Saturday, January 20, 2007

Holy Images at the Getty

The Khouria and I finally made it up to the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles to see the display of Holy Icons on temporary loan from St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. Our parish council chairman Bruce H. and his lovely wife Lynn Marie were our gracious hosts, and not only drove us up through the terrible traffic, but treated us to a very nice lunch at the museum restaurant. Thanks so much, guys!

As to the icon display itself, I can only say that it was stunning. When I first heard the news that these images would be at the Getty, I was put off by the thought that such holy objects might treated as mere curiosities of religious art. But the Getty has done as fine a job of presenting these icons in a reverential way as could be expected from a museum, and with an eye toward putting them solidly in the context of the ancient Christian faith which they serve.

All of these icons are indeed very old, and some are truly ancient, dating back to the era of the founding of St. Catherine’s monastery. Monks have lived at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt, at the very site of Moses’ “Burning Bush,” since the third century (Yep, that’s the 200’s, folks!), and the present church and monastery has existed there since the time of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565).

As one walks through this display of Christian iconography and liturgical furnishings, one cannot help but be reminded of just how far back the Christian faith dates, and just how truly “Christian” the Divine Liturgy and the use of Holy Images really is. Later, Bruce and I were lamenting that so many of our Evangelical brethren really have no concept of these things and live in a post-modern religious context that is in fact blindly antagonistic toward historic Christianity. Ask the average Evangelical what he thinks about the writings of the second and third century Christian Fathers for example, and he will likely draw a blank and reflexively reply, “Why should we care about the writings of men? We have the Bible to guide us!” Whatever one thinks of the current “emerging church” movement (And I am not certain that I am completely supportive of some of the forms it is taking) it at least demonstrates that some Evangelicals are starting to wake up to the fact that Christianity is much older than they have ever realized, and that many elements of the faith abandoned by previous generations of Evangelicals in the quest for “a pure and biblical faith” are in fact essential to that very faith and are begging to be recovered.

Perhaps only in America—a country which no longer teaches its own true history in its public schools, but a revisionist “politically-correct” version palatable to left-leaning progressives—could a version of the Christian faith be born which so completely ignores the history of the Christian Church itself and its changeless true worship. Perhaps this display at the Getty museum, should many Evangelicals overcome their reluctance to see it, will open the eyes of some of them to what a rich history all Christians do indeed share. If this should prompt some of them to go to the library or log onto the internet in search of information about this ancient Church, I can only think that this would be a good thing.

I thank God for the incredible generosity of the monks of St. Catherine’s in sharing these priceless and irreplaceable treasures with us. Not only does this display represent a great outreach tool for Orthodox Christianity, but for those of us who are Orthodox, the chance to be in the presence of such beautiful and holy pieces of our own history is breathtaking. To see the icon of St. John Climacus’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent” for example, is so moving as to make the whole trip worthwhile by itself. Fortunately there are many more, equally moving images on display there. You will leave feeling as if you just left a “Holy Space” and a “Holy Presence” indeed! I hope you will get a chance to go.


At 1/20/2007 3:52 PM , Blogger Mimi said...

Father, bless,

Thank you for your description of the exhibit, which I will miss.


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