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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Icons in Sinai

“Icons From Sinai:
Holy Image, Hollowed Ground”-*

A Review

by

R. Alan Woods



“When we look on an icon of a saint- and this is true for every icon of a saint- we venerate not the panel or the paint but the pious and visible figure.”- Saint Germanos, Patriarch of Constantinople (AD 715-730)

The Getty Center in Los Angeles loomed high upon a hill reminding me of the photographs I’ve seen of the fortresses built by Herod The Great during the first century BC I was privileged to have gone there with Mr. Duncan Simcoe, my Art and The Bible
instructor, to view a collection of icons on exhibit from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine*. The monastery- the world’s oldest continuously operating Christian monastery- is located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt and was commissioned to be built
the Byzantine emperor Justinian (ruled AD 527-565) and under his rule the Byzantine territories encompassed most of the Mediterranean basin, including the Sinai Peninsula. Monks have resided here, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have
encountered God, since the third century. It’s geographic location and political isolation from the Byzantine Empire prevented the destruction of it’s religious images during the period of Iconoclasm in the eight and ninth centuries. The “veneration” of
ons continued uninterrupted at Sinai, and over the last fifteen centuries the monastery both commissioned and received as gifts hundreds of icons, manuscripts, and liturgical objects. Today, Saint Catherine’s monastery is the world’s largest repository
Byzantine icons.

By using bodily sight we reach spiritual contemplation.”- St. John of Damascus (AD 679-749)

Icons hold a central role in the religious practice of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Representing holy figures and events, they provide access to the divine by making visible that which is invisible and enhancing the viewer’s understanding of God and th
heavenly hierarchy. Unlike Renaissance paintings, icons do not depict figures within an illusionistic space, as if seen through a window. Icons bring the saint into the space of the pious viewer. During the period of Iconoclasm, AD 726- 843, several emperors
actively sanctioned the destruction of religious images starting with the Byzantine Emperor Leo III. In AD 843 iconoclasm was finally rejected as imperial policy and the restoration of the veneration of icons was hailed as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”
with a little help from St. John of Damascus and his “Three Treatises on the Divine Images” written between ca. AD 726 and 743- in a ceremony that became annual, and still continues to be celebrated in the Orthodox (“the middle way”) Church on the First
Sunday of Lent.

“Suppose I have a few books, or a little leisure for reading, but walk into the spiritual hospital- that is to say, a church- with my soul choking from the prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus my soul is led to glorify God.”- St. John of Damascus


Icons are vehicles for intense personal dialogs between a viewer and a saint and can also be organized into comprehensive decorative programs in a church. In this manner they make the cosmic hierarchy visible and animate the church with the eternal presence
of the holy. Icons bring holy figures or events into the viewer’s presence thus the sacred time and space of the heavenly realm are merged in the church with the earthly time and space of the viewer.

Located far from- in time and space- the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Saint Catherine’s monastery has maintained a collection of icons that allows us to tell the uninterrupted story of icon painting and veneration from the
sixth century to the present. I was honored and privileged to gaze upon with veneration and awe such Holy Images from such Hollowed Ground the day I went to The Getty Center Museum to witness the Icons from Sinai.


*Note: Before the relics of the martyr-saint Catherine of Alexandria were brought to the monastery in the eleventh or twelfth century, it was formally known as the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.

*:
The J. Paul Getty Museum in partnership with the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt.