Tag Archives: St. Catherine’s Monastery

Story of a Transfiguration icon.

Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

This mosaic dating from the 6th century is in the apse of the great basilica at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai, built by Emperor Justinian before 565. I found it when I was looking at icons on the internet of Christ’s Transfiguration, which we commemorate today.

I also watched a fascinating video, the Conservation of the Transfiguration Mosaic, featuring an informal and entertaining lecture by an eminent Italian archeologist, conservationist and expert on mosaics, Roberto Nardi. It is informal in that he does not read a paper, but gives the best kind of commentary on the extensive video footage shown. The video is from 2012, so maybe I am one of the last to see it.

He starts with the history of the monastery, which he admits goes back to Moses and the burning bush, on through St. Helen and St. Justinian; the mosaic was installed soon after the church was built. In 1847 a Russian monk named Samuel did a huge amount of restoration work on the mosaic, and in 1957 archeologists sounded an alarm about its deteriorating condition, but it lasted 50 more years to the point where this 5-year project began. By then, 20,000 tiles were missing (though of course monks had saved them in boxfuls), which equaled 4% of the total, and a great number of the remainder were no longer actually attached to the base layer.

I could watch this video over and over, all the tedious detail work so well documented. What they did about the missing tiles (shown as white spots in the picture just above) was the outworking of a series of complex deliberations.  I hope you will check out at least a bit of the video, because I don’t know where to stop, telling you all the things about this long project that impress me. How the conservators came to learn to appreciate the experience and perspective of the monks — the ones who live with the icon and pray with it every day — was a touching part of the story. The pictures I show you are just teasers, blurry because I took them of the video on my desktop computer monitor.

Back in the U.S.A., our parish celebrated the feast with all the important elements intact. If you want to read more content on the feast itself you can find a lot from past years here. I don’t always get to be part of the procession through the church vineyard, and sometimes I have forgotten to bring a basket of fruit, but today I managed both!

The monks celebrating the Divine Liturgy under the icon of the Transfiguration at Mt. Sinai, and the Orthodox parishioners in California — we are all singing this hymn of the feast:

O Lord, we will walk in the light of Thy countenance,
and will exult in Thy Name forever.
(Ps. 88:15)

Icon of the Transfiguration, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai

Librarian of Antiquities

Last night Mr. Glad and I traveled with some friends to Berkeley where we heard a lecture by Father Justin Sinaites, who is the librarian for Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Those few words that name his job send me into a realm of thoughts which tumble over each other and in their layering seem too high for me. The history, the theology, the parchments…the prayers in the desert….

St. Catherine’s was founded in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and is the oldest Christian monastery in continual existence in the world. The collection of ancient manuscripts there is surpassed only by that of the Vatican.

Currently Fr. Justin is in charge of the project of digitizing all of these documents and illuminations, including the famous Codex Sinaiticus, written in the 4th Century and considered to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament. The monastery’s goal is to eventually make everything available in very high resolution, using such tools as one we heard about at the lecture, a donated camera that is “the size of a small room.” This kind of sharing will also protect the valuables by minimizing the handling of the originals.

The librarian is a native Texan and the first American to be a resident monk at St. Catherine’s, where he has lived since 1994. Before that he was a monk at a monastery in Massachusetts for 20 years. But in spite of his age, experience and technical modernity, he seemed to have a childlike joy about him when speaking about the history of God’s dealings with men, and on the focus of the talk, the typology of the Bible and the Tabernacle in particular.

During his lecture he showed us slides from the 6th-century work  Christian Topography, which is full of illuminations of the tent that Moses was instructed to build according to strict instructions from God. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a man who had done quite a bit of traveling compared to most people of that time, wrote the book, and he included all these pictures of the tabernacle and its parts and contents because he was trying to conceptualize the world and was convinced that the Tabernacle was the key to understanding the whole universe.

I’ve heard about the symbolism of the Tabernacle in Bible studies and sermons throughout my adult life. Books have been written on all the meanings of the type of wood used, the colors, the candlestick, the carvings and the cherubim, the mercy seat. In the New Testament it is hinted that there is so much to be said about all of it that the apostle in his letter to the faithful doesn’t have the time even to begin. We do know that it speaks to us of God.

Orthodox tradition sees the Virgin Mary as prefigured in the Tabernacle, because she mystically contained the Son of God, “Light of Light, True God of True God…of one essence with the Father.” And Fr. Justin clarified, “The tabernacle did not confine God, but it was the dwelling place of God as an icon.” So, too, we are all “called to be priests and to offer ourselves as vessels and lamp stands.”

The bush at St. Catherine’s

A few years ago there was an article in Parade magazine about Father Justin and the monastery, in which the burning bush is discussed. St. Catherine’s is believed to be the site where Moses beheld the glory of God in what some prefer to call the Unburnt Bush. Last night one of my former fellow gardeners at church took the opportunity to ask the monk what is the binomial, meaning the two-part botanical name, of the bush, of which we have a descendant living on our parish grounds; Fr. Justin said it is rare to have success rooting cuttings from the one at St. Catherine’s.

Below is a photo I took of our burning bush. Its leaves are the larger ones in the picture, and the smaller grayish leaves and hips are of the Nootka rose that grows in a planter with it.

rubus sanctus with Nootka rose

The monks are happy at the potential for more widely sharing the manuscripts with scholars everywhere. And nowadays they welcome numerous tourists and pilgrims to the holy place itself, knowing that the God who has blessed it and them is the spiritual food people need. In fact, in the the last 50 years, as our lecturer put it, “The whole world has come rushing in.” Especially in the winter months the monastery has as many as 1,000 visitors a day. The challenge is “to keep a spiritual tradition that was born in isolation when that isolation has come to an end.”

If I ever journey to Egypt, I hope to join the masses thronging to that place.