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Getty Museum Exhibits Religious Icons

Essayist Richard Rodriguez contemplates the material and the spiritual at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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  • 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.