Earliest Christian icons from the collection of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, and their possible sources
Paterson, Andrew Lindsay
The central material studied in this thesis is a representative group of the earliest surviving Christian icons from the collection of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, all dated to the sixth or seventh centuries. These are discussed specifically in relation to their possible sources within the preceding Greco-Roman tradition of portraiture. While each of these sources is important to a full understanding of the Sinai icons’ visual languages, original functions and meanings, they have not previously been analysed alongside each other in a single study. By doing so, the aim is to reconstruct a more complete artistic context for the icons’ production, as well as to arrive at a fuller understanding of the historical, social and religious factors that would have conditioned their reception. Three categories of portrait-image are critically considered as possible sources for the Sinai icons in terms of technique, style, iconography and function: Roman imperial portraiture (from the first to the sixth centuries); the funerary portraiture of Roman Egypt (first to third centuries); and the corpus of sacred pinakes or ‘pagan icons’ produced in the Fayum region of Egypt (mainly second century). Following the Introduction in which recent scholarly literature on the topic is critically assessed and definitions of key terms are given, the opening chapter presents a detailed visual analysis of each of the eight selected Sinai icons. Questions of dating and geographical attribution are addressed, with previous proposals either revised or confirmed. In Chapter Two, Roman imperial portraiture is discussed, principally in terms of its meanings and functions, and comparisons are made with early portraits of Christ. Questions of the construction of likeness, and the complex relationship between a portrait (whether of an emperor or of Christ) and its prototype, are addressed. It is argued that while early Christian portraits did adopt various elements of imperial iconography to convey a message of universal authority, at the same time they performed functions which were not shared by imperial portraits – for example, participating in intercessory and anagogical prayer. Chapter Three analyses the techniques and styles used in the corpus of Romano- Egyptian ‘mummy-portraits’, with correspondences and differences highlighted between these and the early Sinai icons, and also discusses the question of whether portrait-mummies performed a devotional function comparable to that of early Christian icons. To this end, importance is again given to the question of the relationship between a portrait-mummy and its prototype (the soul of the deceased), as well as questions of audience, display and reception. On the basis of this discussion it is argued that the portraits participated in a reciprocal ‘exchange of gazes’ with their intended viewers, and that this is likely to have been a key factor in the reception of some of the Sinai icons as well. Chapter Four discusses the smaller extant corpus of painted panels depicting pagan deities, produced in the Fayum concurrently with the portrait-mummies. Some striking correspondences in terms of physical construction, technique and style are drawn between these and the early Sinai icons, and literary evidence is adduced to elucidate the role of the artist’s phantasia, or faculty of visualisation, in the construction of the likenesses of both pagan deities and Christian saints. In sum, it is argued that the formal characteristics of the early Sinai icons can all be derived from the non-Christian portrait-categories discussed above; however, these forms were employed in the service of an expanded range of devotional functions in a Christian context. In particular, the early Sinai icons invited a new mode of reception, characterised by an interpersonal, prayerful exchange with an icon’s prototype(s), which the portrait-image both stimulated and channelled.