A Sixth Century Marble Panel at Sinai

Ὃν τρόπον ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ἔλαφος ἐπὶ τὰς πηγὰς τῶν ὑδάτων, οὕτως ἐπιποθεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου πρός σε, ὁ Θεός. (Ψαλμός μα΄)

‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.’ (Psalm 42:1)

A sixth century marble panel in the Sinai basilica was a part of the original templon, separating the nave from the bema. The panel depicts two harts on either side of a cross, emblem of Christ, the source of living water. ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14).

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Poemen quoted this verse from the Psalms, and a story from the Physiologus, a text on natural history that was well known in the classical world, ‘This is what is written, As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. For the harts in the desert swallow many serpents, and when the poison of these maketh them hot within, they cry out to come to the water brooks, but as soon as they have drunk, the burning which cometh from the serpents inside them is cooled.’

And he added a spiritual interpretation, ‘And thus is it with the monks who are in the desert, for they are burnt up by the envy of evil devils, and they wait for the Saturday and Sunday that they may come to the fountain of water, that is to say to the body of Christ, and they sweeten and purify themselves from the gall of the evil one.’ *

Saint John Climacus, living within this same tradition, has written in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, ‘The deer is a destroyer of all visible snakes, but humility destroys spiritual ones.’

This marble panel was already in place when Saint John was Abbot of Sinai. It would have brought to his mind the verse from the Psalms, the spiritual interpretation of Abba Poemen, and his own insight into the virtue of humility.

*See Ernest A Wallis Budge, The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1907), p. 165. Greek text in Migne PG 65:329B-C.

3 comments to A Sixth Century Marble Panel at Sinai

  • Doumé Baron

    Father Justin.
    I have a question for you.
    I just read a paper from Dumbarton Oaks written around 1999 and talking about “The Monastery of Mount Sinai and the Cult of St Catherine”.
    There is a picture -3rd page- showing the Tomb of Saint Catherine in the monastery and the basis of the tomb is a marble panel very, very similar to your picture.
    – Could you, please, explain me the differences ??? On your picture it seems the sarcophagus is removed (nothing on top of marble panel as shown in the referenced article)! or is it a similar marble plate which is used for an other purpose ? I’m puzzled !
    Thank you very much, father Justin, for your time and explanation.

    • Father Justin

      Sinai has two sixth century marble panels, and both have the same depiction of the two harts facing the cross in the centre. The panel along the north aisle is longer, and free standing. The panel along the south aisle was incorporated into the eighteenth century marble shrine that holds the relics of Saint Catherine. There is a photograph of the shrine posted on this site for December 24, 2015.
      The original sixth century templon across the front of the church would have had four carved panels, and it is probable that these also had the same iconography of the two harts facing the central cross.

  • Doumé Baron

    Thank you Father Justin for your answer.
    The clue is that there are two very similar panels. That’s very clear now.
    Thank you again.

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