Art history triple threat to present at Byzantine conference

Evan Pugh professor and graduate students to represent Penn State in NYC

An image of Christ Pantokrator, "Ruler of All," carved on an ivory plaque that was sold at auction in Madrid two years ago. Penn State art historian Anthony Cutler is trying to determine whether the plaque is a genuine artifact of Byzantine times or a more recent creation. Credit: Brynne McBryde/Penn StateAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Anthony Cutler, Evan Pugh Professor of Art History, and two graduate students, Sarah Daiker and Andrea Middleton, have been chosen to present papers at the 2015 Byzantine Studies Conference in New York City, Oct. 23–25.

“I don't know of any other learned society that has accepted three papers from a single institution, and certainly our department has never enjoyed such a thing before,” said Cutler.

Cutler’s paper, "The Madrid Pantokrator: Authenticity and Some Larger Questions in Middle Byzantine Art," considers a previously unknown ivory plaque of Christ Pantokrator ("Ruler of All") bought at auction two years ago by a Spanish collector who sought Cutler’s opinion as to its authenticity.

“This problem always arises when ‘new’ objects come to light. Even after examining it in Madrid, I remained uncertain and therefore suggested submitting it to a laboratory in Oxford for radiocarbon dating, which, if successful, should yield the date of death of the elephant to which the tusk belonged. Obviously, if this date is recent, the plaque cannot be Medieval, that is, Byzantine,” noted Cutler.

The results of the radiocarbon procedure were indecisive, and Douglas Kennett of the Department of Anthropology has offered to repeat the experiment in August when the collector brings the ivory to Penn State. The results of the second procedure will be available for presentation at the conference in New York.

“Whatever the decision about the age of the material, there are broader questions–notably about the carving technique and iconography [visual content]—involved,” explained Cutler. “If the plaque ‘fails’ the test, what do the results tell us about the skills of modern forgers? To what extent is our information about the ‘fake’ applicable to other such novelties, to the history of Byzantine ivory carving, and to the ever-demanding market for antiquities?”

Both students’ conference papers began as research projects for Cutler’s graduate course, Art H 442: Late Antique and Early Christian Art. In Daiker’s paper, "Architectural Representations and Topographic Designation in the Mosaics of Jordan, 6th–8th Centuries," she addresses the identification of architectural representations of cities and buildings.

“Throughout the semester, Tony met with me to discuss my progress and to suggest additional references and future directions for my research. After reviewing my final paper, Tony suggested that I consider applying,” explained Daiker, an M.A. candidate whose primary field is Western medieval art and architecture. “His familiarity with the scholarship on my topic allowed him to discuss the finer points of existing interpretations of these architectural representations with me.”

“Tony definitely encouraged me to apply as well,” seconded Middleton, who just completed her first year in the Ph.D. program and who will present “A Shared Visual Vocabulary: Isis and Harpokrates, Mary and Jesus,” in which she explores “the transmission of this motif, suggesting that elements of folk religion and personal piety explain the similarities.” 

“I wouldn't have thought to apply to present at this conference without Tony’s encouragement and support, especially since I just started studying Byzantine art at an academic level this past fall,” said Middleton.

Daiker and Middleton describe Cutler’s mentoring as “invaluable.”

“I had a difficult time finding my voice, if you will, when I started to write this paper,” explained Middleton. “With Tony's guidance, I was able to understand the material with which I was working. His input has allowed me to write a clear, succinct piece, which I feel confident to present.”

Daiker said she is looking forward to presenting, in addition to producing a new set of research questions that she will continue working with as she prepares for the conference. “I am certain that Tony will be as valuable a mentor in the upcoming months as he has been during my time at Penn State thus far.”

For more information about the Byzantine Studies Association of North America, visit the website: