12.06.03, Gerstel/Nelson, eds, Approaching the Holy Mountain

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Julia Bolton Holloway

The Medieval Review 12.06.03

Gerstel, Sharon E.J. and Robert S. Nelson. Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai. Cursor Mundi. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2010. Pp. xxx, 608. ISBN: 978-2-503-53127-4.

Reviewed by:
Julia Bolton Holloway
University of Colorado, Boulder/Mediatheca 'Fioetta Mazzei', Florence

Usually essays in collections are as if written in self-contained boxes. Instead this collection has benefitted first from an exhibition and a conference in which each has learned from the others and where now each essay is presented as linking to the next. The Exhibition, Holy Image: Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, was held at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Conference in 2006-2007, Icons of Sinai, likewise held there in January 2007 are the matrix for this book. Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai reflects its subject matter exceedingly well. Mount Sinai is one of the nodal places of this world that palimpsests meaning upon meaning. It is perceived simultaneously as the Sinai of Moses, the Horeb of Elijah and the Tabor of the Transfiguration, these blending as well with the iconography of Mary as the Burning Bush, with the burial place of St Catherine of Alexandria, and with John of Climacus' Vision of the Ladder.

Following an overview of previous studies, particularly the work of Constantin von Tischendorf, Giorgios and Maria Soteriou, and Kurt Weitzmann, the book organizes into categories of Place, Liturgy, Manuscript, Icon, Space in essays dense with footnotes in multiple languages, including Greek and Russian, essays that are not so much linear as arabesquing upon themselves, ending where they began, as a quincunx, a windrose.

Sinai's St Catherine's Monastery is especially important for escaping the first Byzantine period of Iconoclasm between 730 and 787 and the second one between 814 and 842, some of its three thousand icons surviving from the fifth and sixth centuries, while its great bronze cross, mosaics and frescoes date back to Justinian's sixth-century Byzantine architect, and its Codex Sinaiticus (first taken by the Tsar, then by the British Library) to the fourth century, amongst its three thousand three hundred manuscripts. Jas Elsner and Gerhard Wolf discuss these rich transfigurations in sequence, Moses, Elijah, the Burning Bush and Mary, and St Catherine of Alexandria. Sophia Kalopissi-Verti and Maria Panayotidi discuss the archeological excavations of the Justinianic basilica (between 560 and 565), faced with imported marble and with a gold-leafed apse mosaic built around the fourth- century chapel on top of the grey-brown and red granite Mount Sinai, and its contemporary pilgrim's path of three thousand steps with two arched gates. Petros Koufopoulos and Marina Myriantheos Koufopoulos next hypothetically reconstruct the destroyed Justianian basilica, perhaps not by the Byzantine architect Stefanos Ailisios who built the church at St Catherine's Monastery. Elizabeth S. Bolman's essay discusses the rich use of color in these buildings, demonstrating her argument with photographs of the "Jeweled Style" of Egypt's sixth-century Red Monastery church and with excerpts from Byzantine texts.

Robert F. Taft S.J. and Alexander Lingas discuss St Catherine's liturgy in general and in particular, the latter essay focusing on the Children in the Furnace. Taft notes the early fourth-century liturgy of Sinai, from Egeria's account, to be that of Palestine, of James, brother of Jesus, Bishop of Jerusalem, held in the koine of Greek, while hermits typically separated for the Hours into their own language groups, Georgian, Armenian, Slavonian, Syrian, etc. He differentiates liturgical practices as monastic, based on the recitation of psalms, or cathedral ones, Sinai coming to adapt to the cathedral mode of chant by the fifth century with its rich hymnological poetry after an initial resistance. Alexander Lingas performed music found at Sinai for the Exhibition Holy Image: Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, and his essay chooses one piece from that concert, the Ordo or The Service of the Furnace, from the Book of Daniel, the liturgical cathedral office, in which three children sang and danced with an icon of an angel amidst candles and lanterns to represent the fiery furnace, that arrived in Sinai and in Russia by way of Crete from Constantinople and Jerusalem. (Interestingly, the western Ludus Danielis dates from the 1220s, the eastern Service of the Furnace to the Byzantine ars nova.) Two essays, by Nancy P.  evčenko and Hieromonk Justin Sinaites, discuss manuscripts now at Sinai,  evčenko noting how few are actually produced at Sinai, in Georgian, Syrian, Arabic, Greek, but that under Abbot Arsenius series of manuscripts came to be copied in multiple languages, while Hieromonk Justin discusses one tenth- century Greek manuscript of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and its six centuries of multiple commentaries, some Antiochene, some Alexandrian, that can elucidate the typology of hymns and icons (the parallel arks of Noah/Moses, Moses/Jesus' parallel journeyings into the wilderness, the parallels of Moses/Jesus as good shepherds, Jesus as the Word of God within the Burning Bush, paralleled to Mary, she likewise being paralleled to Gideon's Fleece).

Four essays next discuss Sinai icons while two further ones discuss the interactions of Sinai with places elsewhere. Kathleen Corrigan discusses the Sinaitic epiphany or theophany icons (Moses and Elijah witnessing God and Jesus' Transfiguration), centering on the seventh-century icon of Christ as "Ancient of Days" (Daniel 7.9)/ "Emmanuel" (Isaiah 1.23). Charles Barber relates a narrative icon of John the Precursor in the Wilderness, celebrating his feast days, with the prayer given on a purple scroll he holds, as in a speech act, that the saint save those who reverence this icon. Paroma Chatterjee further discusses narrative icons prevalent at Sinai, centering on those of St George and St Nicholas as "icons in icons," exploding the Utopian myth of the reconciliation at Sinai of a multicultural atelier at the time of the Crusades and seeing its hoard instead as archive--using Michel Foucault's concept from The Archeology of Knowledge--where succeeding icons do not copy but rework their models, adapting them in some instances to Sinai. George R. Parpulov next discusses thirteenth-century mural and icon paintings at Sinai, roughly identifying the various "masters," and in an Appendix cataloguing the eleventh through fourteenth-century icons, differentiating those produced by Crusaders, Copts, at Sinai, the "Soldier Saints" Workshop, at Acre, etc. Rebecca W. Corrie studies the icons from elsewhere that came to Sinai, for instance, from Acre, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, or Pisa along the Melkite, Maronite or Crusader axes as gifts or for safe- keeping, as connected with Sinai's satellite houses or through Levantine trading. Finally, in this section on icons, Annemarie Weyl Carr examines the influence of Sinai on Cyprus, more strongly borne out in the figure of the Virgin in the Burning Bush than in that of St Catherine of Alexandria.

The fifth section returns us to the first on geographic location, now expanded outwards rather than inwards. George R. Parpulov translates three Slavic pilgrim accounts while Veronica Della Dora compares Mount Athos and Mount Sion through John of Climacus' Vision of the Ladder, presenting woodblocks and engravings which force the comparison. Finally, Cristina Stancioiu presents El Greco's two depictions of Mount Sinai and Mount St Catherine, one of these the Modena Triptych.

Two lacunae in the book are the failure to mention the Empress Helena's dream of the location of Mount Sinai in A.D. 325, causing her to have the Chapel (dedicated to the Virgin) of the Burning Bush built there, and that Jews do not consider the Mount Sinai of Christians and Muslims to be the correct mountain. In my own research, following that of John Demaray on the conflation of Mount Sinai and Fiesole's Monte Ceceri in Dante's Commedia, I found the pilgrims' forty-two Stations of the Exodus (from their crystallizing in Numbers 33 and its commentaries), to be precursors to the Gregorian pilgrimage Stations of Rome, and last, by the Franciscans, to the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem, Dante using these, for instance, for his forty-two chapters of the Vita Nuova in which he has Beatrice parallel Mount Sinai. I retraced Egeria's A.D. 381 pilgrimage on the mountain to find little changed, our companions in the dark being a bevy of Greek Orthodox women led by a spry elderly Dionysia, a Spanish bishop, Italian pilgrims, a Muslim family from Cairo in their sacred blue green, including the adolescent sons, Australians, but no Jews as they know we have the wrong mountain.

Sadly page 536 is missing from the printing. I would recommend the Getty Museum expanding their website for the Exhibition to include color images of the black and white photographs in this book and to give as MP3 recordings its notated music. This is a most handsome and illuminating book, too heavy to take on pilgrimage but splendid to read in lectio divina in Lent. Above all it gathers up many scholarly interdisciplinary strands concerning eastern monasticism, liturgical music, iconography and architecture that both converge upon and diverge from Sinai. The series, Cursor Mundi, related to the journal Viator, is interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and focuses on processes such as cultural exchange, of which this volume 11 is a fine exemplar.

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Author Biography

Julia Bolton Holloway

University of Colorado, Boulder/Mediatheca 'Fioetta Mazzei', Florence