Icons from Sinai
by Mark Kinan
At the end of last year, the United States was given the most exquisite gift through the efforts of a few dedicated people. From November 14, 2006 to March 4, 2007, “Icons from Sinai,” an exhibition containing fifty-three religious Orthodox items, was on loan from St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai in Egypt to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. The exhibit, consisting mostly of ancient, priceless icons, illuminated scripture, vestments and metal objects, traveled to the United States with a host of monks sent to care for the antiquities. Through the generosity and love of my uncle and aunt, Albert and Carol Kinan of Yorba Linda, California, I traveled to Los Angeles to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition for myself.
I believe that there may never have been a more important icon show ever on exhibit in the United States. Indeed, the Getty itself had no idea what it was in for and how important this show would be. People from all over the world and from every religion descended upon the museum in droves, waiting hours in line to be jostled about by the same crowd inside the gallery, just to see these icons. With the show ending within a few days of my visit, I was unable to buy a program book to take home with me, instead having to settle for a pre-payment, with the book to arrive in the mail a month later. When I questioned the clerk about this lack of souvenirs, he informed me that, being thoroughly unprepared for the type of response the show received, this was the third time they had to reprint the book. Naturally, I informed him that Christianity would always be popular and that they’d certainly know better for next time.
Pole banners adorned the city of Los Angeles and led up to the museum, boasting images of Sts. Macarius and Theodosia, among others. Once inside the gates to the parking lot, a very graphically pleasing, billboard-size advertisement heralded the very essence of this show, “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground.” There, in gigantic proportion to my own face, stood St. Theodosia, her dark eyes staring out at me, her head wrapped in a black nun’s habit, her gold martyr’s cross calling me to service in Christ, her out-turned hand imploring me to pray with her. Though the original icon stands only 10 inches by 13 inches, this enlargement of her was powerful, measuring at least fifteen feet high. Her face was stoically and expertly painted over 800 years ago in the classic Byzantine style, with an elongated nose, soft lips and eyes that engage your own, seeming to follow your every move in such a way that only a nun can master. The light emanated from the saint, rather than from an outside source. The brush strokes were perfectly guided by the Holy Spirit, the gold background powerful and simplistic in its ancient form. Her clothes of the deepest black frame a mighty contrast against that gold, calling attention to the light of her face and hands.
Looking at that icon made me feel unworthy to be in her very presence, as this is a woman who knew what it was to give everything for Christ. When I later found out that St. Theodosia indeed carries that martyr’s cross because she died in the year 717, when an imperial guard plunged a ram’s horn through her throat, it made me wonder how many of us would be willing to die for Christ in such a way. But, during my journey through icons, the more I find out about the stories of saints, particularly martyrs, the more I try to prepare myself for the same fate, should that day ever come. At the very least, these stories make for inspirational lessons.
The Getty Museum stands atop a hill overlooking the ocean, the city, the hillside homes famous in Los Angeles, and is the perfect stone and glass showcase for this display. Never before had such a large amount of Mt. Sinai icons come from the Monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt (or more formally, The Sacred and Imperial Mon astery of the God- Trodden Mount Sinai) to this country. The idea for this show came from the curators of the Getty Museum and was allowed to exist through the grace of God and the permission of Arch - bishop Damianos of Sinai, so to them, this country owes a true debt of gratitude.
Upon entering the show, I was taken aback by the very famous icon of St. Peter the Apostle, one of several encaustic (pigment in wax) icons in a series of Sinai icons. There he was, likely the most famous icon of St. Peter, over fifteen hundred years old, right in front of me. As an iconographer, I could never have asked for a greater gift. The icon of St. Peter has suffered some damage over the years, but his message is no less powerful, his eye no less bright. He practically shimmered as I greeted him with wonder, and I noted that he looked as alive now as he must have when he roamed the world preaching the Gospel. He seemed as approachable to me as my own father, and I felt that I could visit with him for hours. But there was so much to be seen, so many gems to be revealed, and so very many people in this small room. I pulled myself away, only to find a very familiar story at the next turn.
Last year, I taught an icon class in conjunction with a biennial icon show in Pitts burgh. For this class, I chose the icon of The Holy Napkin, or Face Made Without Hands. The shortened version of this story is that King Abgar of Edessa, who suffered from leprosy, sent his messenger, Ananias, to Christ for healing by way of a portrait that Ananias was to paint of the Savior. In - stead, Christ pressed a towel to His face, leaving an imprint of His image, which healed Abgar. Having never before seen an icon commemorating this event, I was in awe of the small icon of the Presentation of the Mandylion to King Abgar.
My eye was caught then by an icon of the Mother of God in which the Christ Child appears to be blessing Mary herself, rather than us. Upon closer inspection, my great joy was aroused by the tiny squares as I realized that this is a mosaic, made not by paint but by pieces of glass and ceramic, painstakingly cut, sorted and assembled according to subtle shades of color that seam flawlessly together when viewed at a short distance. Truly, one cannot imagine such a work of art being created if not through the prayers of the Holy Spirit. I could only shake my head and compose myself enough to blurt out a short prayer.
Other rare icons included one of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace, with Daniel in the Lions’ Den, painted along the side. Encom - passed in this icon is one of the most important roles of an icon — as a storytelling tool that transcends language. The Arch - angel Michael, arms outstretched, protected the Three Holy Children from the fire that rages, seemingly behind them, as King Nebuchad - nez zar looks on from the right border of the icon. Beneath him are two guards who look on in amazement. Below the three children in the fiery room are bodies of other victims of the fire, in agony and being consumed by the flames, in powerful contrast to the three above. On the left border of the icon is the Prophet Daniel, standing in a cave atop three lions. Daniel is likely included because of his relevance to the story of the Three Holy Children, but also because he shares the same feast day with them.
Time, as with space and language, is also transcended in icons, as Daniel’s persecution is shown at the same time alongside the Three Holy Children in the furnace. As with the Nativity icon, and icons of the lives of Sts. George and Nicholas, another such example revealed itself to my delighted eyes.
This particularly striking icon of the Annun - ciation is high - lighted along the back wall of the room. Having heard from my young cousins who had seen the show in the weeks previous, I was prepared for this remarkable icon.
“Be sure to look in the light to see the baby Jesus in Mary’s stomach,” my cousins had told me.
Sure enough, when one follows the golden ray of the Holy Spirit from Heaven to Mary’s breast, while viewed from an angle and in the proper light, a faint vision of the Christ Child inside the womb appears to the viewer’s eye, her finger touching His small head.
Nearby was a set of icons that act as a church calendar, portraying saints in very miniscule figures, both by month and by year. As an iconographer, my mind was boggled by the spiritual dedication it takes to complete such a project. Surely, the yearly calendar contains well over one thousand individual saints and feasts, each appearing no more than two inches tall, in full figure.
Midway through the exhibit, in a room ensconced with holy men such as Elijah, Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, I came upon an icon that I had encountered years before, in person, while at a much smaller exhibit in New York City. I smiled as if I were seeing an old friend. There stood Moses as a young man, removing his sandals as instructed by God, in front of a fiery bush. Moses looks very concerned and confused, as I assume any of us would be as we stood in front of a bush of fire that commanded us to remove our shoes. But he willingly complied and, in the next icon, he is rewarded for his faith as he receives the Lord’s Commandments.
Passing several inspiring examples of scripture, metal work and vestments, my attention was commanded by what was the most moving icon of this show for me, personally. Standing 40 inches tall and over two feet wide was an icon of Christ, part of a deesis which includes His mother and St. John the Baptist, who stand on either side of him, interceding on our behalf. It is impossible to catch His gaze, as he looks directly toward His mother, yet it did not stop me from trying. Standing in front of this icon that I’d never seen or known before, I was moved to prayers and tears. Everyone else in the room disappeared from my awareness, and for the first time in my life I stood before my Savior, alone and without pretense, and prayed my own prayer without pause or thought. Protected behind glass, His hand was inaccessible to my lips, though it reaches through all time to bless me in His name. IC XC. Reflecting on the resolute blessings of the Trinity that could guide an iconographer’s hand in the early 1200’s to speak so strongly to me about Christ nearly 800 years later and from across the world, it occurred to me then that the entire idea behind this whole thing is for us to strive to realize Christ’s love for us in a way that is truly impossible for us to realize fully. Standing in front of this icon of the Messiah, surrounded by saints who had given their lives for Him, for their own salvation and to guide each one of us, was truly the apex of my Christian life thus far.
A much-needed emotional break came next in the way of a short film about St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mt. Sinai itself. It turns out that the very site of the burning bush that Moses saw in the Old Testament remains within the monastery walls today. During the persecution of icons, as dictated by the Emperor Leo III in the 700s, St. Catherine’s Monastery and its icons remained untouched, partly because of its remote location and partly because Mt. Sinai is revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike because of its Old Testament roles.
Being mentally rested, it was time to become immersed once again in this experience that should literally take days to view properly.
Immediately after the film describing the ways of the monks at Sinai, I was stopped by a couple of small icons describing the life of the monk, which pictured monks at every turn, busy as a colony of ants, working together, eating together, praying, dwelling, greeting the archbishop, visiting the mountains of Moses and St. Catherine. One of the icons was split in two, presumably because of the desert climate which can be devastating to wood, and was pieced together, the gaps filled in by wax.
Many of the icons have felt the wrath of the desert climate, as had the icon of St. Macarius, being led by an angel to the site where his monastery was to be founded. This icon, when viewed from the top, makes nearly a semi-circle. However, considering that it dates from the thirteenth century, it is a blessing that we still have it at all.
I have grown up seeing these very icons in books and photographs, as well as in copies by other iconographers. But to see the real, original icons that were used as the prototypes for all others was truly exciting and spiritually fulfilling to me as an iconographer and as an Orthodox Christian. However, among all the icons I had yet seen, I had been waiting for the one I saw next, which as possibly the most historically important to me. St. John Climacus is famous for his essay, The Heavenly Ladder, which describes the process of achieving spiritual salvation in thirty steps. This twelfth-century icon, The Heavenly Ladder of St. John Climacus, turns the essence of St. John Climacus’ writings into a visual picture. Dividing the icon diagonally from top to bottom is a ladder with thirty rungs, describing the path to Heaven. At the top of the ladder is Heaven, with Christ welcoming to Him, with outstretched arms, those who are able to reach Him. The ladder is packed with monks, all trying to ascend the ladder to Christ. At the top of the ladder is St. John Climacus, serving as the example of attained perfection, and being welcomed into Heaven by Christ. Some of the other monks, however, do not fare so well. There are demons with arrows, hammers and ropes pulling the monks from the ladder of Heaven, leading those fallen monks through the gaping black hole of the entrance into Hades. Below the ladder, on the ground, is a group of monks praying for the spiritual welfare of those on the ladder. Those monks are mirrored by a group of angels above praying for the same. This icon, though simplistic at first glance, becomes very complex in its message and is the perfect illustration of the reward at the end of the ladder. But if monks who have dedicated their lives to nothing but Christ can fall from that ladder, what chance do we have? Luckily for us, the Christ who would allow His monks to be carried into Hades is the very same Christ who conquered Hades by His own death and loosed the bonds of those who were there, so that we may all have eternal life with Him.
At the end of an afternoon that will live forever in my memory, we left the museum full of spirituality and the grace and love of God. Personally, I believe this trip will make me a better iconographer and Christian, as I soaked in every detail like a sponge. I have relived that gallery hundreds of times in my mind and in stories. As I look at pictures of these icons now, I am reminded that the power of the icon comes not from the iconographer, but from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who is in all places and fills all things.
I’m just blessed to be a small part of it.
Courtesy of the
February 2008 issue of The Word magazine.