St. Catherine's Monastery

The Monastery of Sinai, Katholikon, Chapel of Saint James. The Mother of God of the Bush and the burial of Saint Catherine, detail of a triptych, sixteenth century. Archive of the Monastery of Sinai, HJ

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Mount Sinai, a major pilgrimage site for Orthodoxy, a locus sanctus of religious spirituality and deep faith, also enjoying respect by faithful of other religions, emanates a divine aura, as biblical theophanies and saintly visions had occurred there. This impressive geological landscape was rendered in a schematic way in art from early Christian times and through the Byzantine period.

It gradually took the imaginary form of three summits, which later assumed a paratactic appearance in the background of sacred scenes from biblical stories mainly related to the Prophet Moses, his vision of the Virgin Mary in the Burning Bush and the Delivery of the Tablets of the Law by God. Conventional depictions are found in late medieval Western art as well, up to the early fifteenth century, when they became more detailed.

In icons of Crete of the fifteenth century (an island with ties to Sinai, also documented by archival material), the tripartite mountain appears once again in scenes related to the Prophet Moses and also to Saint Catherine, to whom the monastery, initially named after the Virgin Mary, was subsequently dedicated. Two of these summits are associated with local biblical stories and the third, named after Saint Catherine (whose body was miraculously translated there by angels), reflects the diffusion of her cult in the area from the Middle Ages on.

The connection of the Orthodox community of Venetian Crete with the monastery of Sinai was strengthened in a period when contact with the Ecumenical patriarchate was impeded by the Venetian authorities. The large dependency of St. Catherine in the capital Candia was a link with the Sinai community. Cretan icons with Sinaitic subjects in the monastery’s possession date from about the middle of the fifteenth century onwards. A large triptych in the collection represents in its central panel the Virgin in the burning bush and other scenes with the Prophet Mo- ses (upper zone) and the Burial of St. Catherine (lower zone), both against three rocks of equal height. This work, reflecting the art of Andreas Ritzos (second half of the fifteenth century), recalls the double dedication of the monastery, and is probably the oldest example in Cretan painting with the burial of the Alexandrine martyr as a scene on its own.

A very small polyptych representing Christological scenes and a view of Mount Sinai, attributable to Nikolaos Ritzos, son of Andreas, is the oldest extant depiction on a Cretan icon of the Sinai landscape as a principal theme (Phot. 47). On two of its conical rocks, miniature scenes with Moses and the Burial of Saint Catherine are barely visible. A natural landscape develops, instead of the usual golden background, and the form of the rocks is smoother. It marks an evolution for the Sinaitic landscape, probably reflecting a larger painting. In parallel, it shows the function of the subject in the context of private devotion, a further sign of the spiritual authority of the monastery of Sinai.

An original painting by the Cretan Georgios Klontzas datable to around 1600 represents the activities of fathers in a large foundation meant to be the Sinai monastery (the Transfiguration is also represented). The Sinaitic environment is imagined as an oasis with a river and palm trees, in which the monks cultivate the land, respecting nature.

A special treatment of the Sinaitic landscape is encountered in the work of the famous Cretan artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, later called El Greco (1541-1614). Domenikos lived in his native Crete until 1567, and subsequently in Venice (1567-1570), where he painted views of Mount Sinai twice. Although he never visited the area, he was aware of the historic monastery of Sinai and its dependencies on the island, where he had probably seen depictions of the Sinai heights.

The first of the two works, datable to 1568-69, is his signed Modena triptych (Galleria Estense), which represents six scenes, including a view of Mount Sinai on the outer face of the central panel. In an exceptionally small scale on top of two of the peaks are rendered the Delivery of the Law to Moses on the homonymous mountain, and the Burial of Saint Catherine by angels on the height bearing her name. A luminous ray indicates the location of the Burning Bush, adding to the visionary character of the sacred episodes (Phot. 48). The monastery nestles at the foot of the central rock. Groups of travellers are heading to it, depicted in a very small scale, illuminated by light brushstrokes, and acquiring a luminescent texture. Thus the composition combines divine visions with scenes from contemporary reality in this evocative setting. The rocks, painted in brown hues, are enlivened by brisk yellow and off-white brushstrokes. A golden-yellow celestial light heralding God’s presence is diffused around the scene with Moses. The patriarch of Acquileia, Giovanni Grimani, of a noble Venetian family, was probably the commissioner of the triptych in the ecclesiastical and social context of the time. The reception of this sacred landscape with its Orthodox monastery among exponents of the Latin Church suggests its high religious radiance. The iconography of the piece reflects a knowledge both of the Cretan tradition and of Western representations circulated in prints. The painterly handling of colour and the reflections of light, a Venetian technique admired by Domenikos, illuminate in a suggestive manner this landscape of faith.

The second Sinai view by Theotokopoulos dates from the very end of his Venetian stay (1570) and has evolved to an independent landscape (Herakleion, Historical Museum of Crete) (Phot. 9). The painting was documented in Rome in the collection of Fulvio Orsini, the humanist art collector and librarian of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, but the commissioner remains unidentified. Mount Sinai’s three highest peaks are in a diagonal three-dimensional arrangement. At the centre rises Mount Horeb connected with God’s epiphany to Moses and dedicated to the Prophet; grey clouds surround the summit and a golden-yellow light alludes to his vision there. The line of narrow stone-hewn steps leading to the Sacred Summit (also visible in the Modena triptych), where a small basilica had been built, reflects a quest for the Divine, and the difficult spiritual path of the monks (eloquently described by Saint John of Sinai (Climacus) in the sixth century). At right rises the mountain of Saint Catherine, and at left the one of Prophet Aaron (or of Saint Episteme). All three peaks are sparse with small hermits’ dwellings. Pilgrims welcomed by monks approach the venerable monastery.

In the sixteenth century, when travel to the East increased, views of the Sinai landscape were disseminated in engravings such as one by G. B. Fontana (1569), full of informative details. Theotokopoulos followed the same general scheme, also present in an engraving by Ch. Fürer von Haimendorf (1570), but the character of his composition is completely different. His highly suggestive treatment encloses multiple meanings related to both the sacred history of the place and to the contemporary world. The travellers’ figures reflect the use of Italian prints based on drawings by the famous Venetian artist Titian, whose workshop the young Cretan frequented.

The usual scenes concerning Prophet Moses and Saint Catherine are omitted. Religious symbolism is suggested through pictorial means, heavenly exaltation, a turbulent sky announcing a spiritual experience, and rich luminous orange-yellow tones applied with nervous brushstrokes, especially in the sky, where divine light has a protagonist’s role. The painterly use of colour and the emphatic use of light and its reflections, characteristic in Venetian art, acquire in this more mature version by Domenikos an even greater importance. In this manner the Cretan artist in Venice, by fusing elements from his byzantine background with western European features, was able to capture the atmosphere of this extraordinary God-Trodden environment. Theotokopoulos interpreted the sacred landscape in an original, highly suggestive manner, evoking its spiritual power and underscoring its significance and radiance. MCK

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