Dressed as a monk, Prof. Dr. Plamen Sabev, a researcher of Christian heritage, reveals the secrets of calligraphy in a museum scriptorium
Prof. Dr. Plamen Sabev is a man of science with many interests.
He is a specialist from the “Christian Heritage” department at the Regional History Museum in Veliko Tarnovo. He is an expert in icons, wall paintings, in that specific cultural heritage that Christian art has left in all our key sites such as monasteries and churches.
Prof. Sabev, however, is also known as the calligrapher at the Multimedia Visitor Center in Veliko Tarnovo, more popularly known as the Museum with silicone figures of characters from the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
“It is an extraordinary privilege for me to touch the Tarnovo Book School. For many years I have been dealing with the history of fine art, as well as with icon painting, since I graduated from the specialty “Iconography” at VTU “St. St. Cyril and Methodius”. That’s how my interest in calligraphy was born,” says Prof. Sabev.
He explains that he practices old Bulgarian calligraphy, as is known from the great Bulgarian monuments such as the London Four Gospels, the Manasseh Chronicle, etc.
In monastic clothes and with an original duck feather, the scientist demonstrated the ancient calligraphy. The feather is processed using a special technology with trimming and hardening of the tip. It uses ink prepared according to recipes from manuals for painters from the second half of the XIX century.
This allows visitors to see live how writing was done in the Middle Ages.
“Each calligrapher, who has reached a certain level of development, chooses his own favorite font and style to express himself, rather than simply copying ancient texts. There is undoubtedly style in calligraphy,” explains the specialist.
Assoc. Sabev prefers a font called “Neo byzantinika kapitalis”.
“This is a special typeface in which there are borrowings from the ancient Greek alphabet, but it also largely follows the traditions of the ancient Bulgarian script. This tradition continued in the period from the end of XIII – in the beginning of XIV century. The letters in both alphabets are largely similar, but most are typical, such as the capital letter [Ѵ]er small [ь], Yat (ѣ), etc. Typically ours is the letter “buki” [Ҕ], which is extremely important and is used to spell “god”, “divine”, etc. In addition, the first letter, which is used as a capital letter and with which a text begins, is radically distinguished. It is a special letter – a header. In parallel with the writing of the letters, an interesting part of decoration with whimsical creatures is also developed. These are images of angels, demons, the Lord, St. The Virgin, symbolic interlaced characters, tendrils twining around the stems of the letters, etc. An interesting tangle of elements and even whole plots is obtained. This enriches the speech and gives stylistics to the text,” reveals the expert.
When writing the letters, associate professor Plamen Sabev uses original texts from the Old Bulgarian language, for example liturgical texts, which have been translated since the time of Saint Patriarch Euthymius.
Another very important point in calligraphy art is the paper on which the letters are drawn.
This is original parchment that is prepared from the skin of animals. It soaks in a lime solution using a special technology to remove the grease. When the page is laid out, it is threaded and added to the body of the book.
“Any such book that was made in the Middle Ages was very expensive. To procure the raw material, many animal skins were needed. In addition, gold leaf was used for decoration in the lettering. It is also a very valuable and expensive material,” clarifies associate professor Plamen Sabev.
According to him, in the past it was made by master jewelers who processed a high percentage of malleable gold. It was placed between pieces of leather and by pounding it was rolled into a thin sheet. For comparison, today there are companies, leading in this field are Italian manufacturers, that offer super-thin gold of the order of 0.004 microns. It is also expensive, but modern painters prefer to buy from this product for their creations.
Inks were also prepared from natural pigments.
Acorns – the hard growths on the oak branches/leaves – were very often used. In the past, chicory was used to make writing ink. In a recipe from XV century, the technology for making ink is indicated – cherry resin is soaked in honey and then mixed with chicals. The mixture is boiled three times, and it is best to do this on a new moon, because then the ink will be at its best. According to folk beliefs, every important work was started when the month began to fill. This ink was very durable.
“Algae pigments, shells, seashells and other raw materials from the Dead Sea were also used. From its depths, huge clams have also been extracted for the extraction of pearls and mother-of-pearl. They were used in jewelry for ornaments, for the decoration of church utensils, for fitting gospels, etc. They were added to inks to give them luster. The technology for the production of inks is a whole science,” Prof. Sabev confides.
He does not hide that when he works, he tries to adhere to these medieval technologies.
Prof. Sabev explains that in order to be good at his precise work, a calligrapher must possess a number of qualities – to be extremely calm, balanced, to be filled with reverence and creative inspiration. Constant calligraphy practice is also needed to maintain the style.
Prof. Sabev shared his idea for a personal creative expression – to make an exhibition. However, his plans are related to large-scale artifacts that need to be presented in a suitable environment. This will most likely be done through a project because serious funding will be required.
“It will not be an ordinary exhibition. My idea is related to Tarnovgrad and I hope that important institutions will support the implementation of this initiative, which will once again strengthen the status of Veliko Tarnovo as the spiritual and historical capital of Bulgaria”, says Prof. Dr. Plamen Sabev.
Photos by the author