For 94 members of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, the freeway drive north to Brentwood in morning traffic was the equivalent of a pilgrimage.
They recently traveled in two buses to the Getty Museum and its current exhibition of ancient icons and spiritual artifacts from a monastery in the Sinai, a show that has taken on special meaning for Greek Orthodox and other denominations in Southern California.
More than 60 religious groups, including some from Fresno, Texas and Minnesota, are scheduled to see -- and in some cases venerate -- the items lent by the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt.
Although the Getty remains just a snazzy art museum for other people, it is a holy place for the faithful. They are crossing themselves before the 750-year-old icon of Saint Theodosia and restraining themselves from kissing the plexiglass case holding a 1,500-year-old image of St. Peter the Apostle.
“It’s fantastic this is on the West Coast,” Father Stephen Karcher, St. Paul’s assistant pastor, said at the exhibit. “I’m sure some of our people are feeling this connection. Especially in Southern California, our connection with Christianity doesn’t always go that far back, doesn’t go that deep. But when you see something like this, it has a lot of meaning. It shows we have roots, we have history.”
As a result of Getty marketing and word of mouth, churches report high attendance for field trips to the show, which opened in November and is scheduled to end March 4. St. Paul’s will send two more busloads next month.
Formally titled “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai,” the exhibit offers a rare chance to see things that usually are kept at the remote monastery on the site near where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments. The Greek Orthodox monastery founded in the 6th century holds some of the world’s oldest icons because it was isolated from the iconoclasm that destroyed many icons in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries.
“You could almost say it is a pilgrimage in a local spot for a place far away,” said Timi Loomos Freshman, a lay leader at St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles. Four groups from the Greek Orthodox cathedral, totaling about 200 people, are planning to go to or already have visited the Getty, said Freshman, who organized one of the outings.
Further afield in geography and theology, 26 members of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, will fly to Los Angeles next month for the icon show, according to Martha Bombaugh, one of the trip leaders.
The fact that icons are not part of Presbyterian tradition is not a problem for the church. “Being Presbyterian doesn’t mean that we aren’t interested in other religions or art. We don’t venerate the icons. But we want to enjoy them,” she said.
Clearly, the 43 icons, six manuscripts and four liturgical objects on display have a strong pull for the Greek Orthodox even though some say it feels a little odd -- if understandable -- to see them through plexiglass, installed to help preserve the artifacts.
Karcher said his denomination venerates icons, and adherents often kiss them in church or at home. But that should not be construed to be worship of the artworks. Their images, he said, are like windows into heaven, helping with worship of God.
For example, he pointed to the icon of St. Theodosia, depicted in black and hooded cloak, and holding a golden cross. “It evokes pious feelings, a sense of prayerfulness. The longer you look, the more you begin to feel the presence of the divine, divine meaning God himself,” he explained.
Although some people in the group crossed themselves in front of icons, others did not, and no one was seen kissing the plexiglass cases “because we don’t want to make a pretense of our faith in a public place,” said Philip Terry, 87, of Irvine.
Terry pronounced himself “totally enthralled” with the icons and unable to choose a favorite because “they are all so beautiful and well preserved.”
But 10-year-old Lucas Blankenhorn of Huntington Beach didn’t hesitate to identify his favorite. It was a large 11th century painting of a young-looking Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from the hand of God. “The hand is reaching out and all of a sudden the hand is there out of nowhere,” Lucas noted. He also said he liked the white, blue and red colors in Moses’ folded robe.
Lucas was at the Getty with his sister, Bridgette, 8, and his mother, Regina, who said she allowed the children to miss school that day for the church trip. “It was definitely an educational experience,” she said.
Others in the group said they were struck by “The Heavenly Ladder of St. John Climacus,” a 12th century icon that shows the former abbot of Sinai leading a line of priests climbing rings heavenward toward Christ as winged demons pull some off with ropes and hooks into hell.
Some kept returning to gaze at the “Annunciation,” a 12th century work that depicts a shaft of light streaming from a dove to Mary as the Archangel Gabriel announces that she will give birth to Christ. .
The chance to see those and other icons inspired members of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno to plan a bus tour to Los Angeles late next month.
“When I see these icons, I will cross myself. They have religious importance to me,” said Evelyn Boosalis of Fresno.