Christian Artist Dr. Tatiana Nikolova-Houston is the newest recipient of the the Living Stones Award. Tatiana exemplifies what it means to glorify God in our works. "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17) As an artist with many awards and distinctions, she uses her faith as the center of inspiration in all of her artwork.
Tatiana was born in Bulgaria in 1961 and came to America in 1990. Tatiana is a alum of Austin Graduate School of Theology, receiving her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Biblical Studies. Later, she attended the University of Texas where she received a Ph.D in 2008 from the School of Information, continuing the Master's degree in Library and Information Science, studying and preserving Bulgarian medieval manuscripts.
After graduation, Tatiana started to recreate and reinterpret Byzantine and South Slavic iconography and manuscript illuminations while educating Western audiences about the simple and meaningful illuminations of Slavic scribes. The illuminations reflect the joy and spirituality, emphasizing the themes of the Light within and without with the Tree of Life as major inspiration.
Tatiana says that perhaps her best memory while at Austin Grad was taking several finals two days before her daughter Tanya was born. God provided again, with a successful completion of the Bachelor's in Biblical Studies. The following spring, Tatiana started the Master's program at Austin Grad in association with Abilene Christian University.
“Raising my first child and feeling her as a gift from God, I took my motto from Jesus: Let the little children come to me!"
Tatiana is grateful that Austin Graduate School of Theology provided her a theological and academic foundation for ministry of the arts.
“This school nourished my love for the Bible,” she said.
The training she received in academic writing and research equipped her to later continue her education at the University of Texas and apply her love for the Bible to the preservation of manuscripts.
Austin Grad also equipped Tatiana with the knowledge and love of the Holy Scripture giving her the skills to interpret its spiritual symbolism of images and words. She believes the Book of Psalms and the Book of Isaiah are perhaps the richest texts in spiritual imagery of the Old Testament, the forecasting of the coming of the Messiah - Jesus Christ. Tatiana uses the Psalms in some of her work, inscribing the text to create spiritual symbolic imagery combined with the text.
Psalms 1:3 says that "the righteous man becoming like a fruitful tree beside the living waters of God" is what inspired her Hallelujah series, which portrays humans as trees interconnected in communion with one another and nourished by the Holy Spirit.
Iconography and manuscript illuminations became Tatiana’s Orthopraxy and provided her peace in Christ to survive the challenges of school and family. She says the process of icon writing starts with laying the clay for the halo, sealing the gold leaf with breath, and laying down and sealing the pigments.
Tatiana believes, “The most important thing in my work is to present the Word of God in a legible manner so that people can comprehend it and be inspired by it; to create an aesthetically adequate frame, illumination, or symbolic representation so that it can touch both the mind and heart; and to use our ancient roots in tradition to create new vessels for the Word of God.”
Tatiana follows the medieval scribes, admitting numerous errors and imperfections.
“What is most important is that the Word of God be legible so that it can inspire, motivate, and provoke our souls into loving actions. I always consider what people need in our grim times to kindle the Light within their souls.”
Life experiences also impact a Christian artist.
“Life crisis and challenges provide fertile ground for creativity and catharsis for the soul.”
Tatiana shared the example of the illness and passing of her father in 2010 and how it affected her works of that time. “Our prayers for his endurance and patience led the whole family to a deeper relationship with God.” In those dark days, she reversed the color of the background and the ink; from the black ink on white paper to gold ink on black paper. She explains, the process resembles perhaps the "dark night of the soul." This style begins spontaneously from the center of the board, as if from the heart, laying down layers of gold ink, gold and metallic acrylic, and finally highlighting with crystals. These illuminations begin in the heart, as if letting God inscribe on a blank page.
Tatiana’s Bulgarian religious heritage influences her art ministry. Slavic manuscripts display a variety of cultural influences: Celtic and Latin designs, Persian carpets, and Islamic arts. They incorporate motifs and elements from Bulgarian folk arts, not following a formal illumination style. Each manuscript is unique in its decorations. Bulgarian scribes focused on the text, the Word of God, rather than on illustrations, so decoration came last, when the text was completed.
Value rests on more than appearance. Value rests on a holistic comprehension of texts, images, and marginalia within the manuscript and in its historical context.
“Elaborate or simple, manuscripts have stories to tell us,” Tatiana said.
Tatiana first encountered the Slavic manuscripts in 1999, during the Summer School for Digital Preservation of Manuscripts, in Bulgaria. They became her inspiration. Their physical condition revealed to her an appalling degradation. These giants of the human spirit had become orphans, covered with dust, pierced by insects, dismembered and undressed from their precious covers.
So, “I promised to God and myself to dedicate my studies to preserving some of those treasures and to making them visible again to the world,” she said.
Tatiana bought for the Historical and Archival Church Institute (HACI) in Sofia a computer, a scanner, and digital camera to document the collection. She evaluated the preservation needs of the collection, examining and documenting the environment and each page of each manuscript. Three-fifths required urgent preservation, and three-quarters required special care and housing.
In the U.S., she created websites with images of the manuscripts. Tatiana published in journals and applied for grants. Based largely on the websites, The Order of St. Ignatius granted almost $10,000 to renovate the HACI facilities. They faced many challenges, but eventually everything worked out, and now HACI has a remodeled storage facility with metal shelving, archival boxes for the manuscripts, climate control, and technical equipment allowing staff and scholars to conduct research of the manuscripts.
Since 2009, Tatiana’s “Sacred Illuminations” has participated in 60 juried shows, including 22 juried solo gallery exhibits, 50 festivals, bazaars, and fairs in Texas, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Holland, Bulgaria, and South Africa.
Tatiana’s “Tree of Life – Holy Spirit” has been published in Christian Century, L-Magazine, Behold. Kamerkoor Kwintesens used her “Tree of Life – Infinity” for its production of Arvo Part’s Adam Lament in the Hague, Holland, and recently got permission for “In the Image of the Tree of Life” for the upcoming production Lux. “Tree of Life – Eyes and Hands” served as a book cover for Peter Traben Haas’ Beautiful Prayer.
Tatiana has learned to preserve manuscript treasures from the dust and damage of time and to provide access via the Internet and through her art ministry.
“The process illuminated my soul and brought me closer to God. The encounter with Slavic manuscript treasures transformed my life, and I hope it will inspire all of you to appreciate the work of medieval scribes in preserving our Christian heritage," she said. "The poor orphans are, in fact, giants of human dignity, because they represent 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.”
Please share this article using the social media buttons at the top of the page. Also, be sure to subscribe to the Christian Studies blog to receive notifications of articles like these straight into your inbox.
Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.