Monastery gems from Sinai

The magic that the Sinai monastery has exerted across the Christian world throughout its centuries-old history sets this holy site as one of the most remarkable monasteries for the veneration of the Christian faith. The magic begins with the legend of its foundation at the site of the Burning Bush, where Moses is said to have heard the voice of God, and the monastery’s association with the cult of St Catherine. It extends through its reputation, not only among the Christian but the Judean and Muslim world as well. Since its erection in the mid-sixth century by Emperor Justinian (asceticism at the site goes back to the third century AD), this magnificent monastery dedicated to the Mother of God has gathered pilgrims from all three monotheistic traditions. This kind openness and tolerance secured support and is probably one of the reasons that the monastery survived through wars and political upheavals. But it is the worldwide reputation of the monastery that brought pilgrims to the holy site in the first place. This reputation, together with the clergy’s success in pursuing a cautious policy, managed to save the monastery from numerous dangers. The Arab conquest of the area in the seventh century, for example, left it untouched, and when the Caliph al-Hakim decreed the destruction of the Christian churches in the area, the Sinai monastery was exempted. The erection of a mosque in the early 11th century helped prevent the disaster. Two centuries after that, when the 1204 Frankish conquest secured Latin rule, the monastery repeated its success in retaining its Orthodox identity and its autonomy from the papacy. Today, the Holy Monastery of St Catherine is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery worldwide. A holy shrine, it also houses unique treasures of Byzantine art that reflect the monastery’s history and its worldwide influence. Unique among its treasures is its collection of sixth- and seventh-century encaustic panels, the most thorough collection to have survived the scourge of Iconoclasm, as well as the large number of Byzantine vita icons, among them the icon depicting scenes from the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria. A small selection of the monastery’s treasures – 41 icons and manuscripts in total – are presented in «Pilgrimage to Sinai: Treasures from the Holy Monastery of St Catherine,» an exquisite exhibition which opened a few days ago at the Benaki Museum. The exhibition is being held in collaboration with the St Catherine Monastery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the icons on view were shown at the recent exhibition «Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261-1557»). This is the second time since 1997 that the Benaki Museum has brought icons from the Sinai monastery to its premises. The chronological focus of the exhibition is the period between the 12th and 15th centuries. This was a period of important transformations for the monastery brought about by the Western crusades and the dissolution of the Byzantine state. With the cult of St Catherine (according to the legend, angels carried her remains to a mountain peak on Sinai after she was beheaded under the rule of the Emperor Maxentius) having grown strong in Europe – particularly in Normandy – from the first half of the 11th century, Western pilgrims arrived at the monastery in increasing numbers, especially during the 13th century. As in other periods in its history, the Sinai monastery became a crossroads of different cultures and faiths. The Western presence influenced the artistic production of the workshops operating in the eastern Mediterranean. The so-called «crusader» icons (scholar Kurt Weitzmann introduced the term in the early ’60s), which are amply represented in the exhibition, capture the hybrid style of Western and Byzantine style that grew out of this cultural crossover. In general these icons were produced by Western artists working in the areas that were under the control of the crusaders or were in some contact with them. Chronologically, they are therefore dated from the late 12th through the late 13th century when Acra, which succeeded Jerusalem as the capital of the Latin Kingdom, fell into the hands of the Arabs. The earliest specimen of this kind of art presented in the exhibition is the two-tiered icon with six saints produced in 1187 in Jerusalem, before the city’s fall. According to Titos Papamastorakis (one of the authors who appears in the exhibition’s catalog) «crusader» icons from the second half of the 13th century are typified by fluid brushstrokes, open outlines that are sometimes painted in black. They also depict figures presented with fleshy lips and wide-open, doll-like eyes. Two icons from a Templon Beam depicting the Nativity and the Baptism are typical of the style. Besides the Western influence, the links of the Mount Sinai monastery with Constantinople is another important part of its history. It is captured in two of the exhibition’s exquisite mosaic icons, the earliest images included in the exhibition. The miniature mosaic icon with St Demetrios from the second half of the 12th century is an exquisite specimen of miniature Byzantine icons and the mosaic icon with the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa from the first quarter of the 13th century is unique for its background of contiguous roundels. Both icons were most probably produced in Constantinople workshops. Another group of works from the 14th and early 15th century carry the imprints of Palaiologan art and, as such, testify to the renewed ties of the Sinai region with Constantinople after the retaking of the city in the mid-14th century. A gospel book created for Issac Palaiologos Asan is an example and so is the delicately painted icon of the Virgin Pelagonitissa from the early 15th century. The icon of the Virgin is the epilogue to this fine and rare exhibition that offers a vital understanding into the history of one of greatest sites of the Christian Orthodox faith. «Pilgrimage to Sinai. Treasures from the Holy Monastery of St Catherine:» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1043) through September 26. Educational programs for children have been arranged on the occasion of the exhibition. The Samourkas Foundation is the exhibition’s exclusive sponsor. A catalog in Greek and English supplements the exhibition. Foreworded by the Benaki’s director, Angelos Delivorrias, the catalog includes essays by his Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, curator at the Benaki Museum Anastasia Drandaki and Titos Papamastorakis.