A Medieval Debate for a Modern Audience

by Noah Delwiche ’17

Tracing the arc of cross-cultural religious debate and transmission is no easy task. Steeped in controversy, confusion, and charges of heresy, many medieval texts show impassioned debate among clergy over the status of ancient and established religions: their metaphysical claims, histories, prophets, and detractors.

DOML volumes

DOML volumes in Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English

For the better part of the last two months, I have been tasked with reviewing a volume of Medieval Latin texts, primarily critical poems or accounts refuting opposition to Catholic dogma, that show the reception of Islam through the prophet Muhammad among Byzantine clergy and scholars in the 8th to 13th centuries. Broadly speaking, the upcoming volume in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library aims to offer a picture of Christian-Islamic relations in Medieval Europe.

Although centuries removed, the texts are apt for a modern audience. Taken together, the works show the seeds of skepticism within the Byzantine Empire towards Muhammad and Islam. These accounts, written by clergymen and monks, cast the central prophet as a swindler in cahoots with a devious mage and others, in order to systematically critique the religion’s commitment to monotheism or unconfirmed miracles.

My take is, of course, no stunning revelation. By design, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library aims to publish an array of Medieval Latin, Byzantine Greek, and Old English texts, the spines of which are not pre-destined to the dark annals of analog libraries (you can still find them there if you are so inclined) but reach the homes of teachers and casual readers. Established in 2010, the library, which has published over thirty volumes, seeks to attain a harmonious balance of accessibility and integrity. The intertextual translations do not strive to displace critical commentaries. It is within this context, then, that undergraduate interns can be of use.

Editing the volume on Christian depictions of Muhammad has presented a number of fascinating questions concerning translation and transmission. My goal—to help soften literal, dense, and tangled translations while ensuring the accuracy of modern transmission—has led to a healthy dose of head-scratching. To what extent should the English translation of inaudita convey novelty or moral opprobrium? How should Latin idioms about marriage and sex be conveyed in English? And what words best depict the vile crimes and tricks the texts charge against Muhammad?

What I have found most fascinating with the volume, though, are not the mechanics of the translation—an interesting topic in its own right—but the recurrent and varying themes of fear towards the prophet Muhammad. To these Byzantine authors, Muhammad was, more or less, a charlatan: motivated by avarice and pride, manipulative towards the uneducated, and shameless in disrupting ancient customs. The texts, to be sure, are hardly univocal in tracing the worship of Muhammad and the origins of his alleged trickery. Some place the prophet’s famed development several centuries apart. Others provide varying accounts of the trickery that establish the prophet as King. Still, many share common threads, weaving and re-weaving similar attacks. In earlier, shorter polemics, Catholic authors told of Muhammad’s quick rise to power through deception, and his subsequent punishment by the divine with the curse of epilepsy. Nonetheless, the prophet continued on a path of debauchery, the authors related, simultaneously degrading morality and sexual mores.

To modern sensibilities, the polemics within the volume fail to meet many standards of civility. Tangled in the detachment of far-removed experiences and myth, many texts rely on dubious sourcing. And yet, despite the critical outlook on Islam, the upcoming volume offers more than offense. In it, one finds the roots of religious debate and resentment, the careful art of philosophical and personal attack, and the enduring question of what makes a prophet holy.

Within a contemporary setting, the volume uncovers with no restrictions a framing of Western fears of Islam reliant upon attacks and tropes that are not so unfamiliar. In all, the volume shows the messy fear of a prophet with new ideas and culture. A work for a modern world, indeed.


War and Art: Museums in the Context of Political Unrest

by Leah Yared ’19

When we learn about wars in history class, we learn about nations reeling from attacks on home soil. We learn the names of major battles and important generals. Art museums typically don’t enter the conversation. As we continue our research for the Mapping Philanthropy project, we have learned how wars impact the development of art museums.

Consider the Freer Gallery, a monument to Asian art in the nation’s capital. In 1941, all employees at the Freer were fingerprinted. Due to anti-Japanese discrimination during World War II, museum director John Lodge told painting conservator Kinoshita Yokichi to work from home, out of fear for his safety.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Lodge ordered the removal of all Japanese art on exhibition. The museum felt Japanese art in particular could be at risk given the general discontent and suspicion the Japanese were faced with in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Centuries-old pieces were carefully moved to what would be called “War Storage” in the museum’s basement. Americans fearfully anticipated another attack, and D.C. seemed like a prime target. Lodge made plans for a bombproof storage vault underground to protect the priceless works.

Museum staffers went from planning exhibitions to wondering if the structure could sustain a direct blast. When Lodge’s successor assumed the directorship in 1943, his main job was to protect the gallery from damage in the event of public demonstrations against Japan. Fortunately, the threat of bombing subsided and the Japanese works were brought out of storage in 1944.

The Freer was not the only D.C. museum forced to make difficult decisions during the war. In 1942, the Folger Shakespeare Library secretly shipped 30,000 rare objects by train to Amherst College, to be kept safely in underground storage.

But the uncertainty that political unrest creates is not unique to World War II. William Wilson Corcoran, who created the now-closed Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1869, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, like many other Washingtonians. He mixed art and diplomacy by hosting annual balls for Congress, which likely played a small role in bringing together a divided capital. His gallery “became the cultural center of Washington; a social gathering spot for its white elite and government workers and a popular destination for tourists and official visitors from around the world.”[1]

Tensions abroad also affected American collectors. The 1912 fall of the Qing dynasty in China forced Charles Lang Freer to give up any plans for another collecting trip. Still, the political turmoil played to his advantage; it “animated the Chinese antiques market”[2] and brought never-before-seen works out of the imperial collection and into the hands of opportunistic dealers.

Pagoda Paris Blog Pic.jpg

Pagoda Paris, C.T. Loo’s art dealership in Paris

One of those opportunistic dealers, C. T. Loo, is proof that dealers and collectors are agents of historical change just as much as they are acted upon by events out of their control. Loo, a Chinese art dealer, is considered a villain in China for disseminating many of his country’s treasures to Western museums and collections. Of course, he was able to obtain works of art due to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Communist consolidation of power decades later, as both events caused many Chinese elites to sell off their collections.

But he himself changed the landscape of Chinese art collecting by buying up antique treasures and selling them at his Paris shop. His decisions impacted the acquisitions collectors were able to make. Two of Loo’s clients, Freer and Arthur M. Sackler, opened museums dedicated to Asian art in Washington, D.C.

In the ever-expanding world of art collecting, far-off conflicts can impact collectors a continent away. And that impact intensifies if the conflict is at home—personal safety comes into question, and museum staffing decisions can change. For this reason, it is crucial to understand global conditions when investigating cultural institutions.


[1] Tank, 45.

[2] Larsen, 30

The Nature of Giving in Our Nation’s Capital

by Melda Gurakar ’17

As part of the Mapping the History of Cultural Philanthropy Internship, my fellow interns and I have been tasked with examining various D.C. cultural institutions and exploring the historical landscape of philanthropy in the D.C. area. Through this project, we will probe questions such as what motivated cultural benefactors to donate during the 20th century and what motivated them to give in such a manner. Ultimately, we hope to shed light on the question of whether such cultural philanthropy is a compelling method of giving back today.


The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

We’ve come across two recurring themes in our research so far. The first is the idea of a national gallery. In case studies of the various cultural institutions in D.C., we’ve noted many philanthropists desired to turn their institutions into a “National Gallery.” Philanthropists often collected in hopes that their gallery would ultimately become the national gallery. We’ve debated and questioned why such a desire might have existed, and are puzzled as to whether this is a trend specific to philanthropists in DC or to philanthropists more broadly.

Furthermore, we’ve discussed what the role of a National Gallery should be. Would it be responsible for showcasing only the finest art, with the goal of educating the masses, or would it need to include all variations of a nation’s art regardless of quality?

The National Gallery that exists today was gifted to the people of the United States on behalf of Andrew Mellon in 1941. According to its mission statement, the National Gallery of Art was established “to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.” Thus, Mellon believed his national gallery ought to showcase the best and finest art possible.

I have found particularly interesting the idea of what defines philanthropy. We’ve learned that philanthropy is distinct from other forms of giving back. As author Stanley Katz notes, “Philanthropy sought to go to the root causes of these fundamental problems of society in order to enable us to completely eliminate these problems.” By searching for and addressing the underlying problems, the philanthropist is more thoroughly able to bring change to a topic. A philanthropist is therefore an investor in an issue rather than simply an almsgiver.

I’ve found this distinction between philanthropy and charity to be very productive. It has led me to believe that philanthropic giving, might have certain strengths over charitable giving. I understand philanthropy to be a more deliberate and thoughtful means of reconstructing the world, and charity in comparison responds to crises more on the defense. Having learned this distinction, I think it is important that philanthropy and charity both play roles in society; the farsighted nature of philanthropy must be complemented by the quick response capabilities of charity. The cultural institutions that we’ve studied, such as the National Gallery, fall under the category of philanthropy. They are able to feed the public’s need for understanding the aesthetically beautiful, aiding society to mature and grow.

The Ugly Business of Capturing Beauty

by Brett Davis, ’17

Dill.Color (2).jpgI’m crouching in the soil next to a dill plant, dirtying the business casual pants that have no sane place in a humid D.C. summer. Beads of sweat, turned milky from sunscreen that’s given up the fight, drip onto my camera screen. This, in turn, blocks my view of the dill that I’m determined to present glamorously. After loud sighs and soft profanity, I finally give up and sit down—in good company amongst the bugs that’ll soon start crawling up my legs.

Videography is ugly business.

With any luck (not to mention hours of post-production work) the ugliness of the filming process will be hidden and the final product will be a strictly beautiful affair. While film can take on many purposes, the goal of my current project—a virtual tour of the gardens—is mainly aesthetic. It feels almost oxymoronic that the extraordinary beauty of these gardens is captured through such ugly and ordinary means.

A lot of jobs are like this: custodians spend nights plunging toilets to keep great palaces looking fresh for visitors. Statisticians weed through oceans of data to reveal trends hidden within. A fast-food worker fries chicken paste in a greasy, rat-filled kitchen and sends forth a pristine batch of chicken nuggets. All of these roles are on a spectrum of the glamor, and the exhaustion, that they provide. But in each case, beauty, loosely-defined, emerges from the mundane jobs of people everywhere.

Museums are like this, too. In its capacity as a gallery, the mission of Dumbarton Oaks is to collect, preserve, and present the beauty of Byzantine, European and Pre-Columbian culture. Part of my job here has been to document museum activity from top to bottom—from directors discussing the building’s roof renovation to interns monotonously sorting through thousands of coins. None of it seems particularly extraordinary, and yet the product of it all certainly is.

InternFun (1).jpg

To some, the character of modern videography and social media presence may seem mismatched to an institution which spans back three quarters of a century and is dedicated to the study of materials ten times as old. Yet at its core, the process and aims of videography mirror that of the museum itself: each concerns mundane or ugly work aimed at capturing, preserving, and presenting beauty.

Why do we do it? Perhaps having passion for something means seeing beauty through the mess. Michelangelo used to say that he could see the sculpture withina block of marble, and similarly (on a much more modest level) I’m beginning to see the shot that could make that dill plant look fabulous. Just like how the museum staff can see the future exhibit framing that will help artifacts shine. Or how the garden staff can see the flowers rising from a plot of dirt and weeds. Work, then, really just becomes the process of getting from the vision to that beautiful reality.


Much Ado About Everything

by Melissa Rodman ’18

Melissa blog photo

from Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 104.


Railroad magnate-turned bibliophile Henry E. Huntington declined countless interviews during his lifetime, suggesting instead that his legacy would remain through his extensive collection on playwright William Shakespeare: “This library will tell the story.”[1] Yet Huntington’s story often plays second fiddle to the founding and development of the Folger Shakespeare Library, compiled and curated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Huntington’s contemporaries, the American husband-wife literati duo Henry C. Folger and Emily Jordan Folger.

The Folger Shakespeare Library—and its founders’ mission, philosophy regarding the humanities, obsession with Shakespeare, and compulsive collecting practices—represents one of many philanthropic arts institutions I am investigating this summer while working on the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project at Dumbarton Oaks. The project ultimately will pinpoint the manifold arts and cultural institutions in and around Washington, D.C., situating these museums and libraries physically on an interactive, online map and intellectually in the context of their benefactors’ varying visions of cultural philanthropy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While Huntington’s collection cropped up in my research solely in comparison to the Folgers’ library, his presence in that narrative echoes several themes that weave through this cultural philanthropic landscape: (1) balancing the collector’s interest with his/her intent for the public; (2) carving a niche for oneself and one’s collection in relation to other collectors, either at the individual or the national level; and (3) making ethical judgment calls in the face of cultural heritage claims and often dubious acquisition practices.

First, why begin collecting? Put simply, many of the collectors featured in the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project—Duncan Phillips, Charles L. Freer, Huntington, and Folger—were Gilded Age industrial tycoons who had the financial means to do so. But beyond that simplistic explanation, their stories look remarkably similar. Art, whether contemporary paintings, Asian vases, or Shakespearean folios, enriched these collectors’ lives. Yes, the competitive game of possession did fuel their desires. But it appears that making much ado about a single item kept some of them going, focusing their attention and stoking their humanity. Some philanthropically-minded collectors thought that building collections would enable the public to have similar experiences by interacting with their carefully chosen pieces. For others, like Arthur M. Sackler, collecting mattered only so long as his name was attached to (read: engraved on) the building.

Next, what to collect? Some, like upstart William Wilson Corcoran, collected art with an eye toward cultivating “good taste” for oneself. Others, like the Folgers, gravitated toward areas of study that had interested them academically while at college. Still others, like Dumbarton Oaks’s own Robert and Mildred Bliss and collectors in the twenty-first century, scouted meticulously for items that would appreciate in value as the years went by and their collections continued to grow.

And finally, where do the ethics of acquiring objects fit into the picture? From ongoing repatriation debates surrounding the Elgin Marbles to the questionable origins of some pieces in the Harvard Art Museums, questions about ethics continue to shape, direct, and modify the art world today. Huntington’s and the Folgers’ collections, in California and Washington, D.C., respectively, are comprised of British folios. Freer dedicated his life to art from the Far East, yet the gallery he designed with exacting instructions and its contents remain in D.C. Triangulating the roles of collector, intended viewing public, and provenance becomes “the story” each of these cultural philanthropic institutions leave readers to ponder.

—Melissa Rodman is a junior at Harvard College and a senior staff writer at The Harvard Crimson. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

[1] Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 127.


Enclosing the Secrets of the Past: The Byzantine Lead Seals at Dumbarton Oaks

By Tyler Dobbs ’16

If you’re a normal person, mention of a seal probably makes you think of this:

Seal 1

If you’re an aesthete or antiquarian, this might come to mind:

Seals 2

But only the strangest and most singular of scholars—the Byzantinist—will picture this:

Having just finished an undergraduate degree in classical literature, I dare not claim the distinction of being a Byzantine historian. Nevertheless, I have spent the last three weeks cataloguing a few hundred of Dumbarton Oaks’ 17,000 Byzantine seals, so Byzantine sigillographer seems like a fair job description.

Unlike their waxy red counterparts, which proliferated in the medieval West, the extant Byzantine seals were usually struck from lead or another metal. Moreover, they were always double-sided. Despite its distinctive, coin-like appearance, a Byzantine seal served the same function as any letter seal: it enclosed the document and signified its author.

Few extant Byzantine seals—and none in the Dumbarton Oaks collection—remain affixed to the letters they certified. A rare exception, below, gives us a sense of how the seals were used.

Seals 5

This document, the bull Laetentur coeli, briefly reunited the Greek Church with the papacy at the Council of Florence in the mid-fifteenth century. On the left are the signature and seal of Pope Eugene IV; on the right, those of Emperor John VIII. (Unique among Western Europeans, the pope continued to use a late antique lead seal, suggesting the antiquity of his office.) As you can see, a cord ran through the middle of the seal. To open the document, the recipient cut the cord, allowing the seal to hang down from the bottom.

While the elite could afford seals inscribed with name and office, custom-made designs were beyond the reach of the everyman in Byzantium. Hence, many extant seals are anonymous, inscribed with such messages as Οὗ σραγίς εἰμι τὴν γραφὴν βλέπων νόει (Know whose seal I am by looking at the letter). I’ve personally catalogued more than a dozen seals with that inscription.

Such anonymous inscriptions are far more interesting than initially appear, for each one is a little poem. The line consists of twelve syllables, with a word-break after either the fifth or seventh syllable. (Syllable length does not make a difference here, in contrast to classical Greek verse.)

These inscriptions also tell us about Byzantine popular piety. Both personalized and anonymous seals often often bore the image of a saint, such as the Virgin Mary:

The Greek reads Ἥν ἐλπίδα τίθημι ταύτην σφραγίζω (She in whom I place my trust is depicted on my seal.). While the religiosity of medieval Byzantium is well known, it is striking how closely the Byzantines identified with the saints. The seal, like the signature, was an extension of the self. By sealing his letter with a saint’s image, the writer is claiming the saint as his representative.

The same phenomenon can be seen on this seal, decorated with a now faint depiction of St. Michael. The inscription says Κλίσην φέρω σὴν (καὶ) θέλ(ω) (καὶ) σὴν σκέπην (I bear your name, and I desire your protection, as well). Though we know nothing else about the seal’s owner—where he was from, what position he held was—from the seal we learn that his name was Michael, and he marked his correspondence with an image of his heavenly namesake.

Though the seals are small in size—all 17,000 at Dumbarton Oaks fit comfortably in a refrigerator-sized cabinet—they tell us a great deal about the Byzantine Empire. The literary sources, focused on the deeds of emperors and patriarchs, are largely silent about middling bureaucrats and provincial ecclesiastics. Personalized seals often provide the only evidence of people who were important enough to send extensive correspondence, but not so important as to feature in the imperial annals. Anonymous seals, too, are a boon to modern historians, for they show how the average literate Byzantine, who could not afford a personalized design, portrayed himself.

As it grows ever more complete, Dumbarton Oaks’ online catalogue of seals (including my own modest contributions) will help scholars reconstruct the lives and concerns of the people ignored by Byzantine writers.

Some Swell Swale: An Analysis of My Relationship with a Developing Garden

By Andrea Brown ’19

The native pollinator garden at Dumbarton Oaks, recently designed and planted by Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore, is named “Some Swell Swale” after the Maurice Sendak story “Some Swell Pup.”

Sendak CoverThe alliteration potential was likely the reason for the naming. However, as the Garden Biodiversity intern, the garden is my summer project. I have realized that there are some deeper connections between the children’s book and my relationship with the newly planted garden back behind the parking lot.

The story of “Some Swell Pup” proceeds as follows: A brother and sister buy a puppy. They realize how hard it is to control said puppy. Finally, they come to appreciate the puppy for the young lovable doggo it is, despite its messiness. The tale also features a wise old dog with a purple cloak.

My relationship with the garden has followed a similar path. I will describe the three phases of the experience.

Phase One: We Just Got a Puppy and We’re So Excited

Book: Isn’t she cute?

Me, first day: The garden is so cool. All the plants are native and have been chosen to attract a diverse array of pollinators to the garden. I get to learn how to identify a bunch of native plants that I actually have a chance of seeing around the area.

Phase Two: The Dog Is Chewing Up Our Chair

Book: Our house is just a shambles! We know that mutt is a raving lunatic! It eats everything and makes messes everywhere!Garden 2

Me: The garden was so recently planted that nothing is flowering yet. The Coreopsis are only two inches high and the planted trees are either a foot tall or half dead.

One day, a woman, peering through the fence next to the garden, asked if we were going to plant anything there, even though we were done with the planting. (Note: this phase occurred during a really hot day of weeding in the garden, and thankfully passed quite quickly.)

Phase Three: Oh, I Get It. We Can’t Expect a Puppy to Be Trained Yet.

Book: After some guidance from the wise cloaked dog, the children begin to realize that raising a puppy takes effort. “Hey, he bit me!… That’s love…How sweet,” they say.

Me: We can’t expect the garden to be lush and in full bloom just a few weeks after it was planted. The fact that the plants are taking in the sandy soil (used so that water running off from the parking lot will percolate more quickly) is really encouraging. After mulching, the garden looks much more finished, and I’ve already seen a few bees and wasps checking out the garden. Weeding the garden also gives me the chance to watch the native plants develop and work on my plant identification skills. Plus, the milkweed is flowering!

Garden 3When more plants begin to flower, I will be working with Kim Frietze, another gardener here, on sampling and collecting pollinators who visit the garden. This will give us an idea of how successful various plants are in attracting specific species, and will allow us to have some insight into the success a native plant garden can have in attracting native pollinators.

At the end of these three phases, the children of “Some Swell Pup” are looking forward to their years with the pup, just as I am excited about my summer with the garden.