Sunday, August 19, 2007

Yale Professor Illuminates the Importance of Icons

This is basically an advert for a forthcoming lecture by Dr. Robert S. Nelson entitled The Light of Icons at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai, Egypt, to be held at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As lectures are so specific to a single place and time I rarely post about them, but the following introduction to the lecture, which looks at Coptic icons within the context of their original lighting, might be of interest.

The Light of Icons at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai, Egypt will introduce the audience to the physical environment in which the monastery is located, the Sinai desert, the monastery itself and to the life of the monks there in its sixth-century church. The lecture will be illustrated with Dr. Nelson’s photos of the monastery and the monks and accompanied by his commentary. “My goal is to put the audience in the Sinai and to try to help them see and feel what the church and the monks are like,” said Dr. Robert S. Nelson. “The church and the liturgy are the center of the lives of the monks and icons are at the center of the center.”

Professor Nelson is a leading authority on Byzantine art and architecture and the author of numerous publications. His latest work, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950, asks how the famous cathedral of Constantinople came to be regarded as one of the great monuments of world architecture. He recently curated an important exhibition of Byzantine icons from the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mt. Sinai titled Holy Image, Hallowed Ground for the Paul J. Getty Museum in Los Angeles .

“Icons are experienced in different kinds of light: the natural light of the day and artificial light at night,” Dr. Nelson explains. “In the dark, candles and oil lamps are the only illumination and this is controlled by the monks. They light and extinguish candles in coordination with the liturgy. The result is similar to our theatre, but this drama was put together centuries before modern theatre lighting. Icons are meant primarily to be seen by candlelight. The gold ground of icons functions with candle light and creates dazzling effects to promote religious messages.”

The subject of the relationship between art and the light in which it was executed, or in which it was designed to be seen, is of interest in a number of fields including Pharaonic temples (for example the twice-yearly illuminated shrine at Abu Simbel and Franco-Cantabrian cave painting).

The lecture will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 30 in Gallery 101 of the Museum.

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