The Icons of St. Catherine's Monastery In Egypt's Sinai

The Icons of St. Catherine's Monastery
In Egypt's Sinai
John Watson

Christ Pantocrator dating to the 6th or 7th century using the encaustic Technique - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The Monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt's Sinai is a wonderful place to visit, interesting in every respect, but it is not famous throughout the world simply for its facilities nestled up against the foot of Mount Sinai. The monastery has one of the largest collections of ancient illuminated manuscripts in the world, as well as one of the most important collections of icons. Here, we will examine the icons, which number over 2,000, large and small, some unique masterpieces while others are simple works of art. They are spread throughout the complex, with some in the Katholikon, the chapels, the icon gallery, the sacristy and even in the monks' cells. They were produced during various periods between the 6th and 19th century, with every period adding new treasures to the monastery's vast collection.

Encaustic Icons

The encaustic technique uses wax and vegetal pigments mixed at high temperature and spread on a wooden surface, and the icons produced with this technique are of considerable historical and artistic value. This method required the artist to create a preliminary drawing of the subject on wood, or very rarely, marble panels and then apply the still warm mixture to the surface using either a brush or a hot iron. The artist would then work on the colors by rubbing the mixture into the painted surface using a special instrument. The mixture penetrates deeply into the pores of the material and when it cooled the colors become indelible.

The earliest icons were produced using the encaustic technique, which was used until the 7th century AD, when it was replaced by the secco or tempera painting. The famous portraits of the dead found in great numbers in the Fayoum were produced in this manner, and the Monastery of St. Catherine has a number of important encaustic icons.

The Nativity, an encaustic folk art painting from the 7th century- A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

Icons of Monastic Eastern Art of the 7th-9th Century

The icons present within the monastery from this group come from local workshops active in monasteries of the East, particularly Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Cappadocia. What is distinctive about these icons is that they come from a period when the Arab conquest precluded most of the contact between Eastern regions and the Christian Greek centers. Hence, they are products of folk art, less refined in character, and they make use of a primitive realism to give expression to the local tradition of the Coptic and Syrian Churches. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that these rare icons have been one of the main sources that contributed in shaping Christian art in the following centuries.

The Archangel Michael dating from the 12th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

Icons Dating from the 9th to the 12th Century

There were two characteristics that defined the development of icons during this period. First, they illustrate the continuation of pre-iconoclastic painting tradition into the post iconoclastic period and second, they show a turn toward the classical concept of art, reflected in the delicacy of drawing and the beauty of form.

Many of these important icons came from the imperial ateliers of Byzantium, including one with scenes from the story of King Abgar, where we find the earliest representation of the Holy Mandylion. Others are portraits of Christ, the Archangels, Saints, hierarchs and hermits. Illuminated manuscripts were produced in great numbers during this period, including Gospel-books, synaxaries and other texts, and the very significant art of miniature painting had a more general influence on iconography.

Icons of the Comenian Age (1080-1200 AD)

During the Comenian Age, icon painting was continued in the great tradition of the earlier Macedonian school, with works of classicist tendency, provincial character or monastic inspiration, depending on the place and environment from which they originated. The Monastery of St. Catherine has in its possession a large collection of icons from this period representing all three trends. Characteristics of these icons include a well balanced layout of compositions, the forceful expression of figures, the harmony of color schemes and the tendency toward dematerialization combined with a refined sense of nobility and grace.

The Transfiguration, an iconostasis icon form the 12th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

Icons on Iconostasis Epistyles

Icons such as these, dating from the 11th to the 14th Century, were painted as a frieze along the entire length of the upper part, or epistyle of wood-carved icon screens. Those in the monastery collection, for the most part, came from various chapels within the monastery. The most important of these has seven scenes depicting the life of St. Eustratios.

Typically, the subjects that adorn these screens are of the Great Deesis, scenes from the Dodecaorton (cycle of the Twelve Feasts), scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and miracles of the Saints. These paintings are masterly executed in fine color, while the figures are portrayed with spiritual intensity and lively movement. In general, the icons of this group reveal a workmanship of high artistic standard with marked traces of a great tradition in icon painting.


Hagiologion Calendar Icon, a Menologia painting dating to the 13th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The painting of menologia has its roots in the miniature illustration of manuscripts, and particularly those of the 11th and 12th centuries. Menologia icons depict the Saints honored on each day of the ecclesiastical year, and they form another large and significant category of icons in the monastery's collection. They come in a variety of forms, including twelve large icons composed of full-length portraits of the Saints of each month, two large icons in diptych form, comprising all the Saints of the ecclesiastical year and a four-wing icon and twelve wing icon of Saints and Martyrs portrayed in successive rows. The inspiration and subjects of these icons are mainly derived from the illuminated menologia of Symeon Metaphrastes (11th century) that have come from Constantinople. Some of these menologia have double inscriptions, both Greek and Iberian, which disclose a close relation between the Monastery of St. Catherine and the Church of Georgia.

"Sinaitic" Icons

The "Ladder to Heaven" , A Sinaitic Icon dating to the 12th or 13th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The Monastery of St. Catherine's collection of icons include a large group that are specific to the monastery, mostly dating from the 12th to the 15th century. They consist of portraits of important individuals associated with the Monastery. They usually represent monks, abbots, patriarchs and Saints, but include depictions of the Prophet Moses, St. Catherine, St. John Climacus and others. Most of these icons were almost certainly painted in the Monastery itself, and their varied style, technique and quality depend largely on the artistic skill of the painter. They are important because they represent an important source of information on the Monastery's history and art, as well as the general activity of notable people who lived in the monastery.

Icons of the 13th century and the Palaeologan Age

The Monastery collection contains a considerable number of icons dating to the 13the Century, and an even larger number number of icons continues the tradition into the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the age of Palaeologi. This was a period of new artistic trends that first made their appearance in the 13th century, with a tendency to renovate elements of plasticity and revert to normal proportions in the treatment of masses. In fact, the 13th century prepared the way for the art of the so-called Palaeologan Revival.

Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, and icon dating to the 13th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

A variety of style is a characteristic of this period. Notable icons from this period come from the hermitages of Southern Italy to the Venetian ruled islands of the Aegean, from the delicate technique of artists at Constantinople to the decorative character of Cypriot painting. All of these different styles wee represented and assimilated at the Monastery of St. Catherine.

By the late Byzantine period (Palaeologan age), iconography no longer adhered to the established traditional standards. Those who painted icons followed new currents and trends dominated by a more realistic treatment of figures and scenes. Their works are characterized by freedom of expression and variety of type and by novel subject matter and compositions with many figures. These works would eventually give rise to the art of the post-Byzantine period, particularly of the 16th century, by enriching the iconographic cycles and remaining open to the influences from the art of the West and the Renaissance.

Post-Byzantine Cretan Icons

The Archangel Michael, a Post-Byzantine Cretan Icon dating to the 16th century - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The Monastery of St. Catherine, sometimes also known as the Monastery of Sinai, is known to have maintained a close and enduring relationship with Crete, mostly through the Church of St. Catherine at Herakleion and later, in the years of the Turkish occupation, through the small Sinaitic Church of St. Matthew at Candia. Therefore, the existence of works by celebrated painters of the "Cretan School" in the monastery's icon collection is hardly surprising.

The Grand Mosaic of the Transfiguration

One work within the Monastery's main church (Katholikon), decorating the sanctuary apse, is particularly notable. The subject of the Transfiguration is very appropriate to this holy site, which is associated with the two instances when God was "seen" by the Prophet Moses and by the Prophet Elijah, the latter of whom had felt God as a light breeze on Mount Horeb, below the Peak of the Decaloque).

The Mosaic of the Transfiguration - A icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The Mosaic of the Transfiguration

Go to the Gallery of Icons

See Also:






Reference Number

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Monastery of St. Catherine, The

Papaioannou, Dr. Evangelos



None Stated

Sinai and the Red Sea

Beecham, N.



None Stated

St. Catherine's Monastery

Paliouras, Athanasios


St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai

None Stated