Since 2006 the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection has been a publishing partner of Harvard University Press. The publications of Dumbarton Oaks present the scholarship in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian studies to which the Washington, D. C. institute is dedicated. This fall, as part of its Byzantine Collection Publications series, Dumbarton Oaks has released a revised edition of Gary Vikan’s Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art. By day, Gary Vikan is the Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where he stewards an internationally renowned collection and works to promote the city’s art scene. Below, he describes how his work at the Walters and his own scholarship relate.
My invitation to Dumbarton Oaks came by way of a telegram to the US Embassy in Bucharest on Valentine’s Day, 1975. I was spending that academic year in Romania, under Ceausescu, with a stipend from the International Research and Exchanges Board to do research on my Byzance après Byzance dissertation topic, for Kurt Weitzmann and Princeton University. That telegram offered me a two-year contract position at DO; my job would be to research and write a catalogue of the sculpture in the collection – everything from Ptolemaic Egypt to Renaissance Germany. What luck! Not only had I always wanted to be at Dumbarton Oaks (I was turned down for a Junior Fellowship two years earlier), but also because my post-Romania job prospects were very dim.
As it turned out, I would spend the next ten years of my life occupying a variety of staff positions at DO, all the while lapping up the heavy cream of Byzantium in the company of some of the most wonderful Byzantinists the world then had to offer. This was an enormous privilege for me, and I loved it.
Though from the beginning, I felt a certain tension. I was born a Midwestern populist, and while I enjoyed the lunchtime conversation at DO that would typically wander from such arcane topics as Byzantine epithets for the Virgin Mary to regional etymologies for the orange (portocale, in Romanian, reflecting the fruit’s origin in Portugal), I craved connection with the real world – with things that were meaningful to those ordinary folks who walked past the brick walls of Dumbarton Oaks without a care for what was going on inside. Moreover, I was married and had a small child, and I could barely afford to pay my rent. So by night I began a second career, in adult education, with the Smithsonian Residents Associate Program. This was as close to Byzantium for the masses as I then thought was possible, and it felt right.
As I taught, I sought out topics that would get my students’ attention. Imperial porphyry sculpture of the Tetrarchy was a tough sell, and for most, icons were just too abstract. But what nearly all my grownups seemed to relate to pretty easily was Byzantine pilgrimage: traveling to holy places, leaving votives behind, and taking away something sacred and powerful. What they all got especially excited about was “holy dirt,” the sanctified soil form loca sancta that pilgrims took home with them to use, when needed, to cure their ailments. When I called these pilgrim tokens the “Aspirin of the Middle Ages,” faces would light up, and I knew that I had connected. And it was this sense of connection that drew me to do a small exhibition at DO in 1982 with curators Susan Boyd and Carol Moon called Byzantine Pilgrimage Art. And with that exhibition, to write a booklet of the same title that I typed, pasted together, and drove to the printer myself.
I could not then have guessed that this homemade publication would sell out, and help to nourish what was becoming a cottage industry of pilgrimage studies among Byzantinists of my generation. And I certainly could not then have dreamed that nearly three decades later the tables would be turned. I left DO for the Walters Art Museum in 1985 because I felt I needed more fully to engage with the public, through art, and because I wanted to be part of a real city, its on-going struggles and its occasional triumphs. This, for sure, was and remains the Walters, and Baltimore. So now, my day job is art and people, and my night job is scholarship, as I revisit my DO life of the ‘80s in the form of this new, expanded edition of that pilgrimage booklet. The tension is still there, though now I welcome it, since it has drawn me to two great institutions that have, each in their own way, nourished a different part of who I am.
What’s next? SAINT ELVIS: From the Holy Land to Graceland – a book-length study almost completed. After all, what could be a more logical sequel to Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art for a populist like me?