A History of St. Catherine's Monastery, by John Watson
The Monastery of St. Catherine, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration, is located in a triangular area between the Desert of El-Tih, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba in the Sinai. It is situated at an altitude of 4854 feet in a small, picturesque gorge. It is a region of wilderness made up of granite rock and rugged mountains which, at first glance, seems inaccessible. In fact, while small towns and villages have grown up on the shores of the two gulfs, only a few Bedouin nomads roam the mountains and arid land inland. Well known mountains dominate this region, including Mount Sinai (2,285 meters), Mount St.Catherine (2,637 meters), Mount Serbal (2,070 meters) and Mount Episteme.
This is the region through which Moses is said to have led his people, eventually to the Promised Land, and there are legends of their passing in many places. Of course, one of the most exceptional locations is that of Mount Sinai, where Moses met with God who delivered to him the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Obviously, the region is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
While grazing his flocks on the side of Mt. Horeb, Moses came upon a burning bush that was, miraculously, unconsumed by its own flames. A voice speaking out of the fire (Exodus 3:1-13) commanded him to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt and return with them to the mountain. Upon his return Moses twice climbed the mountain to commune with God. Regarding the second ascent, Exodus 24: 16-18 states: And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights. During this time on the mountain Moses received two tablets upon which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, as well as precise dimensions for the Arc of the Covenant, a portable box-like shrine that would contain the tablets. Soon thereafter, the Arc of the Covenant was constructed and Moses and his people departed from Mount Sinai.
The Arc of the Covenant and its supposedly divine contents are one of the great mysteries of antiquity. According to archaic textual sources the Arc was a wooden chest measuring three feet nine inches long by two feet three inches high and wide. It was lined inside and out with pure gold and was surmounted by two winged figures of cherubim that faced each other across its heavy gold lid. Some scholars believe that the Arc may have contained, in addition to the Tablets of the Law, pieces of meteorites and highly radioactive rocks. In the ensuing two hundred and fifty years, between the time it was taken from Mount Sinai to when it was finally installed in the temple in Jerusalem, the Arc was kept for two centuries at Shiloh, was captured by the Philistines for seven months, and then, returned to the Israelites, it was kept in the village of Kiriath-Jearim. During this entire time it was associated with numerous extraordinary phenomena, many of which involved the killing or burning of often large numbers of people. Passages in the Old Testament give the impression that these happenings were divine actions of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews. Contemporary scholars, however, believe that there may be another explanation.
Some have suggests that the Arc, and more precisely its mysterious contents, may have been a product of ancient Egyptian magic, science and technology. Moses, being highly trained by the Egyptian priesthood, was certainly knowledgeable in these matters and thus the astonishing powers of the Arc and its 'Tablets of the Law' may have derived from archaic Egyptian magic rather than the mythical god Yahweh. However, it should be noted that this comes from an alternative school of thought.
On the peak of Jebel Musa stands a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This chapel, constructed in 1934 on the ruins of a 16th century church, is believed to enclose the rock from which God made the Tablets of the Law. In the western wall of this chapel is a cleft in the rock where Moses is said to have hidden himself as Gods glory passed by (Exodus 33:22). Seven hundred and fifty steps below the summit and its chapel is the plateau known as Elijahs Basin, where Elijah spent 40 days and nights communing with God in a cave. Nearby is a rock on which Aaron, the brother of Moses, and 70 elders stood while Moses received the law (Exodus 24:14). Northwest of Elijahs plateau hardy pilgrims visit Jebel Safsaafa, where Byzantine hermits such as St. Gregory lived and prayed. Beneath the 2168 meter summit of Ras Safsaafa stands the Plain of ar-Raaha, where camped the Israelites at the time Moses ascended the mountain and where Moses erected the first tabernacle.
Currently there is no archaeological evidence that the granite peak of Jebel Musa Mount Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula is the actual Mount Sinai of the Old Testament and various scholars, such as Emmanuel Anati, writing in his comprehensive study, The Mountain of God, have proposed several alternative locations. The association of Jebel Musa with the Biblical Mount Sinai seems to have first developed in the 3rd century AD when hermits living in caves on the mountain began to identify their mountain with the ancient holy peak.
Monastic life started at a very early period in the region around Mount Sinai. Christian hermits began to gather at Sinai from the Middle of the 3rd Century. St. Antony, who retreated into Egypt's Eastern Desert, inspired many others to cast off their worldly possessions and many of them settled at the foot of Mount Sinai, along with other nearby mountains, especially Mount Serbal, where they led a life of strict spiritual and corporal discipline.
The life that these early hermits followed was neither easy or safe. The 4th and 5th centuries were particularly troublesome times, when Christians were not only persecuted, but suffered from barbarian assaults. The monk, Ammonius of Egypt, wrote a Discourse upon the Holy Fathers slain on Mount Sinai and at Raitho, and there is much other documentation of the massacre and martyrdom of the Holy Fathers of the Sinai and Raitho by the Hagarenes and the Blemmyes of Africa, particularly during the Roman reign of Diocletian. This nevertheless did not prevent the development of monasticism in the Sinai desert, nor did it prevent the fame of many of the hermits from spreading both East and West.
Small monastic communities formed very early in the Sinai, particularly at Mount Horeb, thought to be the site of the Burning Bush and in the Wadi Feiran (ancient Pharan). The anchorites lived in caves, stone-built cells and huts. They spent their days in silence, prayer and sanctity.
Tradition holds that, in 330 AD, in response to a request by the ascetics of the Sinai, the Byzantine empress Helena (St. Helen) ordered the building of a small church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, at the site of the Burning Bush, as well as a fortified enclosure where the hermits could find refuge from the attacks of primitive nomadic tribes.
Now, the South Sinai became a place of pilgrimage that was visited by many from far away lands. In 1884, a manuscript was discovered that relates a visit to the area by Aetheria between 372 and 374 AD. She was a Spanish noblewoman who was accompanied by a retinue of clerics. She relates finding a small church on the summit of Mount Sinai, another one on Mount Horeb and a third one at the site of the Burning Bush, near which there was a fine garden with plenty of water.
Her account clearly reveals the expansion of monasticism in the Sinai desert. In fact, by the 5th century, the growing population of hermits was apparently headed by a dignitary, mentioned as the Bishop of Pharan, who's office was eventually taken over by the Bishop of Sinai. With this development apparently came a request by the Sinai monks, to Justinian, the Byzantium emperor, for assistance. He thus founded a magnificent church, which he enclosed within walls strong enough to withstand attacks and protect the monks against nomadic raids, which today is known to us as the Monastery of St. Catherine.
By the 7th century, the Monastery faced a dangerous situation and a grave crisis, mainly due to the Arab conquest. Although information on this period is scant, one source tells that by the year 808, the number of monks in the monastery had been reduced to thirty, while Christian life on the Sinai peninsula had all but vanished. However, the monastery itself did not vanish.
According to tradition, and evident from indirect information, the Fathers of the Monastery requested the protection of Mohammed himself, who saw the Christians as brothers in faith. Apparently, the request was favorably accepted and the so called ahtiname, or "immunity covenant" by Mohammed instructed his followers to protect the monks of the Sinai. Though this document has been a matter of controversy, it is doubtful that the monastery could have survived without the protection afforded by Mohammed and his successors.
The 11th century marked a new period for the monks of the Sinai. There was a transfer of relics of St. Catherine to France, and the presence of Crusaders in the Sinai between 1099 and 1270 spurred the interest of European Christians for the security and independence of the monks and for the safeguard of the land properties (dependencies) owned by the Monastery in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.
The fact that a castle presupposes a military force accounts for the mention some authors make of a military order of St. Catherine, founded in 1063, which would thus antedate any other military order. No trace has been found, however, of the rule of any such order, or of a list of its grand masters. From the Crusades the Monastery of St. Catherine attracted many Latin pilgrims, who gradually formed a brotherhood, the members of which pretended to the knighthood. In return for a vague promise to protect sacred shrines and pilgrims, they were granted the coveted St. Catherine's Cross. The carved wooden portal giving access to the Narthex of the Katholikon (the earliest church in the monastery, built about the same time as the enclosure wall) and the various lain inscriptions in the old Refectory date from those years. Interestingly though, the Monastery had a Muslim garrison during the same period, so the Fathers had to maintain a delicate balance between the Christians of the West and the Muslims of the region. In fact, to this day an ancient Mosque, dating from the 10th or 11th century, sits within the walls of the Monastery.
The Roman Popes at times defended the rights of the Monastery with various bulls and proclamations. Pope Honorius III in 1217, Pope Gregory X (1271-1276), Pope John XXII (1316-1334), Pope Benedict XII in 1358, Pope Innocent VI in 1360, all expressed in many ways their goodwill for the monastery, and interceded in favor of the Monastery's privileges in Crete, Cyprus and other places.
Others also came to their aid. The Doges of Venice regulated with official documents the attitude of the Dukes of Crete concerning the Monastery's dependencies on the island. They ruled in favor of the monks' interests, granted tax exemptions and sometimes permitted even the collection of funds to aid the monastery. The Venetians, as well as other Christians of the West, respected the monastery's ships, which sailed the seas flying the banner of St. Catherine with the Saint's monogram (AK).
Even though the Monastery of St. Catherine, since the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, has been situated in a mostly Islamic region, communication with Constantinople never stopped and the relations with Byzantium were close. A number of documents reveal decisions and actions on the part of a number of Byzantine emperors, extending financial assistance to the monastery. The official attitude and opinion of the Byzantines with regard to the Monastery and its prestige is expressed in a letter by the patriarch of Constantinople Gennadio (1454), addressed to "the most honorable among monks, Kyr Maximos, by his worldly name Sophianos, and to all the most blessed hieromonks and monks practicing asceticism in the holy Monastery of Sinai". He calls the Sinai "our pride", indicating the great esteem and reverence in which the Orthodox held one of the worlds oldest Christian monasteries.
Even Turkish Sultans, in particular Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent, at times issued favorable decrees exempting the Monastery from custom duties, which helped it attain great prosperity. On several different occasions, the Turkish Sultans defended the interests of the Monastery against the claims of powerful Jews on the Sinai. At the same time, Christian kings of Europe and other important rulers gave financial assistance and presented the monastery with generous donations.
When Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, he placed the monastery under his protection. The documents confirming this status, and which recognizes older privileges granted to the monastery, are now kept in the monastery's gallery.
Through the 14th century, many thousands of pilgrims came annually to the monastery, even though the journey from Cairo took eight days by foot and camel. Following the Reformation, the popularity of Christian pilgrimage drastically declined until, during the mid 1900s, no more than 80 to100 pilgrims made the arduous journey each year. In the 1950s the Egyptian government paved roads leading to oil fields and mines along the western Sinai coast and also developed a dirt track to the foot of Jebel Musa and the monastery, which allowed increasing numbers of secular tourists to travel in taxis from Cairo. The completion of a paved road further increased the number of visitors to Jebel Musa. Bus service to and from Cairo became available on a daily basis in 1986 and today it is not uncommon for a hundred or more pilgrims and tourists to visit the ancient sacred site in a single day. Currently Greek Orthodox monks tend the monastery and its extraordinary collection of Byzantine art and illuminated manuscripts.
It is not known when or how the monastery obtained possession of the remains of St Catherine of Alexandria and adopted her name. According to legend her body was transported thither by the hands of angels. The name, however, does not appear in literature before the tenth century.
The Icons of St. Catherine's Monastery
The Monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt's Sinai is a wonderful place to visit, interesting in every respect, but it is not famous throughout the world simply for its facilities nestled up against the foot of Mount Sinai. The monastery has one of the largest collections of ancient illuminated manuscripts in the world, as well as one of the most important collections of icons. Here, we will examine the icons, which number over 2,000, large and small, some unique masterpieces while others are simple works of art. They are spread throughout the complex, with some in the Katholikon, the chapels, the icon gallery, the sacristy and even in the monks' cells. They were produced during various periods between the 6th and 19th century, with every period adding new treasures to the monastery's vast collection.
The encaustic technique uses wax and vegetal pigments mixed at high temperature and spread on a wooden surface, and the icons produced with this technique are of considerable historical and artistic value. This method required the artist to create a preliminary drawing of the subject on wood, or very rarely, marble panels and then apply the still warm mixture to the surface using either a brush or a hot iron. The artist would then work on the colors by rubbing the mixture into the painted surface using a special instrument. The mixture penetrates deeply into the pores of the material and when it cooled the colors become indelible.
The earliest icons were produced using the encaustic technique, which was used until the 7th century AD, when it was replaced by the secco or tempera painting. The famous portraits of the dead found in great numbers in the Fayoum were produced in this manner, and the Monastery of St. Catherine has a number of important encaustic icons.
Icons of Monastic Eastern Art of the 7th-9th Century
The icons present within the monaster from this group come from local workshops active in monasteries of the East, particularly Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Cappadocia. What is distinctive about these icons is that they come from a period when the Arab conquest precluded most of the contact between Eastern regions and the Christian Greek centers. Hence, they are products of folk art, less refined in character, and they make use of a primitive realism to give expression to the local tradition of the Coptic and Syrian Churches. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that these rare icons have been one of the main sources that contributed in shaping Christian art in the following centuries.
Icons Dating from the 9th to the 12th Century
There were two characteristics that defined the development of icons during this period. First, they illustrate the continuation of pre-iconoclastic painting tradition into the post iconoclastic period and second, they show a turn toward the classical concept of art, reflected in the delicacy of drawing and the beauty of form.
Many of these important icons came from the imperial ateliers of Byzantium, including one with scenes from the story of King Abgar, where we find the earliest representation of the Holy Mandylion. Others are portraits of Christ, the Archangels, Saints, hierarchs and hermits. Illuminated manuscripts were produced in great numbers during this period, including Gospel-books, synaxaries and other texts, and the very significant art of miniature painting had a more general influence on iconography.
Icons of the Comenian Age (1080-1200 AD)
During the Comenian Age, icon painting was continued in the great tradition of the earlier Macedonian school, with works of classicist tendency, provincial character or monastic inspiration, depending on the place and environment from which they originated. The Monastery of St. Catherine has in its possession a large collection of icons from this period representing all three trends. Characteristics of these icons include a well balanced layout of compositions, the forceful expression of figures, the harmony of color schemes and the tendency toward dematerialization combined with a refined sense of nobility and grace.
Icons on Iconostasis Epistyles
Icons such as these, dating from the 11th to the 14th Century, were painted as a frieze along the entire length of the upper part, or epistyle of wood-carved icon screens. Those in the monastery collection, for the most part, came from various chapels within the monastery. The most important of these has seven scenes depicting the life of St. Eustratios.
Typically, the subjects that adorn these screens are of the Great Deesis, scenes from the Dodecaorton (cycle of the Twelve Feasts), scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and miracles of the Saints. These paintings are masterly executed in fine color, while the figures are portrayed with spiritual intensity and lively movement. In general, the icons of this group reveal a workmanship of high artistic standard with marked traces of a great tradition in icon painting.
The painting of menologia has its roots in the miniature illustration of manuscripts, and particularly those of the 11th and 12th centuries. Menologia icons depict the Saints honored on each day of the ecclesiastical year, and they form another large and significant category of icons in the monastery's collection. They come in a variety of forms, including twelve large icons composed of full-length portraits of the Saints of each month, two large icons in diptych form, comprising all the Saints of the ecclesiastical year and a four-wing icon and twelve wing icon of Saints and Martyrs portrayed in successive rows. The inspiration and subjects of these icons are mainly derived from the illuminated menologia of Symeon Metaphrastes (11th century) that have come from Constantinople. Some of these menologia have double inscriptions, both Greek and Iberian, which disclose a close relation between the Monastery of St. Catherine and the Church of Georgia.
The Monastery of St. Catherine's collection of icons include a large group that are specific to the monastery, mostly dating from the 12th to the 15th century. They consist of portraits of important individuals associated with the Monastery. They usually represent monks, abbots, patriarchs and Saints, but include depictions of the Prophet Moses, St. Catherine, St. John Climacus and others. Most of these icons were almost certainly painted in the Monastery itself, and their varied style, technique and quality depend largely on the artistic skill of the painter. They are important because they represent an important source of information on the Monastery's history and art, as well as the general activity of notable people who lived in the monastery.
Icons of the 13th century and the Palaeologan Age
The Monastery collection contains a considerable number of icons dating to the 13the Century, and an even larger number number of icons continues the tradition into the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the age of Palaeologi. This was a period of new artistic trends that first made their appearance in the 13th century, with a tendency to renovate elements of plasticity and revert to normal proportions in the treatment of masses. In fact, the 13th century prepared the way for the art of the so-called Palaeologan Revival.
A variety of style is a characteristic of this period. Notable icons from this period come from the hermitages of Southern Italy to the Venetian ruled islands of the Aegean, from the delicate technique of artists at Constantinople to the decorative character of Cypriot painting. All of these different styles wee represented and assimilated at the Monastery of St. Catherine.
By the late Byzantine period (Palaeologan age), iconography no longer adhered to the established traditional standards. Those who painted icons followed new currents and trends dominated by a more realistic treatment of figures and scenes. Their works are characterized by freedom of expression and variety of type and by novel subject matter and compositions with many figures. These works would eventually give rise to the art of the post-Byzantine period, particularly of the 16th century, by enriching the iconographic cycles and remaining open to the influences from the art of the West and the Renaissance.
Post-Byzantine Cretan Icons
The Monastery of St. Catherine, sometimes also known as the Monastery of Sinai, is known to have maintained a close and enduring relationship with Crete, mostly through the Church of St. Catherine at Herakleion and later, in the years of the Turkish occupation, through the small Sinaitic Church of St. Matthew at Candia. Therefore, the existence of works by celebrated painters of the "Cretan School" in the monastery's icon collection is hardly surprising.
The Grand Mosaic of the Transfiguration
One work within the Monastery's main church (Katholikon), decorating the sanctuary apse, is particularly notable. The subject of the Transfiguration is very appropriate to this holy site, which is associated with the two instances when God was "seen" by the Prophet Moses and by the Prophet Elijah, the latter of whom had felt God as a light breeze on Mount Horeb, below the Peak of the Decaloque).