Monasteries have preserved some of the most magnificent Art we have today.
Monastics are dedicated to the preservation of spiritual life and the images which supported them in daily life. They were inhabited by male monks who wished to isolate themselves from the outside world.
Pilgrims traveled to monasteries in order to see famous relics and icons on display. Women, however, were not allowed inside.
One of the most important monasteries, St. Catherine’s at Mt. Sinai, was built was Emperor Justinian in 565 A.D. The body of St. Catherine herself is buried within the complex, which was protected by walls and almost hidden within a vast landscape.
Another important monastery, St. Symeon’s, contained a basilica built in the form of a cross. The monastery itself is named after St. Symeon – a hermit – who was known for sitting on top of a column in meditation. This column, which rests in the center of the complex, is now considered a relic.
Art in Monasteries and Catholic Icons
Great works of Art for centuries have been protected behind the wall of monasteries, hidden from the public in their spiritual importance and reverence.
The art in churches and monasteries has documented transitions for 1,000 years or more and preserves some of the most subtle movements in the hearts and minds of those who love God.
Monasteries are usually isolated from the rest of the world, a valued landscape to protect various artifacts. These items included:
Reliquaries – which usually contained the bones, finger nails, hair, etc of favored saints.
Icons – both panel encaustic on a wooden panel, or icons painted with egg tempera. Christ, Saints, Angels and Virgin Mary, mother of God and feast day images where all valued for their beauty and teaching. Sculptures made from ivory were rare and highly prized, and were most often given as a gift from wealthy families.
Illustrated biblical manuscripts – the process of creating an illustrated bible was a craft done by resident monks and nuns.. Only a small elite class would have been able to do the work or own an original. The amount of labor and expense often covered years of dedication. Therefore, they were highly sought after. The Quedlinberg Itala is the earliest example of an illustrated manuscript.
Along with these portable objects, monasteries were filled with decorative mosaics. Some of the earliest images are found in mosaics within the walls of these complexes. Mosaics, at this time, were usually made of small pieces of glass and stone.
The inner sanctuary of a monastery resembled a roman atrium. Atriums consist of a small colonnaded garden and an open ceiling, allowing light to enter through. The columns (and capitals of the columns) were decorated with sculptural relief. Here, the atrium was used as religious architecture, rather than secular.