If you are interested in pursuing graduate studies in art history or any other field, take an active role in your education from the outset, make connections in the field, and work relentlessly toward achieving whatever academic goals you set out.
Alice Isabella Sullivan
B.A., Bowdoin College (2008)
M.A., Williams College (2010)
Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art, University of Michigan (degree expected May 2017)
It is quite a moment right now to reflect on my pursuits since graduating from Bowdoin College. I have been on a long journey since Bowdoin—nine years in total—and I am thrilled to share that it will conclude in a few short months with the completion of my doctorate in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan. I am scheduled to defend my dissertation on May 1, 2017—a much-anticipated moment.
My interest in the study of art history began at Bowdoin, in spring 2005, when I took Prof. Wegner’s course on the arts of Venice. Having visited Venice when I was ten years old, I wanted to learn more. I discovered through Prof. Wegner’s course the rich insights that visual analysis and historical contextualization could offer. I completed my degree at Bowdoin in three and a half years with almost half of my credits in art history. I was inspired and stimulated by the courses I took, and I appreciated the love and care with which Prof. Wegner, Prof. Perkinson, Prof. Docherty, and Prof. Olds in particular were teaching. They all instilled in me an appreciation for the study of art history and a desire to pursue a career in the field as an active scholar and dedicated teacher. In their courses, I became fascinated by the potential of art objects and monuments to provide insight into the beliefs, aspirations, anxieties, and struggles of the people who created them in a given era. But it was the study of medieval art in particular that helped me see how art history could bring one to reveal a more nuanced understanding of the past and to kindle an appreciation of the energy and ingenuity of architects and artists. I knew early on that I wanted to pursue a career as a historian of medieval art and architecture. Little did I know then that it was going to take many years of study and training, and support from numerous individuals, organizations, and institutions.
Encouraged by Prof. Perkinson, I applied to the Williams College Graduate Program in Art History. At Williams, over the course of two years, I continued my study of western medieval art, and also began studying Byzantine art and architecture under the guidance of Prof. Peter Low. I became interested in objects and monuments that demonstrate a compound visual rhetoric, and the medieval and early modern artistic production of regions in east-central Europe. I wanted to explore further these interests in my doctoral studies, and luckily the University of Michigan had the exceptional faculty and resources to assist in my scholarly pursuits. The stimulating and rigorous seminars at Michigan, the mentoring and training I received from the faculty, and the incredible resources available at the university stand at the core of my academic successes. Looking back now, I could not have chosen a better graduate program!
After coursework and exams, I spent four years at Michigan working on my dissertation project titled “The Painted Fortified Monastic Churches of Moldavia: Bastions of Orthodoxy in a Post-Byzantine World.” This research that focuses on the artistic production of east-central Europe and the Slavic-Byzantine cultural spheres from c.1100 to c.1600, straddles the artificial divide between the “medieval” and the “early modern” periods, while complementing and also challenging current Anglo-American art historical narratives. The visual articulation of ideas and ideologies at critical historical moments, and the ways in which cross-cultural exchange and translation operated in frontier regions leading up to, and following, historical moments of crisis, stand at the core of my research. My dissertation centers on the painted and fortified Orthodox monastic churches of early modern Moldavia—lying within the borders of northeastern modern Romania and the Republic of Moldova—built in the decades following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. These churches present an unprecedented mixture of western Gothic, Byzantine, Slavic, and even Islamic architectural and iconographic features integrated alongside local forms and developments. On the exterior of these churches, moreover, hundreds of brightly colored religious scenes in multiple registers are interspersed with historical narratives adapted to address contemporary local anxieties.
Church of the Annunciation,
Moldoviţa Monastery, Moldavia,
modern-day Romania, begun 1532,
painted 1537 (photo: AIS)
The monuments have largely been studied by local historians who have formally examined the buildings from archaeological and iconographic standpoints but have not used the resulting material to broach larger issues of cultural contact and assimilation. Western European and North American scholars have paid little attention to the visual culture of this region. To a large degree, this neglect is the consequence of twentieth-century politics. The Iron Curtain created both actual and ideological barriers, rendering certain kinds of cultural and interpretive studies and scholarly exchanges difficult. An important part of my project has been the attempt to develop a critical framework for the evaluation of the Moldavian corpus of ecclesiastical monuments, approaching the material through cultural connections, historically grounded methodologies, and more nuanced interpretive strategies.
My research engages with the architecture, image programs, and functions of the Moldavian churches in the context of religious politics and patronage, the Orthodox liturgy, the cult of saints, and the theory of images. As such, I analyze the extent to which these churches aided in the construction of a new sacred landscape in Moldavia at this crucial moment, while presenting visual responses to a series of crises located in the past, present, and future: the events of 1453, the declared end of the world in 1492 as predicted by the Eastern Orthodox Christians, the failed Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529, and the Reformation unfolding in the west in the early decades of the sixteenth century. Notions of history, cultural memory, artistic integration, spatio-temporal experiences, kinds of cross-cultural rapport and modes of translation are concerns central to my research. My work involves, too, a reexamination of existing periodizations, since “medieval” artistic forms were produced in this eastern European region, and some of its adjacent territories, well into the eighteenth century.
Church of the Resurrection,
Suceviţa Monastery, Moldavia,
begun 1581, painted 1595
My interest in the rich Moldavian corpus of ecclesiastical monuments began in a seminar on medieval image theory in fall 2011 at the University of Michigan. Prof. Elizabeth Sears led the seminar and encouraged me to delve into the Moldavian material. The project then developed under the tutelage of my doktorvater, Prof. Achim Timmermann, who from the outset was supportive of my interest in pursuing research on the artistic production of east-central Europe, and the little-studied regions of the Carpathian Mountains. Over the years, I have also enjoyed tremendously working with the other members of my committee—Prof. Elizabeth Sears, Prof. Paroma Chatterjee, and Prof. John V.A. Fine—who offered enthusiasm, key advice, and invaluable suggestions at various stages in the process. Their assistance enabled me to think carefully and critically about the works I study, and push my project in exciting new directions.
The incredible resources available at the University of Michigan made my research possible at home and abroad. In addition to numerous grants and fellowships from Michigan, I was fortunate to receive funding from external sources, including a three-year predoctoral fellowship from the Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Foundation, the Twelve-Month Chester Dale Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Rensselaer W. Lee Memorial Grant in Art History from the Renaissance Society of America, the Robert and Janet Lumiansky Dissertation Grant from the Medieval Academy of America, and a research grant from the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture. My project would not have been feasible without this substantial financial assistance from various institutions and organizations, which has supported travel, research, study, and the writing stages of the dissertation.
During my graduate career I have come to appreciate the benefits of scholarly exchange, and recognize that my identity as a scholar of the Middle Ages extends, and will continue to do so, beyond research, writing, and teaching. My memberships on the student committees of both the Medieval Academy of America and the International Center of Medieval Art, as well as my curatorial and research work in museums, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, have enabled me to contribute to initiatives geared toward the intellectual and professional development of graduate students and young professionals. These undertakings have shaped my thinking and understanding of the field of art history and my place, as a medievalist, within it. My work, moreover, has improved as a result of my participation in various workshops and conferences over the years. These venues have provided great opportunities to engage in scholarly dialogue with colleagues and audience members, as well as to think in more nuanced and critical ways about my research, teaching, and contributions to the field of art history.
In the coming year, I have articles that will appear in The Art Bulletin, Speculum, and Studies in History and Theory of Architecture. In addition, I am working on a short book project on the history of medieval Moldavia as Europe’s eastern Christian frontier that will be published with Arc Humanities Press through the series Past Imperfect. I am also investing time in determining how I will revise my dissertation into a two-part book. The first part will address the compound visual character of the Moldavian churches, as well as the complexities of cross-cultural exchange and the processes of visual translation in eastern Europe during the later Middle Ages. In the second part, I will explore the varied dimensions of Orthodox monastic spaces and the visual and spatial manifestations of dynastic, economic, political, and military concerns on the part of the patrons in the monastic sphere.
In 1998, after winning the Green Card Lottery the previous year, my parents decided to leave behind their medical careers in Romania, and, with the artifacts of our lives packed into just two suitcases, moved the family to Boston. I found myself in a foreign land, learning to speak an unknown language. A lot has changes since then, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to approach the history and culture of my former home through a different lens, as I have lived and studied in the United States since I was 12 years old. My academic and personal backgrounds have converged in my research in a way that, I believe, has allowed me to gain exciting insights from the works I study. I am grateful today that my parents took that leap of faith almost twenty years ago in hopes for a better future. My journey has been challenging, but incredibly rewarding and worthwhile, and I am thankful for all the people at Bowdoin and beyond who have contributed to my successes.
A piece of advice: If you are interested in pursuing graduate studies in art history or any other field, take an active role in your education from the outset, make connections in the field, and work relentlessly toward achieving whatever academic goals you set out. Select a topic of research that will sustain you, and find ways to make it exciting and relevant to the work of others. Engage in conversations with colleagues often, because good scholarship does not develop in a vacuum. And, at the end of the day, remember, that whatever you choose to do and work toward, if you put love and care into it, it will show!