Art attack on Israel’s detractors

November 11, 2001

It was a face that might be seen on any London street today — an old man’s face, scored with the anguish of poverty and sickness.

His hair was long and matted, his beard was straggling and dirty.

In his rags and frayed sandals he seemed to mock the opulence all around him — the well-dressed, well-fed people who moved among the antique furnishings.

Beside him stood a young man — his son perhaps, until I looked more closely. The youth had an earnest, idealistic face, but his clothes were of the same battered material.

A carrion bird hovered close by. It looked as if it might expect one of us to throw a handful of crusts at the old man’s feet. If a crumb dropped, the bird was ready to swoop.

My hand reached instinctively to my pocket for spare change. I stopped the ridiculous gesture.

This creature was not a beggar. He was a holy man. A prophet. And he had been dead for thousands of years.

I was standing before an 11th century painting of the Prophet Elijah. And if you doubt my story, if you do not believe that a medieval work of art can provoke such a modern reaction, then I urge you to visit the Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House on the Strand, and see the temporary exhibition of Byzantine icons from Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai.

‘The Prophet Elijah fed by a raven’ was painted by an artist known only as Stephanos, around 1200 CE. It symbolises a prayer for forgiveness: Elijah clasps his hands in supplication, and the hand of God appears in answer to the prayer.

It once decorated the Elijah Chapel on the path to the summit of Mount Sinai. The ascent beyond the monastery can only be achieved on foot.

Generations of monks have hewn 3,750 steps into the Sinai stone, from St Catherine’s to an amphitheatre known as the Seven Elders of Israel.

From the Seven Elders 750 steps rise further, to the Chapel of the Holy Trinity on the very peak of the mountain.

The younger man is Moses. Again this icon is a prayer for God’s forgiveness by Stephanos; an inscription over the Burning Bush is a prayer for the soul of a man, or a boy, named Manuel.

Moses reverentially holds the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. He has removed his sandals to stand on the holy ground, the same piece of mountainside where the Moses Chapel was built and where this icon hung for centuries.

Until this exhibition, entitled ‘Sinai, Byzantium, Russia’, neither artwork had ever left the monastery. They are on display with 18 other pieces.

Seven have never been seen outside St Catherine’s. One, an icon of St Nicholas, has been exhibited previously, and the remaining 10 are key works from the holdings of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Almost all are clearly Christian pieces. The depiction of the 12 stages of martyrdom of St Catherine, for instance, impresses and fascinates me as an 800-year-old work of devotion and spirituality, but I feel no kinship with the Christian saint.

Sinai is a powerful symbol in my spiritual heritage, though I do not share the beliefs of the monks.

The paintings of Elijah and Moses struck me in a very different way to the other icons.

These two men are, with Abraham, the founders of my faith. They stood austere and aloof from the saints, apostles and martyrs — I had a sense that I had discovered my father and my grandfather among a glittering reunion of my distant cousins.

To see these men in relation to the overtly Christian icons was a stark reminder that the Jewish faith is far more ancient than any other.

It was to the Jews that God spoke in the desert, so many millennia ago.

St Catherine’s, though its monks worship Jesus, is an enduring memorial to the original faith, the religion which literally set down the spiritual laws which still guide us today.

The cornerstone of the monastery is a Jewish rock.

Its collection of icons is one hundred times larger than this exhibition —there are 2,000 artworks there. The library holds twice as many unique and ancient manuscripts.

One is the Chrysobull of Mikhail, Tsar of Russia, a parchment dating to 1630. It describes itself as an imperial charter to the abbot of Sinai or his successors and the brethren of the monastery ‘‘of the most holy Mother of God of the Burning Bush’’.

This document replaces an earlier one which was stolen when an abbot was killed on the road. It grants the right to travel to Moscow every four years, free of charge, to raise alms and financial assistance for building work.

In a time when all reporting of the religious and political conflict in the Holy Land speaks as though the history of Israel began in 1948, this exhibition reveals an overpowering truth: all man’s spiritual beliefs interlock at Mount Sinai.

Israel is as old as Elijah. Neither Christianity nor Islam — for the mountain is a holy place for Muslims also —could have existed without the Jews.

After February 4, 2001, many of these artworks will return to St Petersburg, a city known for most of the last century as Leningrad.

The word ‘Leningrad’ appears nowhere in the exhibition.

The recent miseries of Communism in Russia are no longer relevant, a forgotten sickness.

I pray that the hatred between religions which have riven the Holy Land in the past five decades will be wiped away as swiftly.

Uri Geller’s ParaScience Pack is published by Van Der Meer at £30. To hear an inspirational message from Uri, call 0906 601 0171. Call costs 60p per minute.
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