The Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum is a rarity of its kind. The icons were brought to Los Angeles under strict packing and transport procedures—even humidity change was taken into account—to ensure no damage would befall them. These are not any objects of art; they are living objects of prayer, tradition and liturgy.
The monks from St Catherine’s came accompanying the icons; transforming the Getty into an enshrined mountain; a holy mountain such as the Mount Horeb (where Moses witnessed God in the burning bush "that burned with fire, and was not consumed" (Exodus 3:2). This is where the monastery of St Catherine’s is built. The Getty; also becomes a mountain of pilgrimage because it housed—from 14 November to 4 March—these objects of prayers and brought to a multitude of diverse modern day pilgrims blessings and a glimpse into another world.
The monastery formally known as the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, is located at the foot of Mount Sinai, one of the sacred sites of the Holy Land and a site of pilgrimage. The monastery was built on the site of the Burning Bush, where God spoke to Moses. Two occurrences featured in the icon of Moses on exhibit at the Getty, each occurrence 40 years apart; the receiving of the law and the burning bush; this icon was given as a gift by an Arab Christian (signed in Arabic “Stephen”) to the monastery. This is one of the functions of an icon; it is a visual narrative that includes various accounts of a story in one image. An icon worked to convey the Holy Scriptures to illiterate people in old Christendom.
First accounts of a pilgrim to St Catherine’s are of a Spanish nun by the name of Egeria who traveled to Sinai in the fourth century. In her accounts, she described the burning bush; the church at the top of the mountain where Moses retreated in prayer for forty days and the cave of Elijah. An icon of the monastery as a map with all the holy sites is made for pilgrim use in 1700 by an iconographer by the name of Iacovos Moskos on view at the Getty exhibit. Monks have resided there, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have encountered God, since the third century.
Home of John Climacus; (from before 579 to about 650) where he was an abbot and where he wrote his treatise to monastic life; “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” St Catherine’s houses the icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Climacus; late 1100s, which was on view at the exhibit. Icons at the monastery come from beyond it’s walls however, because of the large pilgrimage that the monastery attracts. The monastery houses gifts from pilgrims; such as the painting of St Catherine (possibly one of the most famous of St Catherine by the wheel of her martyrdom) commissioned by the Catalan Consul to Damascus and painted in Barcelona in the 1300s. This icon was also among the Getty exhibit. St Catherine’s houses 2,000 icons and not more than 500 of them are published. These icons represent different traditions; including; Melkite, Coptic and Byzantine. St Catherine’s collection is the largest collection and includes the oldest icons in the world; dating back to the sixth century.
Among the oldest icons there, 27 come from the sixth and seventh century made with encaustic medium; when wax is melted with pigment and applied to panel; the same way the Fayyum portraits were made. The monastery also houses icons from 12th to 14th centuries. There are only thirty icons in the world that survived since the iconoclast period; five of these are considered masterpieces and three of those five are at St Catherine’s. The Icon of Saint Peter the Apostle; sixth century, Encaustic on panel; 36 ¾ x 21 1/8 x1/2 inch is one of them.
While written mostly with egg tempera (when tempera pigment is mixed with the egg yolk and vinegar), a rare few are done with the Encaustic technique. The encaustic technique was replaced by the secco or tempera painting in 7th century AD. This technique uses wax and vegetable or tempera pigments mixed at high temperature and spread on a wooden surface, and the icons produced with this technique are of considerable historical and artistic value. This method requires the artist to create a preliminary drawing of the subject on wood, or very rarely, marble panels and then apply the still warm mixture to the surface using usually a hot iron. The mixture penetrates deeply into the pores of the material and when it is cooled the colors become one with the surface. Due to this process the pigments stay true centuries thereafter. This style of painting was used in the year 500 AD or early sixth century.
We are extremely privileged that this icon and as well as its counterpart “The Blessing Christ” at Sinai—only 37 of their kind exist in the world—survived these the iconoclastic period in the 700-800s. “The Blessing Christ” is Sinai’s most famous icon since it was cleaned in 1962. Thomas F. Mathews mentions in his essay in the exhibition catalog (2006, p. 39), “Early Icons of the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai” that it is, together with ‘St Peter’ and ‘The Saints Sergius and Bacchus’ (1260s-70s)—although not an encaustic icon—Justinian’s personal devotional icons. They are not the typical small size devotional sized icons; these are of a size fit for an emperor. The famous portraits of the dead found in great numbers in the Fayyum were produced in this encaustic manner as well; one familiar with these portraits can find a resemblance to them with the St Peter Panel. The monastery survived due to the large wall built around it by Justinian in the sixth century. The monastery also saved its good number of icons during the period of the iconoclasm in the seventh century as the monastery was considered under Roman rule and not Arab rule. In 527 A.D., the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) ordered the construction of two of the monastery’s defining features, the wall and the basilica. The basilica houses the relics of St Catherine. The imposing wall was meant to defend the inhabitants of the monastery from the local Bedouin tribes, and it reaches up sixty feet high and nine feet thick. In 1801, another emperor, Napoleon, ordered their restoration. The region came under Muslim rule in the seventh century (814 AD)—due to it’s isolation from the Byzantine empire; the icons survived the iconoclasm—the order to destroy religious images—movement issued by the Byzantium world in the 8th and 9th centuries. This geographical and political isolation is what harbored the icons from destruction. In the year 1106 the monks themselves hastily built a small mosque, as a politically smart move to appease an angry caliph threatening to attack and destroy the monastery. However another theory argues that the mosque was built by a Muslim detachment defending the monastery during the crusades. On special occasions, the mosque is still used by the local Bedouins, who have helped maintain the monastery grounds for centuries. This author has made several visits to the exhibit as well as lectures and events surrounding the presence of the icons at the Getty and upon each visit; I have experienced crowds on pilgrimage to see the icons. Icons which would not exist had it not been for such martyrs as Saint Theodosia; whose image is the “icon-image” of the exhibit marketed across the streets of Los Angeles. She holds the cross of her martyrdom with a direct gaze at the viewer which shows an undeniable strength, strength reminiscent of a martyr who died with strong convictions. Gold in the icon functions as a transitional space between the earthly and the divine. It visually pushes the saint into our space in order for us to converse with her. The gold becomes the pictorial facilitator between the saint and us. The candlelight flickers on the gold as St Theodosia holds her hand out to us and hears our prayers. The heavenly realm is where the saint resides in the gold of the icon; as the exhibit brochure states; “Unlike Renaissance paintings, icons do not depict figures within an illusionistic space, as if seen through a window. Icons are windows of a different kind: they bring the saint into the space of the pious viewer.” Kristen M. Collins, J. Paul Getty, Exhibition co-curator stated that “an icon of a saint is not meant to be a “representation of the saint—but a spiritual channel for the orthodox pious person (or anyone in prayer) to gain access to the saint, they are not only art objects but devotional tools.” The importance of the presence and use of icons for the believer goes beyond intercessory prayers. Icons hold within them a deep dogmatic theology which is simplified in imagery and symbolic form. For example the Virgin Mary is depicted as the burning bush; which is a symbol of her virginity that is not consumed with the birth of our Lord; which is depicted as the flames in the bush; the flames of His divinity. To Byzantine theologians gold in the icons is condensed light; a symbol of truth, glory and incorruptibility, a transitional space between the viewer and the divine. This theological use of gold leaf is consistent in the icons; since the only gold in the “The Crucifixion with Two Thieves” icon is on the crucified Christ’s garment to express his divine authority over death. This is why this author is saddened with she sees renaissance influence paintings commissioned for our present day Coptic churches both in Egypt and abroad; due to the lack of knowledge about icons. Our Coptic Church is lucky enough to be rooted in the ancient upbringing of early Christendom and the use of iconography has been preserved in it. It is imperative that Coptic orthodox children and parishes be educated about iconography; its history and use in order to value and preserve it for generations to come. Icons are written prayers by the iconographer; and they become tools used by worshipers for prayer. Thus they are not regular paintings which the artist signs. This is evident by the pictorial signature that is left on the icon of the commissioner (whether it is a monk or a layman) or the iconographer. A small figure is actually painted at the foot of the saint in a prayer posture on the left frame of the picture; as a pictorial signature. Richard Schneider; Visiting Professor in Liturgical Art at St Vladimir’s Seminary further elaborates on this point about the icon as a written object of worship and prayer and not a mere painting, when he says; “Icons are texts, pictorial analogues to the Scriptures themselves….icons call out to us, compelling us to read them and grasp the profound Truth that they are teaching” (The Resurrection as Our Icon; A Paschal Reflection, SVS press. pp, 4-5).
One of the icons on display in the exhibit is “The Archangel Michael with Donor Monk” Sinai, early 1200s; is commissioned by a monk who is featured in the icon; facing the angel in a posture of prayer but his body is turned towards the viewer to include him in his prayerful interaction. This icon is one of eight produced at Sinai that depict a monk; which is shown in an exaggerated, shrunken scale to the saint in the icon.
In the short film presented at the exhibit; Father Justin Sinaites who is the Librarian at St Catherine’s commented that the icons are created in prayer and find their fulfillment in prayer and worship. This is evident in the icon of “The Three Hebrews of the Fiery Furnace” (13th century) where the viewer is invited to join in the holy youth’s eternal prayer. The icon bears on its frame figures from the peripheral aspects of the story; King Nebuchadnezzar, the soldiers of the King, Daniel and the lions but also inscriptions in Greek from the prayer of Azariah from Book 15—of the Deuterocanoncial Apocrapha—that reads: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever. Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, you heavens of the Lord; sing praise to him and highly exalt Him. Bless the Lord, spirits. Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael.” The exhibition is divided into three sections and three rooms. There is the Holy Image which is the part of the exhibit that teaches about icons; a sort of “Icons 101” crash course. There is also the Holy Space: Monasticism and practice at the monastery, and the Holy Site; which explains the influence of the monastery on the world. The first section of the exhibit tells the viewer about the icon and its use, and history of iconoclasm. The brochure states: “By making visible that which is invisible, icons enhance the viewer’s understanding of God and the heavenly hierarchy.” In the Holy space section of the exhibit; the icons are organised in such a way that brings the life of the church within the liturgy in view. The organisation of the icons in a meaningful order creates the church where the liturgy takes place. As the militant church joins the triumphant church in prayers and praises in the liturgy the line that separates the earthly church from the heavenly one is blurred. The curators of the exhibit state in the brochure regarding the arrangement of the icons in the church as a “cosmic hierarchy visible and animate the church with the eternal presence of the holy.” This part of the exhibition in size, proportion; and design of the space recreated the church for the viewer to experience the icons in their everyday use; as devotional tools of prayer. The specific locations of certain icons are purposely intended for theological and dogmatic understanding which brings the congregant to join in the body of Christ at the culmination of the liturgy—the Eucharist.
Two scenes are depicted in an icon on the doors of the sanctuary; on the right is a door with Archangel Gabriel on the left panel of the door and St Mary on the right panel; making up the Annunciation scene. The placement of this scene on the sanctuary door is of dogmatic purpose and significance. St Mary is the gate of salvation and her receiving Christ through the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation of Gabriel; is where the point of the incarnation occurred. This impregnation by the Holy Spirit is what occurs to the bread and wine at the Eucharist as well. The other door of the sanctuary on the right has two figures depicted on it also; on the left panel of the door is Moses holding the tablets of the Law and the right is Aaron holding a scroll that bears his name. These are important figures as they are both high priests. They are depicted on the door of the sanctuary; since priests are the only ones that are able to hold the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant (which are; respectively, our incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ and His holy mother St Mary).
One can speak volumes about the icons on exhibit at the Getty; but no words can describe the written icon rich with dogma and theology and that which facilitates the prayers of the viewer towards heaven. Truly the icon is the window to heaven, as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1Corinthians 2:9).___Caroline Zakaria, M.A., writes for Watani International on art and spirituality. Her art work can be viewed online at www.carolinez.com.