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December 10, 2001

Just visiting

By Eric Rangus


Olenka Pevny’s bags are unpacked. All her books are neatly arranged upon the shelves in her Carlos Hall office. By all accounts Pevny appears comfortably entrenched.

This is a temporary condition.

Pevny is in the middle of the second year of a two-year Mellon Fellowship in the art history department. Emory is the third stop of Pevny’s academic career. An expert in Byzantine art and architecture, she previously held visiting professorships at Columbia University and the University of Michigan—a trio of universities that would make a pretty impressive postcard collage.

While Pevny acknowledges the difficulties of saying goodbye to people she meets along the way, she is quick to point out the positives of being a visiting faculty member.

“It has a lot of advantages,” Pevny said. “For me, the foremost benefit is having the opportunity to teach in my field. I get to develop courses I would like to teach, as opposed to teaching general survey classes.”

And Pevny’s field is one that doesn’t always receive a lot of publicity.

Byzantine culture flourished for more than a millennium, primarily in the eastern Mediterranean, up through eastern Europe and into what is present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Its existence mirrored that of Consantinople, from its founding (in 330 by the emperor Constantine) to its fall (in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks).

Much of Byzantine art is iconic in nature, while in Western Europe veneration focused on the relic—the remains of a given saint or an object associated with the life of Christ, in Byzantium icons also served as avenues of communication with the holy. When Byzantine faithful were in the presence of an icon or image, Pevny said, they believed they were in the presence of the depicted holy person.

“What I find fascinating about Byzantium is that it is so cosmopolitan,” Pevny said. “Constantinople was the cultural center of Europe from the sixth to the 12th century, and Byzantine art was exported to Western Europe and appreciated there. It also maintained a dialogue with Islam and then was appropriated in Eastern Europe. I’m very interested in the way Byzantine art came to impact and formulate the identities of different peoples.”

Despite that long history, Byzantine art classes are not common. Pevny’s courses, in fact, are the first offered at Emory in the subject.

“One of my goals is to make this material accessible to a broader student body,” Pevny said. “I never got to take a Byzantine art class as an undergraduate; I didn’t encounter Byzantine art until my first year of graduate school. My goal is to hopefully make this subject an integral part of the study of Western culture. If you think about it, [Byzantium] extended over half of Europe for over 1,000 years, and Byzantine Orthodoxy encompasses a whole branch of Christianity that really doesn’t receive much attention. I think it’s almost criminal not to offer classes on Byzantine art and culture.”

One of Pevny’s favorite accomplishments is a lecture on Byzantine art she gave to an art history survey class. “That was a great achievement, just to reach 100 students,” she said. “If you present this material in a 101 class, then you’ll have students interested in taking a 300-level class in the area.”

A native of New York, Pevny is a first-generation American of Ukrainian descent. Her parents emigrated from Ukraine and arrived in the United States in the 1950s. That ethnic background naturally drew her to Eastern Europe, where she has done a majority of her research—particularly in the former Soviet Union.

It hasn’t always been easy. Pevny ate cabbage cooked in tomato sauce for two months while the city of St. Petersburg struggled through a food shortage. She has dealt with less-than-stellar conditions (political and otherwise) in Crimea doing archival and archeological work on the city of Khersones, an ancient Greek colony that also was ruled by the Romans, Byzantines and Genoese.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, not long after Pevny earned her master’s in art history, the political fires of independence began burning—and she was in the middle of it all. Pevny witnessed student demonstrations and became so involved in the political developments that she now jokes her parents were afraid she might not come back to the United States.

In the summer of 1991, Pevny was in Moscow for the Aug. 19 coup that overthrew the communists and established the Russian republic. She had been attending an international Byzantine conference. Less than a week later she was in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, for that country’s declaration of independence.

Pevny is quick and happily excited to show a visitor slides documenting these events: a tank rolling through the streets of Moscow, dozens of light-blue and gold flags and banners being waved by thousands of ecstatic Ukrainians in Kiev.

“I love what I do, and I’ve enjoyed every position I’ve held so far, but the best part of it all has been my dissertation research in the former Soviet Union, and then in Russia and Ukraine,” Pevny said. “Just being there during the events that led up to the coup was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

Pevny’s dissertation studies the relationship between Byzantine art and collective identity in medieval Kiev through the exdploration of the art and architecture of the Church of St. Cyril in Kiev, a 12th century landmark of the Byzantine period. It’s a work she is turning into a book, which she hopes to complete by August.

In addition to her teaching and research, Pevny has museum experience, having worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for several years. The highlight of her time there was an exhibition called “The Glory of Byzantium.”

“It brought Byzantine art and the art of various Slavic people to the attention of so many visitors,” she said. “When you teach classes, you deal with an audience of 30 students, maybe, but here we had over a million visitors to the exhibition. The impact was great. We were able to present a wide range of facets of Byzantine art.”

Opening Byzantine art’s doors to a wider audience is most certainly one of Pevny’s foremost goals, but for next step will be in a slightly different direction: discussing Byzantine art with students in Byzantium’s backyard. After she leaves Emory following the academic year, Pevny hopes to continue her teaching in Kiev.

“It would be wonderful to find a permanent position, maybe even here at Emory, but I also think it would be a stimulating experience to learn how my presentation of Byzantine art is accepted by the people who are the inheritors of this culture and tradition, and to see how they will critique or react to my classes.” she said, adding she would like to teach there for about a year.

Just long enough for a nice visit.


Back to Emory Report December 10, 2001