Climbing the Invisible Mountain: The Apse Mosaics of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, and Their Sixth-Century Viewers

  • Andrew Paterson


This chapter focuses on the sixth-century apse mosaics in the basilica of the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai. Its central image is a depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, which according to the Gospel accounts took place on Mount Tabor in Palestine. One unusual iconographic feature of the mosaic is that no mountain is actually represented, the protagonists instead being depicted against a uniform gold ground. It is argued that the building of the basilica and the devising of its mosaic scheme may be understood partly as attempts to regulate the relic cult associated with the Bush, located immediately outside the basilica; pilgrims may have been instructed to ‘read’ the mosaics as a kind of ‘treatise’ in visual theology. At the same time, resident monks may have contemplated the symbolism of the Transfiguration scene in a more mystical sense, as an exhortation to climb the ‘invisible mountain’ to the vision of God.


Byzantine iconography Pilgrimage and ascetic practices Religious art 


  1. Abel, F.-M. (1952). Histoire de Palestine. Paris: Gabalda.Google Scholar
  2. Basil of Caesarea. (1951–55). Epistolae (trans: Way, A.C.). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.Google Scholar
  3. Chitty, D. J. (1966). The desert a city. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.Google Scholar
  4. Climacus, J. (1982). The ladder of divine ascent (trans: Luibheid, C., & Russell, N.). London: SPCK.Google Scholar
  5. Coleman, S., & Elsner, J. (1994). The Pilgrim’s progress: Art, architecture and ritual movement at Sinai. World Archaeology, 26(1), 73–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Egeria. (1981). Egeria’s travels to the Holy Land (J. Wilkinson, Trans.). Warminster: Aris and Phillips.Google Scholar
  7. Elsner, J. (1995). Art and the Roman viewer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Elsner, J., & Wolf, G. (2011). The transfigured mountain: Icons and transformations of pilgrimage at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. In S. Gerstel & R. S. Nelson (Eds.), Approaching the holy mountain: Art and liturgy at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (pp. 37–71). Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  9. Evagrius of Pontus. (1979). Texts on discrimination in respect of passions and thoughts. In G.E.H. Palmer, P. Sherrard & K. Ware (Eds.), The Philokalia: The complete text (Vol. 1, pp. 38–52). London: Faber.Google Scholar
  10. Forsyth, G. H. (1968). The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai: The church and fortress of Justinian. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 22, 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Forsyth, G. H., & Weitzmann, K. (1973). The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai I: The church and fortress of Justinian. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Gregory of Nazianzus. (1899). In A. J. Mason (Ed.), The five theological orations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Gregory of Nyssa. (1978). The life of Moses (trans: Malherbe, A.J., & Ferguson, E.). New York: Paulist Press.Google Scholar
  14. Graves, E. (1996). The Monastery of Saint Catherine and the tradition of pilgrimage. In O. Baddeley & E. Brunner (Eds.), The Monastery of Saint Catherine. London: Saint Catherine Foundation.Google Scholar
  15. Harmless, W. (2004). Desert Christians: An introduction to the literature of early monasticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hieromonk Justin of Sinai. (2011). The Sinai apse mosaic: The majesty and the glory of god. Unpublished paper.Google Scholar
  17. Jerome. (1963). Epistolae (trans: Mierow, C.C.). Ancient Christian writers, No. 33. Westminster: London.Google Scholar
  18. Loerke, W. (1984). ‘Real presence’ in early Christian art. In T. Vernon (Ed.), Monasticism and the arts (pp. 30–51). New York: Syracuse.Google Scholar
  19. Manafis, K. (Ed.). (1990). Sinai: The treasures of the Monastery of St. Catherine. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon.Google Scholar
  20. Manginis, G. (2016). Mount Sinai: A history of travellers and pilgrims. London: Haus Publishing.Google Scholar
  21. Marsengill, K. (2013). Portraits and icons: Between reality and spirituality in Byzantine art. Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  22. Procopius of Caesarea. (1971). On buildings (trans: Dewing, H.B.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Pseudo-Macarius. (1921). Fifty spiritual homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian (trans: Mason, A.J.). London: SPCK.Google Scholar
  24. Theodoret of Cyrrhus. (1985). History of the monks of Syria (R. M. Price, Trans.). Kalamazoo: Cistercian.Google Scholar
  25. Thunø, E. (2015). The apse mosaic in early medieval Rome: Time, network, and repetition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Török, L. (2005). Transfigurations of Hellenism: Aspects of late antique art in Egypt. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  27. Veniamin, C. (2005). Mary the mother of god: Sermons of Saint Gregory Palamas. South Canaan: Mount Thabor Publishing.Google Scholar
  28. Weitzmann, K. (Ed.). (1979). Age of spirituality: Late antique and early Christian art, 3rd to 7th century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Weitzmann, K. (1982). The mosaic in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. In K. Weitzmann (Ed.), Studies in the arts at Sinai (pp. 5–18). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Paterson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghEdinburghScotland

Personalised recommendations