Gudrun Bühl: The 'Grado Chair Story' Revisited


For more than one century, the so-called Grado Chair ivory panels made scholars almost exclusively circle around questions of chronology and localization: Were the panels carved in Alexandria, South Italy, in Constantinopel, Egypt, Syria, or Palestine? Were they carved in the 6th, in the 7th to 8th, or in the 11th century? Their original ‘unity’, once established because of commonalities in style and iconography, was debated, too. Was the original function of the plaques to embellish a throne, a door, a chest, an antependium or a pulpit?

Since the core group has been discussed in an article in 1899 by Hans Graeven, the panels are associated with an ivory throne documented in historic sources as made in Alexandria and sent as a gift by the Emperor Heraclius to the cathedral of Grado around the first quarter of the seventh century.

The obvious diversity in style and iconography, however, as well as the difficulty to define the original purpose of the panels resulted in a wide range of scholarly opinions.

It seems that art historians can hardly think of anything else but date and place of origin when it comes to discuss these remarkable works of ivory. And despite the latest radiocarbon analysis of two panels, there are still many open questions, even regarding the ‘interpretation’ of scientific data. Besides presenting the past and ongoing discussions, the paper will propose suggestions regarding the ivory ensemble, its design, manufacture and wider embedding context.

Gudrun Bühl received her Ph.D. in Byzantine Art History at Freiburg University/Germany, specializing in Early Byzantine Art and Archaeology with a focus on iconography for her dissertation on the representation and meaning of personifications of cities, especially Roma and Constantinopolis.

After teaching Byzantine Art and Archaeology at the University of Göttingen, she was Assistant Curator in the Byzantine Collection at the Bodemuseum in Berlin and lectured on Byzantine Art at the Berlin Freie Universität. As an archaeologist, Gudrun Bühl has participated in surveys of rural settlements in the ancient province of Cilicia/modern Turkey.

Bühl has edited several volumes and has published numerous articles and reviews in journals and exhibition catalogues, focusing on early and middle Byzantine works of ivory. Since 2004 she serves as curator of the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks and since 2005 as director of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum; after a major redesign of the exhibitions she has edited a new volume "The Collections" introducing the Dumbarton Oaks highlights to a broader public.

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