The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai

The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai is one of the best-known early monastic establishments. Situated in the barren wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, the monastery is dominated by the mighty massif of Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa) where, according to the Biblical tradition, Moses received the Tablets of the Law from God. The monastery’s fame rests on several different factors. The primary factor is its location on the site of the Burning Bush where Moses first encountered God. This has made the monastery a locus sanctus par-excellence for the three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Built in its present form by Emperor Justinian I (527-65), the monastery was also intended as a frontier fortress, protecting the holy site as well the monastic community. The church, originally dedicated to the Mother of God, now dedicated to St. Catherine, was also built under the auspices of Emperor Justinian. The names of Justinian, his deceased consort Theodora, and the builder Stephanos of Aila appear on the roof trusses, dating the construction to 548-65. The well-preserved church is decorated with some of the finest sixth-century mosaics. The church, constructed of local stone, also incorporates other building materials, such as wood and marble, which were imported from afar, with great difficulty.

The exhibition was organized to commemorate Kurt Weitzmann (1904-93) and the Princeton-Michigan expedition to Mt. Sinai. Weitzmann, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton (1945-72) and his colleague George Forsyth, then professor at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), organized a series of expeditions (1956-65) to Mount Sinai, with the aim of studying the Monastery of St. Catherine and its treasures. The results of these expeditions, published in several volumes on the architecture of the monastery and the church, the mosaics, icons, and manuscripts, have made a major impact on the course of study of Byzantine art.

The exhibition is not a comprehensive survey of one particular subject. It is a selection of images that provides insights into various aspects of the monastery, its environment, its history, its architecture, and its perception by early travelers. Some of the photographs in the exhibition are over a century old and reveal the conditions within the monastery complex that have changed significantly over time. The photographs in the exhibition are preserved in the Research Photograph Collection of the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

This exhibition was conceived in conjunction with a graduate seminar entitled “Juncture of Heaven and Earth: The Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai” taught by Slobodan Ćurčić, spring 2006. Organized and designed by Slobodan Ćurčić and Shari Kenfield. Text and labels by Slobodan Ćurčić.