6th century portrait of Peter


ALL heaven before mine eyes!

The Getty Museum is creating an atmosphere of religious

worship in its new show, prompting debate about how

 closely Mammon can imitate the monastic.

* * * * * *

F OR THE ORTHODOX MONKS OF THE HOLY MONASTERY OF ST. CATHERINE IN THE SINAI DESERT, THE MORNING OF NOVEMBER 14TH, 2006, WILL NOT SEEM VERY MUCH DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER THEY CAN REMEMBER ------ and in essential ways its proceedings will resemble almost every start to the day at the monastery for the past 1,400 years.

At around 4 o’clock in the morning a handful of black-clad figures will emerge from their spartan cells into the starry, icy night and then make their way across the courtyard into an ancient basilica where a forest of hanging lamps is waiting to be lit.

With practised concentration they will take their places below the giant icons and begin intoning prayers in low, urgent Byzantine Greek: a densely-woven tapestry of psalms, litanies and special invocations prescribed for the date or the season. After about two hours the tempo will become more solemn and dramatic as the rapid recitations of the morning service give way to the more careful choreography of a liturgy, or what western Christians would call a mass or communion service.

Finally, as dawn breaks, a priest will emerge from behind the altar, chalice in hand, his vestments glinting in the sun’s early rays. Straight above him, as he calls on the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine, is one of the most striking pieces of religious art ever produced: a sixth-century mosaic of Jesus Christ, transfigured by white light and flanked by Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet. Just as the daily monastic rites set out to relive the death and resurrection of the Messiah, nature’s cycle of night and day—more vividly experienced amid Sinai’s red cliffs than in most other places on earth—conveys a similar message of near-annihilation followed by miraculous rebirth.

But in one respect that mid-November Tuesday will be very unusual in the annals of St. Catherine’s. That is because nearly 8,000 miles (12,900 km) away, the history buffs and art-lovers of southern California will be offered a very carefully organized opportunity to share at least part of the ancient community’s aesthetic and spiritual life . An exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles—a place more readily associated with Mammo than with the divine—seems unprecedented in several ways. The most obvious is in the size of the exhibition; 53 icons and sacred objects from St. Catherine’s will be on show. There are very few other institutions in the world with the deep pockets and conservation skills needed to insure and transport so many objects and then keep them for five months at the required temperature and air quality.

Even more striking is the curators’ determination to convey the atmosphere of worship so that manuscripts, vestments and religious paintings can be appreciated in something like the original context. Visitors will, in effect, be invited to do something that few pilgrims to St. Catherine’s ever do: enter the holy space around the altar where the priest’s most solemn duties, above all the consecration of bread and wine, are performed. There will be a holy table” with a cross, chalice and paten (all dating from the sixth century) and a “templon” or wall of icons of the kind used to separate lay worshippers from the church’s most sacred part.

Other exhibits have been chosen for their relevance to prayer: for example, a priest’s stole, gorgeously embroidered with scenes from church feasts, and a ninth-century Arabic manuscript showing one of the monastery’s founders surrounded by church lamps. Visitors will see a film of worship at St Catherine’s during the week leading up to Easter, a time of long, spectacular services.

The exhibition’s greatest prize is a sixth-century portrait of the apostle Peter holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven: this, and two other icons of the same period and style (taken from St. Catherine’s to Ukraine in the 19th century) will illustrate the striking realism that was achieved by the encaustic technique, in which a brush was deftly applied to melting wax. But in its presentation of three of the five oldest icons in the world, the exhibit will not simply invite people to admire their beauty and antiquity: it also invites questions about the role of such icons in prayer and devotion. *

                                         “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai”

                                         is at the J.. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles. Calif.

                                         from November 14th, 2006 — March 4th , 2007.


The Economist Magazine

November 11th - 17th, 2006 (pg. 93.)


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