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Los Angeles Getty Museum Features Treasured Icons From Sinai Monastery


Los Angeles residents are getting a glimpse of art treasures from the ancient monastery of St. Catherine's in the Sinai desert. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the display of religious art at the J. Paul Getty Museum features some of the world's finest examples of icons, the images revered by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Saint Catherine's Monastery is the repository of some of the world's oldest icons and illuminated manuscripts. Built in the sixth century on orders of the Emperor Justinian, it is the world's oldest continuously operating monastery, and it looks today much as it did then - a massive fortress in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. Inside, contemplative monks carry on a tradition of prayer and study.

Father Justin, an American convert, is librarian at St. Catherine's. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, but now lives a very different life - where the sounds of liturgical Greek are heard in the barren desert. He came to the Getty Museum for the opening.

He says the place has a stark beauty.

"It only rains there three or four times a year, so we have granite mountains that soar with precipitous cliffs," Father Justin said. "And in the midst of this very harsh environment, it is also extremely beautiful. The sun is brilliant. The sky is what they call the sapphire skies of Sinai. It is an intense blue. And in the midst of that you have the traditional site where God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, and where he gave the 10 commandments at the peak of Sinai."

Inside the monastery are some of the world's finest Greek and Russian icons, as well as rare ancient manuscripts and other liturgical objects. The Getty exhibition contains more than 60 items from the monastery, the largest number ever removed on loan from the site.

Robert Nelson, an art historian from Yale University, is co-curating the exhibition. He says a collection of treasures like this is rarely seen by the public.

"We have right next to my right arm here one of the great icons of the world, the icon of St. Peter, which we understand was a gift by the emperor Justinian to the monastery in the sixth century," he said. "And that icon has been at the monastery until it [came] to Los Angeles."

The icon bears the realistic image of a white-haired bearded man. It is significant to art historians, Professor Nelson says, because it shows the transition from Roman art to the later stylized figures of Byzantine icons, which are often set against rich golden backgrounds.

Many icons like this were destroyed in the iconoclastic movement of the eighth and ninth centuries, when the Byzantine church was bitterly divided over the veneration of images. But those at St. Catherine's survived undisturbed, and the monastery now has the world's largest collection of early icons.

St. Catherine's has been mostly untouched by centuries of political changes in the Middle East. Built by a Byzantine emperor, it came under the reign of the Muslim Abbasid dynasty and a succession of other rulers. Co-curator Kristen Collins says its history is a tribute to the diplomacy of its leaders.

"I think one of the most amazing things about this monastery has been its ability to endure," she said. "The monastery has a mosque on its premises. The legend has it that when the Caliph Hakim was heading toward the monastery, cutting a swath across the Sinai destroying monasteries in his path, the monks at Sinai build a mosque in three days, transformed guest quarters into this building. And the mosque remains there to this day."

The monastery was spared because of the gesture.

Father Justin says this art has a special role in the lives of Orthodox Christians, who believe that icons convey the spiritual reality that they portray.

"Standing before the icon of a saint is a reflection of that saint and we ascend from the physical depiction to the spiritual presence of the saint himself," he said.

The monks of St. Catherine's Monastery were at first reluctant to let their treasures be displayed in a secular atmosphere, apart from their role in daily devotions. But the monks decided to share them so that others could benefit, and they worked closely with the museum on the details of transporting and displaying the icons.

Three monks from St. Catherine's, including the archbishop who serves as abbot, blessed the objects as the Getty Museum opened its exhibition.

Curators say they hope audiences will view these icons as both art treasures and objects deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition. The exhibition "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai," will be shown at the Getty Museum through March 4.

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