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Getty to display religious icons from Mt. Sinai (St. Catherine's Monastery)

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  • morechoff@aol.com
    Interesting exhibit coming to LA starting November 14th. Michael Orechoff ... From the Los Angeles Times Getty to display religious icons from Mt. Sinai A
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31 5:00 PM
      Interesting exhibit coming to LA starting November 14th.
      Michael Orechoff
      From the Los Angeles Times

      Getty to display religious icons from Mt. Sinai

      A Byzantine monastery will loan 53 objects for a fall showing called 'the experience of a lifetime' by one organizer.
      By Suzanne Muchnic
      Times Staff Writer

      May 31, 2006

      In a feat of international diplomacy and long-term planning, the J. Paul Getty Museum has arranged to bring a trove of Byzantine devotional objects from an Egyptian monastery to Los Angeles. Fifty-three objects from the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai — home of the world's finest collection of Byzantine icons and manuscripts — will go on view Nov. 14 in an exclusive 16-week engagement at the Getty Center.

      The exhibition, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai," will be the first to focus solely on the Greek Orthodox monastery, said Father Justin Sinaites, librarian at St. Catherine's, in an interview in Los Angeles. The museum will present 43 icons — including small, jewel-like panels; 4-foot-tall doors bearing portraits of saints; and 15-foot-long architectural beams painted with biblical narratives — along with six manuscripts, three metal pieces and a liturgical textile. The works will be installed in a setting designed to illuminate their devotional roles and evoke the ambience of the monastery, he said.

      Established in the 6th century by Byzantine emperor Justinian, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, St. Catherine's is the oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in existence. Its fortress-like compound and isolated location, in what became an Islamic region, protected the monastery from torrents of iconoclasm that swept through Byzantium. Over the centuries, gifts from donors and pilgrims have contributed to a collection of ecclesiastical art and artifacts that includes more than 2,000 icons and 3,500 manuscripts.

      Tourists visit the site at a rate of as many as 1,000 a day, Father Justin said, and they can see works installed in public spaces. But no objects had been allowed to travel until 1997, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York borrowed 10 pieces for a landmark exhibition of Byzantine art. In 2004, the Met borrowed an additional 43 works from St. Catherine's for a sequel. The monastery also has loaned small groups of pieces to museums in Greece, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London.

      But the Los Angeles exhibition is a coup for the Getty, offering a far more comprehensive view of the monastery and its artistic riches than has been seen outside Egypt. It is also an immensely complicated project that required the approval of religious leaders, Egyptian government officials and the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

      "Our responsibility is not only to preserve the collection but also to share it," Father Justin said. But first, serious concerns about safety had to be addressed.

      Art conservators in Egypt examined pieces requested by the Getty to see if they were sturdy and stable enough to travel, he said. Some substitutions were made, but Kristen M. Collins, the Getty's assistant curator of manuscripts, who co-organized the exhibition with Yale University art historian Robert S. Nelson, said she was delighted with the final list. The monastery's keeper of sacred vessels, Father Porphyrios, who recently visited the Getty, will return in November and stay for the entire run of the exhibition.

      The objects must be maintained in a Sinai-like climate, where the average humidity is 27%. That required Getty technicians to design air-tight display cases that replicate the desert environment without obstructing viewers' access and appreciation. Shipping crates also must be custom-built for each object. The crates will be constructed in Los Angeles according to precise measurements, then sent to Egypt, where they will be packed and returned.

      "The Getty is unsurpassed in meeting those conditions," Father Justin said.

      The monks were also concerned about how the objects would be exhibited, he said. "Icons were not created as art objects. When you take them to a museum you destroy the context." The Met overcame that problem by creating a devotional setting inside its exhibition, he said. The Getty will go further in an exhibition dealing exclusively with St. Catherine's.

      The first section of the show, "Holy Image," will explore the role of icons in a variety of formats, including narratives, portraits, images with inscriptions and multi-panel works, said Collins, who described the project as "the experience of a lifetime." The second section, "Holy Space," will show how icons sanctify the church at St. Catherine's. The goal is to evoke the feeling of rooms where icons don't just hang on walls, but dominate the space, she said.

      A gallery screening a film of Easter services at St. Catherine's will lead to the final section, "Holy Site," which will delve into monasticism and the significance of Moses, St. Catherine and Mary at the monastery in Sinai. Icons and manuscripts bearing images of the monastery will be on view along with objects that illustrate its importance as a multicultural crossroads.

      St. Catherine's has been overwhelmed with requests for loans from the collection since the Met's first exhibition in 1997, but few have been granted, Father Justin said. The Getty, which made preliminary inquiries about loans a decade ago, has developed a relationship with the monastery partly through conservation projects. In 2000, the Getty Conservation Institute conducted an analysis of water and earthquake damage at St. Catherine's 6th century basilica and developed a plan for treatment and maintenance. Getty conservators are currently cleaning a mural at the site.

      Exhibition plans began in 2001, when the curators made a study trip to the monastery. Collins has returned repeatedly as she and her colleagues developed a way to tell the story of the monastery and its collection through a relatively small selection of rare objects, made from the 6th through the 18th centuries.

      Visitors will have many educational opportunities at the exhibition and in related programs. But the show is intended to appeal to casual viewers as well as scholars. It will not simply "present things," Collins said. "It will be designed to help people discover things."
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