St. Catherine's Monastery

Mount Sinai, the Holy Monastery of Sinai, and Saint Catherine with scenes from her life. Detail of a paper icon, Venice 1725. Private collection

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Printed paper icons, i.e, religious etchings given by Orthodox monasteries and pilgrimage sites to the devout as a “blessing,” are a particularly interesting aspect of the ecclesiastical iconography of Ottoman times. They are individual works (not published in books), the earliest of which are usually woodblock prints, with the later (after the early eighteenth century) being copperplate prints.

They usually depict either monasteries and sketes, drawing on the Renaissance prototypes of city images that adorned Western illustrated travelogues and pilgrimage guidebooks, or saints and religious scenes derived from the subject matter of traditional Orthodox iconography.

The purpose of these printed icons was to provide the devout with an illustrated record of the history of the monasteries and the miraculous events connected with the religious treasures they kept, and thus allow them to experience, even if only in their imagination, these holy establishments. Apart from their purely religious purpose, though, the printed engravings also served as appeals for financial contributions, which were essential to the survival of the monasteries, as inspiration for future pilgrimage journeys, and lastly as reminders of such a journey for those who had embarked upon it.

Sinai holds a prominent position in the history of printed icons. The monastery preserves the largest known collection of early woodblock printing blocks (seventeenth – early eighteenth century), as well as numerous copper plates (eighteenth – nineteenth century), almost all of which depict themes related to Sinai.

Moreover, the monastery also holds the correspondence of merchant Vourliotis Chatzikyriakis, who financed and oversaw the carving and printing of nine woodblock prints in Leopolis (Lvov) in Poland in 1688-1700. This cor- respondence provides unique insights into the production and circulation of printed icons, and offers us a glimpse of the warm reception that the audience of the time reserved for them. GGh

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