All heaven before mine eyes
The Getty Museum is creating an atmosphere of religious worship in its new show, prompting debate about how closely Mammon can imitate the monastic
FOR the Orthodox monks of the Holy Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert, the morning of November 14th will not seem very different from any other they can remember—and in essential ways its proceedings will resemble almost every start to the day at the monastery for the past 1,400 years. At around 4 o'clock in the morning a handful of black-clad figures will emerge from their spartan cells into the starry, icy night and make their way across the courtyard into an ancient basilica where a forest of hanging lamps is waiting to be lit.
With practised concentration they will take their places below the giant icons and begin intoning prayers in low, urgent Byzantine Greek: a densely-woven tapestry of psalms, litanies and special invocations prescribed for the date or the season. After about two hours the tempo will become more solemn and dramatic as the rapid recitations of the morning service give way to the more careful choreography of a liturgy, or what Western Christians would call a mass or communion service. Finally, as dawn breaks, a priest will emerge from behind the altar, chalice in hand, his vestments glinting in the sun's early rays. Straight above him, as he calls on the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine, is one of the most striking pieces of religious art ever produced: a sixth-century mosaic of Jesus Christ, transfigured by white light and flanked by Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet. Just as the daily monastic rites set out to relive the death and resurrection of the Messiah, nature's cycle of night and day—more vividly experienced amid Sinai's red cliffs than in most other places on earth—conveys a similar message of near-annihilation followed by miraculous rebirth.
But in one respect that mid-November Tuesday will be very unusual in the annals of St Catherine's. That is because nearly 8,000 miles (12,900km) away, the history buffs and art-lovers of southern California will be offered a carefully organised opportunity to share at least part of the ancient community's aesthetic and spiritual life. An exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles—a place more readily associated with Mammon than with the divine—seems unprecedented in several ways. The most obvious is in the size of the exhibition; 53 icons and sacred objects from St Catherine's will be on show. There are very few other institutions in the world with the deep pockets and conservation skills needed to insure and transport so many objects and then keep them for five months at the required temperature and air quality.
Even more striking is the curators' determination to convey the atmosphere of worship so that manuscripts, vestments and religious paintings can be appreciated in something like the original context. Visitors will, in effect, be invited to do something that few pilgrims to St Catherine's ever do: enter the holy space around the altar where the priest's most solemn duties, above all the consecration of bread and wine, are performed. There will be a “holy table” with a cross, chalice and paten (all dating from the sixth century) and a “templon” or wall of icons of the kind used to separate lay worshippers from the church's most sacred part.
Other exhibits have been chosen for their relevance to prayer: for example, a priest's stole, gorgeously embroidered with scenes from church feasts, and a ninth-century Arabic manuscript showing one of the monastery's founders surrounded by church lamps. Visitors will see a film of worship at St Catherine's during the week leading up to Easter, a time of long, spectacular services.
The exhibition's greatest prize is a sixth-century portrait of the apostle Peter holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven: this, and two other icons of the same period and style (taken from St Catherine's to Ukraine in the 19th century) will illustrate the striking realism that was achieved by the encaustic technique, in which a brush was deftly applied to melting wax. But in its presentation of three of the five oldest icons in the world, the exhibit will not simply invite people to admire their beauty and antiquity: it also invites questions about the role of such icons in prayer and devotion.
All this prompts debate about the relationship between faith, art and reality. Icons and other religious objects like manuscripts were obviously made for the purpose of representation—as signposts pointing the way to a sublime reality. But in the Eastern Christian tradition icons are also holy in themselves; they participate in holiness as well as pointing to it. Certain icons are deemed to be especially holy, generating miracles even among those who have not fully grasped their significance. At the same time that sort of sanctity is not fully affirmed—so the tradition teaches—unless people use icons as they were intended, as “windows onto heaven” through which prayers are directed.
In the end there must surely be some things about religious artefacts that can be understood only through subjective religious experience. The exhibition will doubtless go a long way towards offering such an understanding; but given that its organiser is a museum and not a church, it cannot go all the way—and nor indeed should it try. To put it another way, there will always be a difference between prayerfully venerating an icon and admiring its technical brilliance, just as there is a difference between biology lessons and erotic love.
“Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai” is at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, from November 14th 2006–March 4th 2007