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Sinai Icons Are Focus of Visual Resources Collection Project

October 9, 2014

The department’s Visual Resources Collection has launched a major initiative to digitize and catalogue a key archive for the study of Byzantine icons—thousands of color images of the icons owned by the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. The oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries, Saint Catherine’s possesses an extraordinary collection of icons that date from Late Antiquity to the modern era, illustrating the history of the icon and including many of the most important pre-Iconoclastic panel icons.

In 1956, the late Professor Kurt Weitzmann began his long research association with the Monastery of Saint Catherine when Princeton University, along with the University of Michigan and the University of Alexandria, undertook the first of a series of expeditions to the monastery. The joint expedition to Sinai, carried out between 1956 and 1965, continues to have profound ramifications for Byzantine studies thanks to its publications of the architecture, icons, manuscripts, and inscriptions of the monastery. Weitzmann had intended that the icons would be published in a series of volumes; unfortunately, only the first was published: Kurt Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Icons, volume 1, From the Sixth to the Tenth Century (Princeton University Press, 1976).

The department’s archival collection of thousands of images provides unique documentation of the state of the icons at Sinai from 1956 to 1965 and records the restoration and cleaning work done during that time. Digitization of the 5 × 7 color transparencies of the icons was completed in 2013, followed by the digitization of the color 35mm slides in 2014. Identifying information for each icon is being entered into a new database in preparation for making these images available to researchers for the first time. The project was funded by a generous grant from Princeton’s David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project.

The Sinai icons will be the focus of a two-day conference, “A New Look: Sinai and Its Icons in Light of the Digitization of the Weitzmann Archive,” that is being organized by the department and will take place on campus on April 17–18, 2015.