            One of the first works in this new style happened on the plane to New York, where my daughter's high school orchestra was performing at Lincoln Center. To fill the time, I got out a black matte board and gold ink gel pen. When the pen touched the board, it started to create a huge flower surrounded by other flowers. Small surprise that I draw flowers and nature--my first profession was landscape architect. The flight passed so quickly. Coming home, I did another that transformed itself into a Garden of Eden and Tree of Life. The garden walks resembled a labyrinth, another of my favorite conceptual symbols.

 Illustration 1: Flowers                                                  

            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 SACRED ART OF THE CHURCH

            Sometimes, I create a frame around prayers, inspirational and scripture quotes. Different types of gold acrylic paint, applying flat or being squeezed from the tube bring interesting overtones and 3D dimension. Jewels also achieve that additional special dimension and vivify the darkness. Although jewels are somewhat in fashion today, the Orthodox Church always applied jewels on the sacred objects such as clergy vestments, the Gospel, icons, and sacred vessels and utensils.

 

Illustration 3: Inspired by Lindau Gospel                    

 

Illustration 4: Inspired by Bulgarian Gospel

            I always search for symbolism that would represent the divine, its gifts to humanity, and the union between man and God. Thus, I view the process of creating illuminations as illuminating my soul. The luminosity of the gold brightens my soul and encourages me to find the spiritual dimensions of life.

            Each piece is unique and built on a different principle: some works seem to strive for symmetry; others resemble a search within labyrinths, and others celebrate Creation through Trees of Life, wildflowers, and simple grasses or wheat. Geometrical forms such as the triangle, circle, fractals, cross, and dot are important structural elements underlying the works.

 

Illustration 3: Fractals                                              

            Sometimes crochet-like and knot-like patterns grow out of that improvisation that starts from the center, adding circle after circle, forming eventually an eye- or heart-like design. Some called this style filigree, because it reminded them of fine jewelry.

 Illustration 4: Crochet Glory     

 

            The circle remains a powerful symbol of eternity. and became the structural core of this representation of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets. 

 

Illustration 5:: In the beginning was the Word: Glagolitic-Cyrillic alphabets

Sts. Cyril and Methodius and their disciples created both alphabets for the Slavic people of Central and Southeast Europe. Each alphabet on the work runs clockwise and counter-clockwise, being in balance. In this manner, they resemble a watch of eternity. In the center, is the Eye of God and the words: "In the Beginning was the Word."

THE CREATION AND WILDFLOWERS

            The Creation always inspires me, particularly with its floral voices. Flowers and trees and even the grass speak allegorically to me. The dandelions shed their beams of light resembling emanating light fireworks. Even the grass, so simple and tender is so beautiful. The grass is a perfect example of humility. It reminds us that we are like the grass, fragile and withering, yet precious and beautiful in the sight of God. To learn from its wisdom, we need to lower ourselves to its level. Perhaps, each one of us is a flower, a grass, wheat, and even wildflowers in God's sacred carpet. Even the wildflowers, that some call weeds, remain precious in the sight of God. Each flower emanates the glory of Creation with its sacred aura.

 Illustration 6: Humble as a grass                             

 

Illustration 7: The Glory of Creation

                           

THE TREE 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.

 

Illustration 8: Tree of Life with the Holy 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. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev.22:2)

Jesus is our Tree of Life as He bestows upon us eternal life.

            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.

            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 (Ezekiel 1:18,10:12).

Illustration 9: Tree of Life - Eye of Gods

            Another Tree of Life made of human hands developed spontaneously. This Tree represents to some degree Humanity and the generations, through a multiplicity of hands: the living and the dead on the same tree, the living facing up and the dead facing down. Above all, the children's hands reach closest to God. The hands of the dead are placed on the ground, giving the basis for following generations. The Tree culminates with three flowers, perhaps representing the Trinity. The root system is connected to the crown, again demonstrating unity of mind and heart, yet the hands represent humanity, a symbol of labor, creativity, and love. I have not completed this Tree yet.

 Illustration 10: Tree of Life with Hands

 THE CROSS

            Christ on the Cross exemplifies His human suffering and divine glory. This long thought-out design became a reality for me as my mother struggled to help my father into and out of his hospital bed, nearly breaking her arms in the attempt. In this illustration, Christ stands in the center, at the intersection of the earthly and heavenly dimensions of the Cross, represented with his crown of thorns and red robe of the Passion. The horizontal crown of thorns, interwoven in the shape of the infinity, represents the earthly dimension of Christ's life. The rubies are as the blood that dripped from the crown and became the seeds of glorious red flowers. White roses in their full radiance, adorned with diamond-like jewels, represent the vertical dimension of Christ's ascension to heavenly glory.

 

Illustration 11: Christ on the Cross

            The Cross is one of the most precious and meaningful items for Christians. I explored this theme through a variety of visual appearances, creating the third cross below during my stay with my father in the hospital, knowing full well that he soon would need a gravestone.

                              

 Illustration 12: Jeweled Cross                                   

THE BREAD OF LIFE

            "I AM the Bread of Life" is a favorite quotation of mine, and this illustration results from a long preconceived internalization and much thought. This design grew somewhat organically from my dedication to prepare the Holy Bread of offering each Sunday. This Holy Bread is the most essential part of our lives, because it nurtures our bodies and our souls. When I knead the holy bread each Saturday, I feel that I am touching the body of baby Jesus. The dough is so tender, soft, and warm. The entire bread-making ritual involves prayer.

            I placed in the center of this illustration my small icon of Christ Emmanuel. The icon is surrounded by the representation of dough with rich gold and copper acrylic. A woman, seen from above, appears only with her wheat-like golden hair and hands held upward in both prayer, touching, and kneading the dough. All she is are her hair and hands, nothing more. The dough becomes the Holy Bread, represented by the seal with the sign Christ NIKA (conquors). The bread emanates beams of light of grain wheat. Above all, the two divine hands bless the woman and the bread to become the Body of Christ. The Bread of Life nurtures our souls for immortality. Once again, I tried to visualize the union between humanity and God. This time, the woman is giving birth to the Bread of Life, as she kneads and prays to God.

 

Illustration 13: I AM the Bread of Life

            Wheat is another of those rich symbols of life and fertility common to many cultures. As a child, I rejoiced at the Bulgarian harvest rituals, where people blessed each other with sheaves of wheat and bouquets of flowers. Representations of wheat grains are ubiquitous and indispensable in Bulgarian church woodcarvings, especially in the combination of wheat and grapevines, because they represent the Eucharist - the Bread and Wine. I combine wheat in some of these pieces with flowers. In others, I use the wheat as symbol by itself or with other symbols.

 Illustration 14: Wheat Cross

In this design, wheat symbols and flowers surround a cross symbol made of wheat berries. Grapevines frame the whole. Three gold rings symbolizing the Trinitarian "three in one" form the center of the cross, reminding us that the purpose of the wheat berries, to nourish us, would be an empty façade without a spiritual center to give us purpose.

 I AM THE LIGHT

            This design, "I AM the Light," grew out of my fascination with the Easter midnight vigil and procession of the Holy Fire coming down from the altar to be passed from candle to candle among the celebrants, culminating with the illumination of the church. Exactly at midnight, when the Light comes down from the altar, we sing the Easter hymn: "Come ye, take light from the light that is never overtaken by night, come and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead." Traditionally, the Holy Fire descends from above, through a miracle in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. This happens year after year, as many witnesses acknowledge.

            Inside the tomb, Holy Fire lights the bundle of candles carried by an Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. The Patriarch then emerges from the tomb to pass the light to the Armenian Patriarch and then the Coptic, and then to each person present, as everybody holds their own little candle. The same thing happens in Orthodox churches worldwide: the presiding priest spreads the Holy Fire from the altar to the celebrants. One can see faces shining and eyes illuminated by this holy Light. More information available at: http://www.holyfire.org/eng/

            In this illustration, I portrayed the divine Light coming from above in flames, and a beam illuminating the central candle, held by human hands. Then, radially appears each small candle held by human hands. In a way, the picture resembles an eye. In addition, individual eyes symbolize the window to each human soul, which becomes illuminated by the divine light. People are illuminated and united at the same level, between each other, and united vertically with God. The hands are dark, and sometimes people hardly see them. As the illustration grew, I saw between the hands shapes like eyes, and I decided to personify them for human souls. They are so closely knit together. Their pupils are of different colors and could be taken to resemble peacock feathers - symbol of immortality.

 Illustration 15: I AM the Light.                                          


CONCLUSION

            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.