St. Catherine's Monastery

"Convent of St. Catherine with Mount Horeb," an original color lithograph by David Roberts, depicting a view of St Catherine's Monastery from the northwest, entering into the Sacred Valley. Learn more.

BY Marina Myriantheos - Koufopoulou, Architect, Restorer, Phd History of Architecture, Mount Sinai Foundation

13 MIN READ

The miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and the long, arduous journey across the Sinai peninsula of the Prophet Moses and his people around the thirteenth century B.C. are without doubt the most celebrated occurrences in the history of Sinai.

Strong traditions had early on linked important events recounted in the Old Testament with specific locations in Mount Sinai, such as Moses’s Mountain, and the valley of the Burning Bush lying at its foot. Thus, the sanctity of this mountainous region and the subsequent presence of numerous holy hermits and martyrs during the first centuries of Christianity led to the decisive intervention of emperor Justinian, who in the mid-sixth century became the patron of a new, walled monastery in the valley of the Bush, initially dedicated to the Theotokos, and of a church on the top of Moses’s Mountain. The texts of renowned Sinai Fathers, together with the subsequent dedication of the monastery to the martyr from Alexandria Saint Catherine, whose worship extended from Sinai to Europe and the Orthodox realm, led to the institution of an important monastic center and a multifaceted pilgrimage site that fortunately survives almost intact to this day.

Sacred Inheritance

The religious treasures of the Sacristy

The Sacristy exhibition houses a representative segment of the religious treasures and the collections of the monastery that have been arranged, to the extent possible of course, in an educational manner.

The monastery’s history spans over one thousand years, and is dominated by the veneration of the three holy figures of Sinai, namely the Mother of God, the Prophet Moses, and Saint Catherine. These figures have been depicted in a multitude of devotional icons, which abound in the first three thematic rooms. These rooms house representative examples from the collection of portable icons, foremost among them the four early icons in the encaustic technique.

An important holy treasure of the Sinai Monastery is the precious and antique reliquary of Saint Catherine which is on display in the Sacristy room of the same name. It constitutes one of the oldest surviving artifacts linked to the Saint. Inside this reliquary, which is most probably a work dating back to the second half of the twelfth century, the Sinai monastic brotherhood has piously safe-guarded the holy relics of the martyr for almost six centuries.

The next two Sacristy rooms house representative early holy books from the monastery library, including two pages of the famous Codex Sinaiticus, which dates back to the fourth century and perhaps even to the time of Emperor Constatine the Great and Eusebios of Caesarea, and the well-known Codex Syriacus dating back to the fifth and eighth centuries.

The manuscript room houses nine illuminated Byzantine manuscripts of high artistic value; two which are in Arabic, and one of them is a scroll from the New Finds.

Under the portable icon of Saint John of Sinai, author of the Klimax (Ladder of Divine Ascent), are on display bifolia from the oldest surviving manuscript of the Ladder dating back to the seventh - eighth centuries, and two codices (1, 2) with painted illuminations of the unique subject of the Heavenly Ladder. Recent research has shed more light on the patronal work of the Saint, thus enriching our understanding of his life and activities during the last four decades of the sixth century, as well as his contribution to the spiritual and constructional organization of the, then, newly established Sinai Monastery.

The collection of printed books is represented by two incunabula, and two books from the early years of printing, that exemplify the literary achievements of Classical Antiquity, Byzantium, and the period of Ottoman rule.

The manuscripts room also houses a seventeenth–eighteenth century basket, with a well-made interior lining, which until recently was kept in the library and had most probably have been used to store scrolls. It appears that baskets were indeed used to store scrolls and manuscripts in the Sinai library, but their use was finally discontinued around the end of the nineteenth century.

Three representative Ottoman decrees from the Archives, conferring certain privileges to the monastery are also on display. The most prominent one is a 1638 copy of a 623 treaty (Ahdname) of the prophet Mohammed with the monastery. The 1798 Napoleonic decree regarding the Sinai monastery is displayed via a copy.

A series of remarkable ecclesiastical artifacts of gold embroidery, miniature work and metalwork, previously kept in the Sacristy of the Katholikon are also on display, some of them published for the first time, such as a seventeenth century pair of decorative vestment cuffs from a workshop in Sinopi. One of the most striking metalwork artifacts is the bronze cross of the Holy Trinity, belonging to an altar or used in processions and dating back to the sixth or early seventh century. It has recently been suggested that it was initially dedicated to the basilica of the Holy Summit. Another metalwork item of interest on display is a heretofore unidentified 1693 golden icon lamp, decorated with filligreé, enamel, and pearls. A unique item of the Sacristy of the Katholikon that is also on display is a rare bronze ewer in the form of a bird (aquamanile), most probably from eighth – ninth century Iraq.

The rich collection of post-Byzantine printed icons of Sinai is of particular interest to the Christian East, as recent studies have shown that the peculiar iconography of the Sinai landscape, with its three summits, might have also influenced the depiction of the landscape of Mount Athos with its two summits, as it was illustrated in contemporary etchings. The Sacristy houses a 1764 copperplate etching of the Holy Bush and a later copperplate illustration of the Holy Bush, from 1813.

The exhibition ends with a series of historic photographs of Mount Sinai taken by the British Ordnance Survey and published in 1868, and concludes with an unpublished 1910 photograph from the Monastery Archives.

Publication of the Catalogue

Together with the new Sacristy project, Sinai Monastery formed in 2001 a scholarly committee to oversee the production of this publication, based on a list of artifacts submitted to the monastery in June 1999 by Dr. H. Evans, which was subsequently supplemented by the author of this chapter.

Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, the late Prof. G. Galavaris, Dr. H. Evans, and Prof. P. Nikolopoulos were also members of this committee. Prof. G. Galavaris undertook the general oversight of the scholarly catalogue in Greek,and also composed a large number of the main chapters as well as the vast majority of item entries; at the same time, he assigned the writing of some introductory chapters and several specialized item entries to a group of scholars. Assistant Prof. A. Nikolopoulou selected the printed books, and Byzantine scholar G. Oikonomaki-Papadopoulou the metalwork items. G. Gavalaris had already submitted the catalogue texts to the archives of the Mount Sinai Foundation in Athens before his untimely passing on March 30, 2003. These texts remained with the Foundation until the grant to the Sinai Monastery by the A.G. Leventis Foundation in December 2012 that made possible the publication of both the Greek scholarly catalogue in 2015 and the present revised translation in English.

A large number of photographs of the items on display published here are from the Photographic Archives both of the Sinai Monastery and the Mount Sinai Foundation in Athens. The panoramic photograph of the valley of Sinai Monastery and the photographs accompanying the introductory chapter on the architecture were initially taken by Sp. Panagiotopoulos for the exhibition “The Glory of Byzantium in Mount Sinai: Religious Treasures from Saint Catherine’s Monastery” that was organized by the Benaki Museum in September-October 1997. Photographic documentation of the rest of the display items was done in the summer of 2013 by Hieromonk Justin, with the assistance of Hieromonk and Sacristan Michael, and Hieromonk Secretary Nephon.

The Design of the New Sacristy within the Area of the Old Sacristy, and its Opening in 2001

The new Sacristy had to be designed into the the historic Mount Sinai Monastery and to comply to current, internationally accepted specifications; thus, the area of the long abandoned old Sacristy to the north-west of the Katholikon was the obvious choice.

Following the 1971 fire, the eastern part of this building had been heavily altered, both in terms of structure and form.

After 1975 it had been converted to a fireproof, reinforced concrete building ideally suited for the storage and exhibition of religious treasures. The preliminary design of the Sacristy was assigned to Harry Bougadellis and Associates S.A. and the implementation study to architects and conservation specialists P. Koufopoulos and M. Myriantheos-Koufopoulou, assisted by their colleague K. Scans.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York provided continuing consultation services throughout the realization of the design and project, via its deputy director Dr. M. Tarapor and Dr. H. Evans, in conjunction with the representatives of the contributing I. F. Kostopoulos Foundation, E. Verykios and E. Koskina. They visited Sinai a number of times to help with the commencement and promotion of the project. The restoration works, and the preparation of the space finally started in 1999, under the watchful eye of the Sacristan of the Monastery at the time, Father Daniel of Sinai, who oversaw the project continuously for three years; without his efforts it would not have been possible to complete the project. The restoration works were mostly carried out by Monk Theoktistos of Filotheou, together with monastery workmen. Conservators A. Galanou and I. Dogani contributed in revealing the Justinian additions to the Sacristy rooms. ClimaTherma D. P. Kryfos Company both designed and installed the intricate electrical and HVAC installations. Glasbau Hahn Company constructed and installed the display cases made to strict specifications. P. Moros Group Company constructed all plexiglas structures as well as three small wall-mounted display cases added in 2014. Specially constructed plexiglas cradles were specifically designed for the display of manuscripts by Prof. N. Pickwoad, at the time head of the Sinai Monastery Library Conservation Project of Camberwell College of Arts, supported by the Saint Catherine Foundation. Conservator J. McAusland and the late Dr. N. Hadgraft prepared the display of the 1778 Arab Ahdname as well as the 1638 Turkish Ahdname. Dr. N. Sarris prepared the display of the 1731 Berat of Sultan Mahmud I.

The gold embroidered vestments on display in the New Sacristy were prepared by conservator V. Minaiou.

M. Kambanis and P. Stathis produced a new impression of the icon of the Holy Bush from an original 1813 copperplate, to be put on display in the Sacristy. The Sacristy display item captions were translated into English and Arabic by Hieromonk Justin and Monk Gregory of Sinai.

The administrative director of the A.G. Leventis Foundation in Athens, Ambassador Ach. Exarchos, was pivotal in obtaining a grant for the Sacristy project, the funds of which were managed by the director of the Monastery Dependency in Athens, N. Vadis. The I.F. Kostopoulos Foundation funded the construction of the Sacristy display cases. The opening ceremony of the new Sacristy was held on December 8th 2001, the feast day of the patron Saint Catherine; Ecumenical Patriarch Mr. Vartholommaios, the late Patriarch of Alexandria Petros, and the representative of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Archbishop of Konstantinis Aristarchos were in attendance. An international, scholarly conference with the subject “Sinaite Monasticism over Space and Time, in Light of the Coming Third Millennium” was held concurrently with the celebration of the opening.

It is widely admitted both by friends of the Monastery of Sinai and society in general, that the making of the new Sacristy owes the greatest debt to Archbishop and Abbot of the Monastery Damianos, who over the course of his forty-seven years long, arduous, multifaceted and pioneering spiritual guidance, successfully led the ever verdant Sinai Monastery into the third millennium.

Saint Catherine
Patron saint of the Sinai monastery Learn More
Codex Sinaiticus
Famous fourth century manuscript Learn More
Holy Summit
The top of Mount Sinai Learn More
Ladder of Divine Ascent
Ascetical text about practicing virtue Learn More

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