Getty Musuem Exhibits Religious Icons

December 8, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Los Angeles is well-accustomed to oversized faces: rock singers and movie stars above Sunset Boulevard. For weeks now, an ancient face, that of Saint Theodosia, has loomed above the streets of L.A., from billboards announcing an exhibit at the Getty Museum, icons from the holy monastery of Saint Catherine’s in the Sinai, the great Egyptian desert.

Built in the sixth century, Saint Catherine houses the largest collection of early Byzantine icons in the world. Behind the monastery’s fortress walls, these icons were as remote from Rome and Byzantium as they were from Los Angeles. Icons, these images, most of them, painted on wood, were preserved by distance and heredity, as much as by the monks and the faithful who loved them.

That the world’s oldest collection of icons is housed in a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai poses an irony. It was at Sinai that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and warned the Jews that he was a jealous god and forbade the making of idols. These icons from Saint Catherine of Moses with the Prophet Elijah would have no place in any synagogue.

The law that came through Moses was extended to become a prohibition against the artistic representation of all living things in Jewish worship. This prohibition was honored by Muslims and by many Christians, as well.

In the eighth century, there is an iconoclastic movement that is a movement to destroy icons by early Christians who considered the making of icons to be a violation of God’s command.

Religious art survives centuries

During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, statues of the saints and the virgin were toppled in Northern European churches. The iconoclastic spirit survives. In 2001, the modern world was horrified when the Afghan Taliban destroyed two Buddhas that had stood for centuries along the Silk Route.

Catholics and orthodox believers diverged from their fellow monotheists in their assumption that manmade images can share a portion of the holy because the incarnation, the Christmas event of God becoming flesh, redeemed the material world.

There is beauty and ingenuity in the abstraction of the Arabesque line and the Islamic architecture of emptiness that seek visual pleasure without rivaling God's purview as creator. And there seems to me no structure so elegant, so conducive to human worship, as a plain, wooden Protestant church, unadorned.

And because I am a Christian, I'm consoled as Jews are consoled, despite the destruction of the temple, by the portability of the word. But as a Catholic, I have been schooled throughout my life by lurid and sentimental religious images, as well as by the magnificent. When I look at these icons, part of what I see is a utility: They belong to centuries of prayer.

Today's museums are filled with religious art: Greek and Hindu gods; Buddhas; Aztec calendars; renaissance saints. In the modern museum, such artifacts are desacralized, removed from the spirit that created them and the spirit in which they were regarded.

The objects in such museums are not completely divorced from context, but they are kept as exemplars of the fineness of human endeavor. An icon has no more intrinsic value than a Dresden cup.

Several of the monks from Saint Catherine have journeyed all this way to Los Angeles, the capitol of pop iconography. With curators at the Getty, the monks have devised that these images be seen within a space and alongside liturgical objects that suggest their use in the life of prayer.

Not a few visitors to this exhibition have been seen by museum employees crossing themselves and kneeling. I have never been to a museum show that so radically proposes that art has an ancient purpose to connect us with the holy.

We are not meant to make these icons objects of religious worship, but as aides to worship. We contemplate the eternal as we stare at these faces, and, as through glass, the eternal stares back at us.

I'm Richard Rodriguez.