A graceful silver ring bearing the monogram of Saint
Catherine of Alexandria betokens the most ancient of
societies, its earliest membership predating Christianity
itself. Presented to pilgrims at Mount Sinai by the monks
of St. Catherine's Greek Orthodox Monastery, the ring
signifies pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain – a custom
whose preservation in the memory of local populations led
the earliest ascetics to settle at the Burning Bush. Saint
Helena visited in the fourth century, and others followed,
enthusiastically noting the hospitality that rewarded
arduous journey through the desert by camel caravan.
“Behold! A great number of monks and hermits beyond
counting came out to meet us,” recounted a sixth
century pilgrim in one of the earliest surviving Sinai
travelogues, “carrying crosses and singing psalms.
They lay down upon the ground and made obeisance to us,
and we did likewise, weeping.” Then, as now, it would seem, few
experiences surpassed that of comprehending the holy
ground where God walked.
Pilgrims return home with Saint Catherine’s ring to
every corner of the globe, consoled in faith, inspired by
her brilliance, and most of all, emboldened by her
fearless love for Christ.
* * *
His Beatitude the Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa Theodoros II (l) and Archbishop Damianos I of Sinai, Pharan and Raitho (r) share a private moment on the Feastday of Saint Catherine in 2005. (Massimo Pizzocaro/Italy)
Upon admittance to the monastery
fortress, sensory perception is disconcerted by a
fragrance suggestive of heavenly mysteries – much
at odds with the solidity of arched granite
passageways. St. Catherine’s is situated on a
slope, and the scent increases with the descent down a
flight of well-worn steps to the door of its sixth
Byzantine icons displayed in the narthex welcome pilgrims
without fanfare to the world of the legendary Sinai saints
– for John Climacus and Gregory of Sinai gazed upon
the same sacred images, as did a host of others. They
represent the world's foremost collection of Byzantine
masterworks, saved by the monks from the destructive
centuries of iconoclasm. Preserved by the desert climate,
saints’ expressions remain as untouched by the
centuries as the rocky wilderness without. Unaccountably,
the discs of their golden halos revolve in the light as if
to display the reality of immortality; a special effect
never reproduced outside Sinai, modern iconographers still
search for its secret.
His Eminence Archbishop Damianos I presides over worship from the Royal Doors as light from the Holy Summit of Sinai floods the basilica. (Bruce M. White Photography)
perceptibly now, the engaging fragrance beckons from
the nave, drawing one into Justinian’s original
basilica through massive wooden doors carved from
cedars of Lebanon. Twelve columns support the roof of
the nave, each containing holy relics of saints.
Stately ranks of silver oil candles interspersed with
antique chandeliers advance toward the altar, leading
the visitor ever closer to “the source of our
resurrection” in wonderment at the blaze of such
intricate yet unstudied beauty.
Gifts of European emperors, empresses and kings, they
write a compelling history, for the veneration of Saint
Catherine took Europe by storm after monks brought
miracle-working relics of the saint to Rouen in the
eleventh century – the same relics whose
incomparable fragrance reaches from their reliquary in the
altar to stone passageways about the monastery courtyards.
* * *
Emperor Justinian’s basilica was not yet built when the 6th century “Piacenza” pilgrim from Italy recounted the hospitable welcome of the Sinai monks during his visit to the Holy Mountain. (Genevieve Angelides)
The Holy Great Martyr and All-Wise
Bride of Christ Aikaterina was born to aristocratic
parents in the city of Alexandria shortly before the
year 300. Her father was the pagan governor of the
city, and her mother a secret Christian. Given the name
Dorothea, she was educated in Greek philosophy and
literature, rhetoric, music, mathematics, astronomy,
Renowned for incomparable beauty, knowledge, and virtue,
the young maiden avoided numerous offers of marriage by
avowing that no suitor could match her ideals of
perfection, drawn as she was to the love of purity in
quest of the highest beauty in life.
Encompassing over half of the Byzantine icons in existence, the Sinai collections represent every other iconographic stylistic period as well. This portable icon was a gift from Catalonia in 1387, the work of Martin da Vilanova. It is on display in the Monasery Treasury. (Bruce M. White Photography)
Dorothea was therefore intrigued, when an
ascetic monk from the desert told her of a wondrous
youth who surpassed her in everything, "whose
beauty eclipsed the radiance of the sun, whose wisdom
governed all creation, whose wealth was richly bestowed
upon all the world." Ardently wishing to see such
a youth, she was granted a vision of the Mother of God
holding the infant Jesus on her lap. But the Child
turned His face away from the young noblewoman, saying
that she was ugly, ignorant, and unworthy.
Returning to the holy elder, Dorothea learned the
mysteries of the Faith and was baptized with the name
Catherine, or in Greek, Aikaterina. Once again, in a
vision she saw the Heavenly Queen with her Divine Child,
who this time praised the newly-baptized Catherine’s
beauty of soul, saying, "Now she has become brilliant
and glorious, noble and wise!"
Taking her hand, the Holy Theotokos said, "Give her a
ring, my Child, to make her worthy of Your kingdom,"
at which the Christ held out a beautiful ring to
Catherine, saying, "Behold, today I take you as my
pure bride forever – diligently preserve this trust,
taking no earthly bridegroom." Catherine awoke from
the vision to find the ring on her finger, and her hopes
to discover the highest union possible in this life
Consequently, in a unique departure from tradition, the
Bride of Christ reigns next to her Bridegroom on the
towering iconostasis of her Monastery. Byzantine tradition
reserves the place next to Christ for Saint John the
Baptist, but in Saint Catherine’s Monastery the
friend of the Bridegroom gives way to His bride; the Holy
Forerunner moves to the other side of the icon screen, and
Saint Catherine takes his place next to Christ.
Silver rings bearing the Saint’s monogram are given to pilgrims who hand them down through generations as a perpetual blessing of pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.
Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,
Catherine was overcome with divine love. Recalling
Prophet Moses who bitterly censured the Hebrew people
for resorting to idol sacrifice while he sojourned on
Sinai, Catherine boldly denounced idol worship to the
emperor Maxentius (306-312) on a day of pagan rituals
taking place at his command in Alexandria. Amidst the
fires and smoke and cries of the animals being
sacrificed, she rebuked the emperor for forcing his
subjects to deny Christ by offering sacrifice to
man-made statues. She then confessed the truth of
Loaves stamped with the seal of Saint Catherine holding the cross and palm of victory are distributed to pilgrims at the end of the service on the Saint’s Feastday.
The emperor responded by summoning fifty
pagan scholars, philosophers, and orators, the foremost
of the empire, to debate with Catherine. Promised the
help of divine wisdom by Archangel Michael who appeared
to her in prison, Catherine brilliantly vanquished
their arguments. She pointed out that the same pagan
philosophers who extolled the gods also condemned them
as demons with human passions. She cited the prophecies
made by ancient oracles about the Incarnation,
Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, "who
would rescue man from his incurable passions."
Finally, she placed these prophecies within the
chronological perspective of God's entire work of
salvation, from the creation of the world to the coming
of His kingdom in glory.
Enlightened, the scholars confessed Christ, for which they
were condemned to be burnt alive on November 17th. Saint
Catherine steadfastly withstood all the infuriated
emperor’s flatteries, threats, and cruel tortures,
including a spiked wheel, which by divine intervention
failed to harm her.
Distinguished guests including Patriarch Theodoros II with Sinai priestmonks enter the church for the Festal Liturgy of Saint Catherine in 2005. (Massimo Pizzocaro/ Italy)
Maxentius' wife, the empress
Faustina, and her escort Porphyrios together with 200
of his soldiers also confessed Christ, having met with
the Saint in prison. They too received the glorious
crown of martyrdom for their faith.
Finally, the Saint was beheaded on November 25th. Angels
bore her body to the highest peak in the Sinai range where
its presence was miraculously revealed to the monks
following construction of their fortress monastery. Monks
brought the holy relics of the Great Martyr to the
sanctuary of the Monastery where they have exuded
unearthly fragrance ever since. As a result of the
Saint’s many miracles, the Monastery of the
God-trodden Mountain of Sinai gradually became known as
* * *
In a chamber hung with ancient tapestries adjacent
to the basilica’s main altar, Greek pilgrims wait
with anticipation as the moment to venerate the
Saint's incorrupt relics finally draws near.
Momentarily distracted by an unobstructed view of the
famous mosaic Transfiguration of Christ in the high apse
over the altar, their attention is recalled by the shimmer
of soft bells as a monastery priestmonk begins censing an
antique marble sarcophagus, softly chanting
theapolytikion of the Saint.
Recently restored to brilliance by a massive restoration funded by the Emir of Qatar, the Sinai mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ was described by Kurt Weitzmann as “a vision of Heaven in the wilderness of Moses.”
Folding back a brocade cover, he slides
open the chest’s heavy lid. With great care he
lifts out two golden reliquaries, one holding the
bejeweled hand of Saint Catherine, sometimes warm to
the touch, and the other, her fragrant holy skull.
Reverently placing them on a small table, he reaches
inside the reliquiary once more, where the rest of the
Saint’s body remains whole and incorrupt, and
lifts out a pouch filled with silver rings.
Pilgrms approach one by one to kiss the Saint’s
precious relics, each with the secret prayer closest to
his heart, and then bow to receive the ring blessed by her
grace, to be worn forever in mystical union with the
Heavenly Bridegroom – and all those illumined by the
Holy Light of Sinai to exchange the worship of this
world’s false gods for union with the Most High
– inspired by the radiant example of our Princess
among the Saints, the Holy Great-Martyr and All-Wise Bride
of Christ, Catherine of Alexandria.
On the Saint Catherine’s feast, all the lamps are lit above the marble reliquary that enshrines her relics, across from a gold-embroidered tapestry depicting angels translating the relics to Sinai.
A bluish veil far below the Holy Summit dissolves with the dawn to reveal the crests of a seascape fixed in granite since the blush of creation.