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  • All heaven before mine eyes

    The Getty Museum is creating an atmosphere of religious worship in its new show, prompting debate about how closely Mammon can imitate the monastic


    FOR the Orthodox monks of the Holy Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert, the morning of November 14th will not seem very different from any other they can remember—and in essential ways its proceedings will resemble almost every start to the day at the monastery for the past 1,400 years. At around 4 o'clock in the morning a handful of black-clad figures will emerge from their spartan cells into the starry, icy night and make their way across the courtyard into an ancient basilica where a forest of hanging lamps is waiting to be lit.

    With practised concentration they will take their places below the giant icons and begin intoning prayers in low, urgent Byzantine Greek: a densely-woven tapestry of psalms, litanies and special invocations prescribed for the date or the season. After about two hours the tempo will become more solemn and dramatic as the rapid recitations of the morning service give way to the more careful choreography of a liturgy, or what Western Christians would call a mass or communion service. Finally, as dawn breaks, a priest will emerge from behind the altar, chalice in hand, his vestments glinting in the sun's early rays. Straight above him, as he calls on the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine, is one of the most striking pieces of religious art ever produced: a sixth-century mosaic of Jesus Christ, transfigured by white light and flanked by Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet. Just as the daily monastic rites set out to relive the death and resurrection of the Messiah, nature's cycle of night and day—more vividly experienced amid Sinai's red cliffs than in most other places on earth—conveys a similar message of near-annihilation followed by miraculous rebirth.

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