Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

Formally established in the 6th century, the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai exists at a site sacred to the three monotheistic traditions of the West. God’s spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush here. Moses received the Ten Commandments on the top of Mount Sinai. Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, visited this place favored by desert hermits in 337. The Emperor Justinian supported the building of the formal monastery buildings, including the original Church of the Transfiguration, between 527-65. According to tradition, Muhammad visited the monastery and was offered sanctuary; in turn he granted protection to the monastery complex and the monks—an “order of protection” secured in a written document and honored from 640. If nothing else, in the words of the current Abbot, Archbishop Damianos, the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai is a “site of reverence to the world’s largest three monotheistic faiths” and a paradigm “site of cultural exchange.”

Given its location—isolated in the midst of the Sinai desert—the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine was saved from the dangers of the iconoclastic controversies and the later destructions wrought by the Crusades. This Eastern Christian “safe haven” is a singular repository of Christian history and spirituality housing extraordinary collections of more than 2,000 Byzantine icons and more than 3,500 manuscripts. Currently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Holy Image*Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai is a rare look at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine including two exceptional illuminated books written in Arabic which open new paths to the study of the interconnections between Eastern Christianity and Islam.

Discovered, or perhaps better said, rediscovered in 1975 in an immured storeroom at the monastery complex, the Gospel Book in Arabic dating from circa 800, Palestine, is the oldest Christian Arabic manuscript. The volume contains the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John, and is highlighted throughout with brown and red ink illustrations which are similar in figural imagery to the Syriac Rabbula Gospels of 586. However it is the architectural images, especially of a basilica church with long galleries, which are artistically rare.

The 1612 Arabic edition of The Heavenly Ladder originally written by the then abbot of the monastery, Saint John Climacus (?576-c.650) contains two singular Ottoman-styled illuminations. First is a portrait of Climacus, dressed in the Muslim garments, as he writes his text not seated on the floor in the manner of a Muslim scribe, but rather on a bench before his desk. He writes in the Greek style that is on the left-hand page. The second illumination depicts the Heavenly Ladder in a visual adaptation of Byzantine models with Ottoman influences. As the monks climb the ladder from right to left in the style of Arabic script, they are tormented by Ottoman-inspired pastel-colored devils. The figuration of Hell, here in the shape of the Chinese-inspired dragon of Ottoman miniatures, swallows the monks who have fallen from the ladders. At the summit of the ladder, Jesus, identified by an Islamic flame halo, reaches forth to welcome John Climacus. The paradisaical landscape, a rendering of Sinai region, incorporates the monastery complex, highlighted by the minaret of its mosque, on the lower left corner. In the midst of the area shaded in green on the right-hand side of the illumination is a diminutive image of Moses kneeling before a tear-shaped flame representing the Burning Bush within which is Mary with her Child following the tradition of the monastery. At the very summit of this green mount, angels translate the body of Saint Catherine, patron of the monastery, from Alexandria to Mount Saint Catherine.

This exhibition is on view through March 4, 2007 and information about both the exhibition and its companion catalogue, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine can be accessed here.

Dr. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is an Adjunct Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.