The ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Egypt houses one of the world’s most famous icon collections, and its icon of Christ Pantocrator (pictured above) lists among the most recognizable Orthodox icons worldwide.
That sixth century icon of Christ, along with more than 1,000 other sacred icons, has been made available online by Princeton University, according to a report from Catholic news and information outlet Aleteia.
Many of the icons pre-date the eighth and ninth centuries. During those periods, countless numbers of ancient icons were destroyed due to a surge in Iconoclasm — the belief in destroying icons, images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons.
In the late 1950s, the monks of St. Catherine’s began to clean and restore their collection, and a team of professors from Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of Alexandria visited the ancient Christian monastery to photograph the icons.
The joint expeditions by the universities led to Princeton’s present-day photographic archive called Icons of Sinai, which is available for online viewing here.
Princeton states that images of the monastery’s icons have not been edited except for rotating and cropping. The images are downloadable and may be used for teaching and scholarly purposes.
On St. Catherine’s Monastery’s website, a description of the icons reads as follows:
Of all the Byzantine icons that survive in the world, over half of them are at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. This is due to the dry and stable climate, to the uninterrupted history of the monastery over the course of seventeen centuries, and to the vigilant care and devotion of the monks of Sinai. The most notable are panel icons from the 6th and 7th centuries executed in the encaustic technique, where wax is used as the medium for the pigments.
… The pre-iconoclastic icons at Sinai survived because Sinai was already at that time under the rule of the Moslems, and thus out of reach of the Iconoclast Emperors. Some scholars have speculated that icons were sent to Sinai for their safekeeping during this period.”
There are numerous icons from the Comnenian dynasty. These are renowned for their hieratic quality, and distinctive polished gold haloes. The monastery preserves a number of vita icons in which the principal figure of the saint, depicted in the center of the panel, is surrounded by smaller icons depicting his life. These are some of the earliest vita icons in the world.
The monastery also possesses noteworthy examples of icons from the Palaeologan era, which are more painterly and more stylized, and significant examples of the Cretan school, where great attention was paid to details, and where the transition from light to dark in the modeling of flesh tones became more heightened. The monastery also possesses important examples of Russian icons from more recent centuries.
Many of these icons were brought to the monastery as gifts, but numerous icons were also executed at Sinai, and there is a distinctive Sinai school of iconography discernible in earlier centuries.
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