By Fr. George Welzbacher
November 19, 2006
An Exhibition of Icons
Interest in the sacred icons of the Byzantine world has grown exponentially in recent years. No wonder then that this past Tuesday, November 14th, one of America's leading museums, the John Paul Gtty museum in Los Angeles, opened an exhibition of forty-three magnifient icons from the ancient Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is the first time that most of these icons have ever left the monastery. The exhibition, entitled "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground.- Icons from Sinai", will be open to the public for many weeks. I thought you might be interested in the background account that appeared in the Fine Arts section of last Sunday's New York Times, November 12, 2006. I reprint excerpts from Jori Finkel's long article here:
After 15 Centuries, St.Peter Finally Leaves Home
By Jori FinkelIt was a standoff in the desert heat between two kinds of authority: a Greek Orthodox monk and a group of Egyptian military officers. The monk, dressed in a long black robe and rugged gray vest, was clearly out-gunned, but he was not afraid to raise his voice. Nor were the officers who stood in his way.
The soldiers had stopped the monk, Father Porphyrios, and his small caravan of cars and trucks at a checkpoint just before the Suez tunnel as the convoy made its way from the holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai to the airport in Cairo. Their cargo could not have been more valuable: crates of centuries-old icons, devotional paintings that are as delicate as they are rare, destined for an exhibition 8,000 miles away in Los Angeles.
First the officers asked to see the customs paperwork, which the drivers quickly supplied. Then they demanded that the crates be opened. "There was a lot of shouting," Father Porphyrios said, speaking through an interpreter in a recent interview. "There was no way I was going to let them open the boxes."...After an intense hour of negotiation and some well-placed calls to the Culture Ministry in Cairo, Father Porphyrios prevailed. And the icons resumed their journey to the Cairo Airport and their ultimate destination: the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Starting Tuesday the museum will display these paintings along with a few other rare liturgical objects as part of "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground. Icons from Sinai . . ..... The Getty is undergoing something of a makeover for the occasion The museum is dimming the lights and designing its main exhibition galleries to evoke the magisterial look and feel of St. Catherine, believed to be the oldest continuing operating Christian monastery in the world....
Said Kristen Collins, the Getty curator who organized the show with the Yale art historian Robert Nelson: "We did want to try to evoke the experience of being there--the whole sensory experience of hearing the chanting and just being wrapped by, surrounded by, these beautiful images."
For starters they decided to build a streamlined version of a church's iconostasis, the screen laden with icons that separates the bema of the clergy from the nave of the laity. Behind that they raised an altar, complete with treasures like a sixth-century bronze cross. And they have piped music into the room, hymns that will be heard in neighboring galleries and will blend with chants from a short film, screened nearby, on the sights and sounds of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Easter.
Most of all though, what promises to transform the space of the museum is the presence of the icons themselves. Richly colored paintings on wood panels that depict saints and other holy figures, icons play a very central and visible role in the Orthodox church. The icon serves as a window onto the spiritual world.
"I like to think of icons as reflections: in the classical sense where a mirror image was considered real, not illusory. It's like a presence of the figure depicted," said Father Justin, another monk from St. Catherine's who, with Father Porphyrios, is staying in Los Angeles for most of the show. "To be surrounded by icons is to be surrounded by the saints themselves."
Even in the secular space of a museum? "Yes, even in a museum, " said Father Justin, who in his long white beard and flowing black robe cut a dramatic figure against the empty gallery on the first day of unpacking. "I'm positive once everything is installed, this will be a spiritual experience for those who seek it. We're not making the museum into a church, but we are creating a reverential space...."
The Monastery of St. Catherine is located at the foot of Mount Sinai, where it is believed that Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments. The earliest written account of the monastery, dating from the fourth century, describes a small church and garden. In the sixth century the Byzantine emperor Justinian built a more impressive basilica on the same site.
Today that basilica remains the heart of the monastery. And its collection of Byzantine icons now numbers around 2,000, the world's largest. Some were painted on the site by iconographers, monks trained in the symbol-rich and convention-heavy tradition of how to represent a saint. Others were brought as gifts.
Together they blanket the monastery. There are icons covering the walls and columns of the main basilica. ("Newer icons are within arm's reach, older icons are on higher shelves," Father Justin said). Icons fill the 20 small chapels outside the main basilica. And there are icons, modern copies if not originals, hanging in the monk's cells. The monks have even turned the treasury of the church into a small museum, catering to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage each year.
It is not an easy trip. For centuries traveling to the remote reaches of Sinai from Europe meant sailing to Alexandria and journeying inland by camel for maybe 15 days. Today the trip usually means flying to Cairo and driving six or seven hours from there. But this isolation has served the monastery well, especially during the heyday of iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries.
During this period the Byzantine Emperor Lea III issued his 730 edict banning the worship of religious imagery, declaring it a blatant violation of the Ten Commandments' prohibition of "graven images. " Many early icons were seized and destroyed. Not the paintings at St. Catherine, which had by then come under Muslim rule and was thus exempt from Byzantine laws.
The severe desert atmosphere has also played a role in preserving the icons. Because they are painted on wood, icons are susceptible to warping or splitting with changes in humidity. While some have been damaged that way, most have been preserved by the extreme aridity of the desert.
And, it almost goes without saying, by the monks themselves, who assume personal responsibility for safeguarding the icons. For many centuries they did not allow the paintings to travel at all....
But over the last decade, Fr. Justin said, another desire grew to outweigh that concern: "The objections were overcome by the feeling that we have an obligation to share our heritage with people--especially these days, when so many people are looking for spiritual inspiration. This is a way of reaching people who might not ever enter an Orthodox church."
The monks' test case was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which borrowed about a dozen icons for its big Byzantium surveys of 1997 and 2004. It was a good experience. "They treated the objects very carefully and respectfully," Father Justin said, "and we have had visitors to Sinai telling us that they were inspired to make the trip after seeing the show in New York."
Father Porphyrios said the Getty has gone to even more extraordinary and costly measures, "to the point that we were even able to include some icons that are fragile, in borderline condition." For transportation the museum designed special airtight cases that sit within a crate that sits within a larger crate, with high-tech insulation at every level and plastic sheets, of the sort usually used for medical tents, wrapping the icons. For display the museum created airtight plexiglass cases set at 30 percent relative humidity, equipped with data loggers to monitor this level.
After arriving in Los Angeles on Oct. 12, the crates were placed in "dry" storage at the Getty, set to near-desert levels of humidity. They remained sealed until two weeks before the show, when a Getty team began opening the boxes within boxes in an elaborately choreographed routine designed to minimize the amount of time each icon was exposed to the California air.
"I've been calling it a pit crew," Ms. Collins said. "Our goal is to remove each object from its case and install it in the display case within 15 minutes."
One of the first icons installed was the 13th century wood panel "St. John the Baptist with Scenes From His Life," done in tempera, or egg yolk mixed with pigments. As is the tradition with icons, the painting has flat, stylized figures--- easy to recognize through emblematic dress or gear --- floating against a gold ground. The wood of the upper left comer is chipped, but the colors are surprisingly bright. "A conservator at the Metropolitan Museum once told me that it's difficult to date our icons," said Father Justin. "They are always older than they appear to be."
Oldest of all is the sixth-century painting of St. Peter the Apostle, one of thefive earliest known icons in existence. It is the icon's first trip awayfrom the monastery....
"These images move," Mr. Nelson said. "they move even if you stand still, but definitely if you make the smallest motion. And the gold is the most lively part of the image. It really comes to life with the flickering of candlelight in the church."
By night a profusion of candlesticks, candelabra and lamps illuminate the basilica of St. Catherine, and their interaction with the icons is dazzling. But lighting at the Getty consists mainly of more subtle fiber-optic rails attached to the vitrines....
The curators anticipate some intense viewer participation. Ms. Collins says she got a preview of this while staying at a friend's house in Egypt. She was editing the catalog for the show and had page proofs spread out on the coffee table, when two of the housekeepers, both Coptic Christians, spotted an image of the Virgin Mary. "They lifted up a page and kissed the picture," she said. "We're talking about page proofs, and yet they had this overpowering response to the image."
She expects to see more signs of personal devotion in the galleries.
A final comment from Fr. WelzbacherGod's plans often startle us with paradox. The most ancient icons of St. Catherine's Monastery provide an example. The principal reason for their survival is that, beginning in the 630's, the Sinai peninsula was ruled no longer by the Christian emperors residing in Constantinople, but rather by Muslim Arabs. Though they were themselves forbidden to depict in art either animals or the human figure, the Muslim Arabs did not interfere with the devotional practices of the Christian monks. In the century and more from 726 to 843 A.D., the heyday of the iconoclast heresy, it was the policy of the Byzantine emperors, a policy condemned by the Popes and vehemently opposed by the Greek-speaking monks and by many of the laity, was to destroy all sacred images within the emperors' reach on the grounds that the veneration of such images was tantamount to idolatry. Fortunately St. Catherine's Monastery was no longer within their reach.
The Catholic and Orthodox confessions hold that since God the Son assumed a human body that could be seen and heard and touched, a picture of Christ (or of any saint) simply prolongs in time what was accessible to men's senses during Christ's (or the saint's) lifetime here on earth, and that the material icon is not itself adored but serves simply as a reminder of the Divine Person Whom we adore or the saint to whom we pray but whom we can no longer see. "Out of sight/out of mind " is a basic fact of human psychology. The veneration of icons provides a remedy. Accordingly at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. (the Seventh Ecumenical Council) the proper veneration of sacred images was solemnly proclaimed as a legitimate practice that is eminently useful in fostering devotion to Christ and to the saints.