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FALL ARTS PREVIEW / ART

Mt. Sinai comes to the Getty

September 10, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

IN the annals of history and sacred objects, there's nothing quite like the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine, the world's oldest continuously active Christian monastery, in Egypt. Pilgrims and tourists who make their way through the Sinai Peninsula desert find the 6th-century Greek Orthodox church in a fortified complex at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses is thought to have seen the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments. Protected by granite walls and a succession of temporal rulers, St. Catherine's has survived 14 centuries as a bastion of spiritual calm and a refuge for the devout. Thanks to gifts of the faithful, the monastery has amassed a fabulous collection including about 2,000 Byzantine icons and 3,500 illuminated manuscripts.

Halfway around the world in Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum is a landmark destination of a different kind -- an ultra-modern palace of high art overlooking a young city's urban sprawl. But from Nov. 14 to March 4, the spirit of the ancient monastery will come to Los Angeles in a long-planned, highly anticipated exhibition, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai." The show will feature 43 icons -- depicting saints on tiny panels, 4-foot doors and 15-foot architectural beams -- along with six manuscripts, three metal works and a liturgical textile. The objects will be installed in a meticulously designed environment intended to emphasize their devotional roles and simulate the feel but not the densely packed look of the monastery.

"It will be an evocation, not a re-creation," said Kristen M. Collins, the Getty's assistant curator of manuscripts, who has co-organized the show with Yale University art historian Robert S. Nelson.

They have selected objects to be displayed in thematic sections. "Holy Image" will explore the status of icons in different formats; "Holy Space" will show how icons sanctify St. Catherine's; "Holy Site" will place the monastery in the context of monasticism and multicultural faith. St. Catherine's has been a cultural crossroads, fostering exchanges between religious communities. The exhibition will offer a rare taste of that multifaceted history.

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