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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Italian embassy hosts monastery and mosaic lecture

St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt/Wikimedia 2011

At the Italian embassy last week, guests packed the auditorium to hear a lecture about the restoration of a sixth century mosaic at one of the holiest places on earth, "the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery" in the world, one which has never been damaged by war.

Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of St. Catherine's Monastery which dates from 560 CE. It stands on the slope of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, the place where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and spoke to him from the Burning Bush which, miraculously, still stands.

Copyright, 2003, Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai

And the speaker brought photos to prove it.

St. Catherine's in 1852 by Leavitt Hunt, the first American photographer to visit and photograph the Middle East/Wikimedia

Roberto Nardi, archaeologist and founder of the Center for Archaeological Conservation, described the monastery's sixth century mosaic, the Transfiguration of Christ, and his team's delicate work over five years to replicate the mosaic's original luster and beauty.

John Watson, Tour Egypt

At the monastery the mosaic can be found in the basilica at the sanctuary apse.

It is named after Catherine of Alexander, a Christian martyr who was sentenced to death "on the wheel," but when that did not work, she was beheaded (Wikipedia).  Angels carried her remains to Mt. Sinai where monks found them. (Later, she was one of the saints who helped guide Joan of Arc.)

Every day about 1,300 people visit St. Catherine's which is filled with thousands of candles, chanting monks, and "the best collection of early icons in the world," some which date to the sixth, and possibly fifth, centuries (Wikipedia).

 Catherine the Great of Russia and Napoleon were two world rulers especially interested in St. Catherine's, said Dr. Nardi, and other leaders associated with it, according to the monastery website, include Empress Helena, Mohammed, and the Sultan Selim I.

The monastery "has been revered not only by Christians, but also by Muslims and Jews and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for cultural and scenic significance," says the website.

Dr. Nardi said he was recruited by the Getty Conservation Institute in 2000 to visit the monastery and the mosaic which was "about to fall down." Funding from the Getty Foundation enabled the project to move forward.

Cataloging of the cathedral's collection is an "ongoing project," underway for more than 50 years, he noted.

 Dr. Nardi's next project is in Syria where a new team is being trained to preserve antiquity. He said Syria presents "some difficulties, but we are going ahead."
Another project lies in an "old convent" 50 miles north of Rome where frescoes and mosaics need rescue.

Dr. Nardi's presentation was made possible by the joint efforts and collaboration of the embassies of Egypt, Greece, and Italy in Washington.

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