Feature Archive

Holy Image/Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, through March 4, 2007
By Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
And even more miraculous was the church, filled with the most exquisite Byzantine icons that I had ever beheld in my life---the most unique museum of hagiography in the world.

-- Nikos Kazantzakis, from the section entitled "Sinai" from his book Journeying: Travels in Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem, and Cyprus

Saint Theodisia
Saint Theodisia
early 13th century
Holy Image/Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai is a rare insight into both the life and religious treasures from the world's oldest, continuously operating Christian monastery. This splendid special presentation of icons, illuminated manuscripts, liturgical objects, and paintings has a more elaborate and intertwined series of narratives to relate then most special exhibitions; and it tells it tales with the spellbinding power of Scheherazade. Home to the world's most significant collection of Byzantine icons rarely seen outside of the monastery's walls, this exhibition subtitled Icons from Sinai is an aesthetic and spiritual "treat" framed within a careful-presented series of history and theology lessons.

Formally established in the 6th century, the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine exists at a site sacred to the three monotheistic traditions of the West. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses' encounter with the Burning Bush was here and continues to take root under the altar in the crypt. On the top of Mount Sinai where today pilgrims and hikers stand to watch the sun rise, Moses received the Ten Commandments. Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, visited this place favored by desert hermits in 337. The Emperor Justinian supported the building of the formal monastery buildings, including the original Church of the Transfiguration, between 527-65. According to tradition, Muhammad visited the monastery and was given sanctuary; in turn he granted protection to the monastery complex and the monks - an "order of protection" secured in a written document and honored from 640. If nothing else, in the words of the current Abbot, Archbishop Damianos, the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine is a "site of reverence to the world's largest three monotheistic faiths" and a paradigm "of cultural exchange." UNESCO placed the "Saint Catherine Site" on its World Heritage List in 2002.

Given its location - isolated in the midst of the Sinai desert - the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine was saved from the dangers of the iconoclastic controversies and the Crusades. It became the Eastern Christian "safe haven" for the protection of icons and manuscripts. Today, its extraordinary collections of over 2,000 Byzantine icons and over 3,500 manuscripts identify this place as a singular repository of Christian history and spirituality. However just as the arid climate of the Sinai protects these objects, it creates a fragility that endangers their survival and exacerbates any potential damage caused by the rigors of travel and exhibition. This reality makes the exhibition of over 40 icons and illuminated manuscripts at the Getty an even rarer occurrence.

As you first enter Holy Image/Hallowed Ground, life-size panels of the monastic buildings and their environs envelope visitors with the ambiance and power of this unique site. Having visited the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in December 1994, I was immediately "absorbed" back into the experience of being at Sinai. The exhibition proper is divided into five themes: Holy Image, Holy Space, Holy Site, Monastic Life, and Pilgrimage. This arrangement has the dual purpose of a beautiful presentation of the icons, manuscripts, and liturgical objects; and of an unfolding narrative of this monastery, its special history, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity through the special characteristics of the icon.

The galleries dedicated to the theme of Holy Image introduce the concept, history, and meaning of the icon in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well as referencing the 8th-to 9th century events identified as the Iconoclastic Controversies. A splendid 6th-century icon of the Apostle Peter may once have graced the entryway into the original monastic church as a gift from the Emperor Justinian. To the left of this "gateway icon," the exhibition co-curators - Robert S. Nelson, the Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, and Kristen M. Collins, Assistant Curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum - have intriguingly displayed the remaining two side-panels of what was once a triptych, or three-panel, icon depicting the story of the Mandylion of Edessa. The miraculous restoration of health to the ailing King Abgar once he saw the acheiropoietos ("not made by hands") portrait of Christ - created when Christ placed the cloth on his own face - became one of the foundations for the spirituality of the icon, and later the defense against iconoclasts. Rarely depicted as a historical narrative, the Mandylion of Edessa may be best known, even among believers, as the "True Face," or vera eikon. So that the display of these panels from the Sinai collection proffers an educational opportunity. Little known in the West, the story and image of the Mandylion of Edessa is oftentimes fused, or confused, with that of the Veil of Veronica or the Shroud of Turin.

To the right of "gateway icon" is a display of icons of the Theotokos Hodegetria Dexiokratousa. Identified as the Theotokos, or God-Bearer, by the 5th-century Ecumenical Council at Ephesus, Mary garners special veneration by Eastern Orthodox Christians. The conciliar decree included her iconography, that is, the motifs by which she was to be depicted in icons. One of those motifs became the Hodegetria, or Virgin "who points the way" - which was transformed in Western Christian art into the "Madonna of the Crossroads." As Dexiokratousa, she is "right handed" holding the Child in her right hand, or on her right arm. Throughout these first galleries are single icons of various saints, especially John the Evangelist and John the Baptist; scriptural events such as the Annunciation and the Crucifixion; and liturgical practices such as the Menologion (calendrical) Icon for August. Pride of place in the second gallery is given over to a wonderful 14th-century diptych icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria and the Descent from the Cross. While intimate in size and scale, and thereby perhaps providing a parallel to the devotional diptychs of Netherlandish art, this icon can be recognized as having a liturgical connective to the Good Friday and Holy Saturday services which came to emphasize the Theotokos and her grief.

Dedicated to the theme of Holy Space, the adjoining gallery has been transformed into a replica of the Church in the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai, even unto the photographed overview of the famous apse mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ Appropriate liturgical objects, including the Riha Chalice, Paten, and Flabellum (all on special loan from Dumbarton Oaks), an inscribed 6th-century cross, candelabras, and embroidered vestments highlight the liturgical purposes of this space. The area leading up to the templon, or iconostasis, at the altar is highlighted with displays of Sanctuary Doors including icons of Aaron, Moses, and, most typically, the Annunciation. Additionally, display cases provide the opportunity to see illuminated pages depicting John the Evangelist from the earliest Gospel in Arabic dating 860 and "A Monk Reading from a Lectern" from a 12th-century Greek-language edition of Saint John Climacus' The Heavenly Ladder. Throughout this special gallery space, visitors can hear the chanting of hymns and prayers in Greek.

The Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Climacus
The Heavenly Ladder of
Saint John Climacus

late 12th century
The irony of the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine is that its seclusion in the midst of the Sinai should have made it a little-known pilgrimage site, and yet, history has proved its extraordinary importance as a place of pilgrimage. Those who have ventured on what was once a difficult and dangerous journey through the desert were rewarded with spiritual renewal and insights. Many have written of the glowing visions encountered in this holy place from the early Christian female pilgrim Egegria to Thomas Merton and Nikos Kazantzakis. Their words rang in my ears as I viewed the varied historical maps and depictions of the monastery presented under the category of Holy Site.

The themes of Monastic Life and Pilgrimage are presented in the final galleries. As the Abbot at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, the 7th-century monk John Climacus wrote the influential The Heavenly Ladder. Represented in varied editions and languages in this exhibition, Climacus' text is featured here in an interactive display which makes the entire fragile manuscript accessible to visitors. Nearby a stunning 17th-century Arabic edition of the abbot's text is opened to an illumination which connects the ascent on the heavenly ladder on the left side of the page to the paradisiacal setting on the right side. This is Sinai highlighted by a miniature image of a kneeling Moses before a golden-flame-encased Burning Bush with the Theotokos and Child, and the veneration of the body of Saint Catherine on the top.

A section of this gallery is devoted to Marian imagery as it was known at Sinai, that is, the visual connectives between the Burning Bush and Mary's virginity. Byzantine hymnody highlighted the theological metaphor in which Mary, who was believed to have been conceived without sin and given birth without damage to her virginity, was likened to the Burning Bush that burned without being consumed. This theological conundrum is evidenced by several icons in which the Theotokos by herself or with her Child is shown within the branches of the Burning Bush.

The final gallery of Holy Image/Hallowed Ground is given over to the story of the monastery's patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria, who was martyred for her faith and her defense of Christianity. Her body was miraculously transferred from Alexandria by angels to the top of Mount Sinai where it was discovered by monks who buried her relics in the crypt of the renamed Church of Saint Catherine on the monastery grounds. A variety of the saint's images, ranging from an early 13th-century icon to paintings by Donato and Gregorio d'Arezzo, and Martinus de Villanova are complimented by an illuminated page by the early 12th-century Spitz Master. This latter image, commissioned by the Duke of Berry, attests to the widespread interest in this 4th-century Christian saint whose medieval vita captivated pilgrims who journeyed to venerate her relics at Sinai. In many ways, the exhibition closes with the display of El Greco's Triptych with Scenes of the Old and New Testaments. His rendering of the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai on the reverse central panel is bounded by the Annunciation to Mary and God speaking to Adam after the Creation of Eve.

Holy Image/Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai is an exceptional opportunity to view otherwise rarely seen icons and manuscripts within an interchange of ideas and history. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue filled with stunning images of the monastery, its grounds, and environs as well as the displayed works. Insightful essays by both co-curators and an assemblage of leading scholars from Thomas F. Mathews to David Jacoby and Father Justin Sinaites enhance the experience of the exhibition. Given the rarity of the works on display, and the excellence of its presentation, Holy Image/Hallowed Ground is an event not to be missed!

Images courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Photographs by Bruce M. White.

The Getty's web feature for the exhibition: Holy Image/Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai


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