Archive for March, 2013

The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by Laura Paull

I had the opportunity to interview the mosaic artist Lilian Broca for my ‘day job,’ as editor of I love it when all my interests converge!

So this piece was first published in For more information on the artist, visit her website at

Queen Esther's Banquet, by Lilian Broca

Queen Esther’s Banquet, by Lilian Broca

Let us depart for a moment from the bawdy carnival of reversal that celebrations of Purim have become.

Consider instead a Romanian child’s experience of repression growing up in the Communist era, a time and place so harsh, so dangerous, that her parents feared to tell her that they were Jewish.

Enter now into the vibrant panorama of the Queen Esther mosaics of Lilian Broca, who only discovered as an adult emigré and fully developed artist how much she identified with the story of that brave young woman who used her wits and wiles to save the Jews in ancient Persia.

Lilian Broca in her Vancouver studio, working on one of the panels.

Lilian Broca in her Vancouver studio, working on one of the panels.

“My whole childhood existence was an Esther experience,” the artist explained by telephone from her home in Vancouver, B.C., where she has lived since 1972. “In Bucharest we were repressed in every aspect of our life. Everything was a secret, our family name was changed, and there was no synagogue. Parents didn’t dare speak in front of their children because many children unwittingly gave their parents away by repeating in school something they had overheard at home; people were taken away in the night. You couldn’t trust anyone. So in many respects we lived like Esther. But I only knew this many years later.”

The family escaped Romania in 1958, when Lilian Broca was 12, first to Israel, then making their way to Montreal, where they had family. She earned an art degree at Concordia University, where she completed her first mosaic, and then an MFA at Pratt University in New York, where she developed as a painter and completed a second mosaic. When she married and moved to Vancouver, she carried with her the leftover shards of glass from her first project, intending someday to return to the medium.

“Once we escaped, I carried my Romanian identity like something neatly folded in my pocket, and it came out too in the series,” Broca said. “I was so in love with the Byzantine icons I saw around me as a child.” The part of the Balkan Peninsula where she’d grown up retained the cultural influence of the old Eastern Byzantine Empire, centered in what was then Constantinople — today’s Istanbul. The colorful and gold-painted icons she saw all around her probably illuminated what was an otherwise gloomy environment in Bucharest, she proposes in her recently published, lavishly illustrated book, “The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca. Published by Gefen House of Jerusalem and New York in 2011, the exquisite book contains artistic and technical accounts of her process by Broca, a long poem based on the Estr Scrolls by Yosef Wosk, and a forward by the major American feminist artist Judy Chicago.

In an astute analysis of the multiple layers of Broca’s technical and artistic accomplishment in this work, the Romanian art critic Pavel Susara has described her mosaics as a process in which she reconciles her national and cultural roots in the post-Byzantine world, her religious and cultural roots in Judaism, and her development and aesthetics as a Western artist.

He also commented that by creating enduring works on portable panels Broca has profoundly contributed to the liberation of the mosaic from what has historically an art that is tied to fixed places: buildings, walls, floors. Like Jewish culture and religion, it is an art of the Diaspora.

To hear her tell it, Broca’s return to mosaics, the medium in which she will no doubt leave her most memorable legacy, sounds like destiny. After many years as a successful painter, she attended a lecture where a scholar was showing slides of some paintings on the walls of an ancient Syrian synagogue. A scene of the Persian King Xerxes (known to the Jews as Ahoshverosh or Ahashvayrosh)) and his Jewish queen, prompted her to begin her explorations in early 2002.

“My unexpected discovery that one of the earliest if not the earliest written references to mosaics occurs in the biblical Book of Esther, in the passage describing King Ahashvayrosh’s palace, further, contributed to my decision to return to this powerful, singular art form,” Broca writes in her book.

Her identification with the figure of Esther was also key.

“Throughout my artistic career, I have explored human relationships and the nature of the human condition,” Broca writes. “…In the past 15 years I have turned my attention to societal issues, especially those involving woman and their plight in historical times.”

In previous work, she had explored the figure of Lilith, a legendary figure said to have lived before the biblical Eve. Esther, she says, personified for her the theme of feminine sacrifice and courage.

“Esther was young and innocent, and like all the women of her era had to obey Mordechai, the alpha male of her family,” Broca says. “She was beautiful, yes, but also very wise, and she eventually used her beauty in a different way than Vashti did. She didn’t want to die, and had to come up with an idea for survival in a cunning way.”

Esther Holding Evidence of Haman's Guilt

Esther Holding Evidence of Haman’s Guilt

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity

Broca’s Queen Esther series, as seen in these images, follow Esther’s evolution from a frightened and submissive teenager to a mature and confident queen, who manages to manipulate treacherous political conditions so as to ensure the survival of her people. Her ability to convey deep and subtle emotion, not to mention the fabulously ornate ambiance of Persian culture, in the inflexible medium of glass tile, is beyond comparison.

Broca’s obsession kept her going for seven years; the massive, 10-panel mosaic series was completed in 2009. It has garnered a number of honors for Broca including the prestigious gold medal (for the early panels) at the 2003 Florence Biennale; the complete series was purchased by Canadian art collectors Jackie and Horatio Kemeny, but continues to be in demand for exhibitions.

The technical details of the actual process she used to create these panels, in which she sought above all historical authenticity, has been of tremendous interest to contemporary mosaic artists around the world.

“… Lilian is not just telling a story. She has taken a tale from antiquity, and is using the narrative to convey a wider contemporary message, which here is that of the role of women in self-sacrifice, and the promotion of non-violent negotiations for peaceful conflict resolution,” wrote Sheila D. Campbell, art historian, archaeologist, and Curator at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

“She works with colour and light to achieve her goal. But the success of these panels lies not only in Lilian’s ability to weave a narrative. Her understanding of colour and how it works is superb. The three dimensional effect which is achieved happens because of this understanding. …Many people try to work in mosaic. Few achieve such successful and professional results.”

In 2012, Romanian film maker Adelina Suvagau made a compelling documentary film about Broca’s life and art, which Broca narrates and in which she appears. “Return to Byzantium: The Life and Art of Lilian Broca,” which is making the rounds of film festivals, will become available to the public on DVD later this spring after its run on Romanian national television. For information about the film, visit
Before we complete this all-too-brief sketch of the art and life of Lilian Broca, let us add, for the record, that she is a fan of Vashti, too.

“I think Vashti is a heroine – I really do,” she said. “I was taken with Esther, because I identified with her. But I have a lot of respect for Vashti. In the past women had no tools except for their sexuality; their survival often depended on how they used their sexuality and there was only a small window of youth in which to do so. I honor her.”

Who knows — perhaps the banished Vashti will inspire a new series of mosaic marvels from the hand of the gifted artist, Lilian Broca.

‘Throughout my career I have explored relationships and the nature of the human condition through symbols and metaphors. The biblical Book of Esther addresses the themes of sacrifice and female empowerment, two subjects that particularly intrigue me. It encourages women to believe in their own strength  even in a patriarchal society where women are usually submissive and dominated by men All women possess the potential to be the “assertive Esther” – one hidden inside a shy, reserved and obedient girl. I chose the biblical Queen as a prototype for the courageous, selfless heroine who wins against all odds. As a young woman, Esther fulfilled her role as leader at a time of crisis with intelligence, persistence and dedication. Today we view her as a role model and as such, she contributes significantly to the status of women in society.’

–Lilian Broca

Esther Seeking Permission to Speak. All photos of Broca's art by Ted Clarke, Image This Photographics

Esther Seeking Permission to Speak. All photos of Broca’s art by Ted Clarke, Image This Photographics