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Sinai monastery’s icons now available online


Carulmare CC BY 2.0

John Burger - published on 02/22/20

Princeton makes historic photos of St. Catherine's collection accessible on the internet.

The monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world. And it possesses some of the oldest icons — many of which survived the periods of iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries because of the monastery’s remoteness.

In the late 1950s, the Greek Orthodox monks at St. Catherine began to clean and restore their collection of icons, and a team of professors from Princeton University, the University of Michigan and the University of Alexandria began to make excursions to the desert outpost to photograph the images.

Now that collection is online and easily accessible to everyone on the internet.

St. Catherine’s collection of icons includes the famous Christ Pantocrator, pictured above.

“In 1956, Professor George Forsyth, of the University of Michigan, invited Kurt Weitzmann, of Princeton University, to join him on an exploratory trip to Sinai,” says an online introduction to the site. “From 1958 to 1965, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and the University of Alexandria carried out four research expeditions to the remote Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai—the oldest continuously inhabited Orthodox Christian monastery in the world, with a history that can be traced back over 17 centuries. The documentation collected by the Michigan-Princeton-Alexandria Expeditions to Mountain Sinai, under the direction of Professor George Forsyth and Professor Kurt Weitzmann, is a profoundly important resource for Byzantine studies.”

Th Icons of Sinai collection, accessible on Princeton’s website, features images from Late Antiquity until the modern era and encompasses the history of the icon.

“The collection is unique in that it documents, in color, the condition of these icons after the cleaning and restoration carried out in the 1950s and 1960s,” an introduction to the site explains. “Photography of the expedition was under the direction of Fred Anderegg, head of photographic services at the University of Michigan. The [Visual Resources Collection] has digitized and catalogued the collection of several thousand color images (5 × 7 inch color Ektachrome transparencies and 35mm slides) of icons in the Monastery of St. Catherine made by the joint expeditions.”

The images, which have not been edited except for rotating and cropping, are available to download and use for teaching and scholarly purposes.

On its website, St. Catherine’s, which is officially known as the Greek Orthodox monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, says it is located “at the very place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush.”

“The monastery has never been destroyed in all its history, and thus it can be said to have preserved intact the distinctive qualities of its Greek and Roman heritage,” it says. “More than 170 Sinai saints are honored by the Church. In addition to St. Catherine [of Alexandria], these include St. John Climacus, abbot of Sinai and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They also include the ascetic fathers Hesychios and Philotheus, two saints with the name of Anastasius, Gregory of Sinai (who transplanted the Hesychast traditions to the Slavic peoples), and Symeon Pentaglossos (who translated relics of St. Catherine to Rouen, and thereby helped establish the veneration of St. Catherine in the West).”

Support for St. Catherine’s Monastery can be given through the US-based non-profit, Friends of Mount Sinai Monastery, at Donations will go in full to the Monastery.

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