Two full walls of Zsuzsanna Gulacsi’s small office are lined with hundreds of textbooks, historical references to some of the world’s oldest existing artworks. Three of those books are also her own.
Flipping through each, she pointed to faded book and image fragments. Using digital reconstruction and diagrams, Gulacsi illustrates what she calls forensic art history: the foundation of her groundbreaking research on Manichean codices and picture books dating back to the third century.
The ancient religion of Western Asia, her primary field of study, has intellectually challenged the Northern Arizona University professor of Art History and Asian Studies for decades. And for her work, in early April Gulacsi earned an esteemed John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities.
Before she prepares for her sabbatical year in 2017, during which she will dive into research as a resident at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, Gulacsi pulled back the curtain on her life’s work.
She first met fragments of long-buried art history in publications during her graduate research. She identified the corpus belonging to Manichaeism: a monotheistic religion founded by the Iranian prophet, Mani. The movement rooted in cosmology and good versus evil was wiped out by persecution, coming to extinction in the late 14th century.
Manichean texts and images survived though, however fragmented after 1,700 years, including artworks painted or commissioned by Mani himself. But they did not survive in good enough condition to be understandable, Gulacsi said, so she turned to digital technology.
A pre-WWI archeological discovery unearthed more than 5,000 book fragments in the deserts of Northwest China, a region once controlled by the Uyghurs. Gulacsi, along with her colleagues at NAU’s now-closed Bilby Research Center, digitally reconstructed the faded fragments. She used historical contexts and the data like color and motifs left behind in the image itself.
To sift through the image, and help viewers understand, she then developed diagrams that break down the images’ vital information: stick figures and little captions explaining the figures’ poses.
Just one of Gulacsi’s significant discoveries is an image of Manicheans’ view of the universe. The elaborate design includes 900 figures and illustrates the basics of Mani’s teachings, Gulacsi said, from God’s paradise and below.
“You can imagine a priest, a learned teacher in this tradition, would just sit down with the disciples and explain. To make sense out of it in an academic context, we needed a diagram,” she said. “The benefit is once it’s all done, this very, very complex teaching is captured visually and can be discussed scholarly. Without this diagram, it’s almost impossible to do.”
Decades of analysis
Before developing this forensic process, Gulacsi’s PhD work took her to Germany to study the objects in person for a year. She handled the fragments inside glass frames, measuring and tracing — making sense of the material — and giving them the attention she felt they were due.
That body of data had to be interpreted, she said. “Observation is one thing and understanding what you hold in your hand, but analysis and interpretation is another layer in all scholarship.”
With high-quality digital images, notes and tracings, Gulacsi continued her 10-year analysis remotely. Her groundbreaking work first identified the Manichean objects — including the oldest known today, the Crystal Sealstone of Mani.
“I found that my strength is using a methodology in art history; the toolbox of art history,” she described of applying methods laid out for Byzantine, Islamic and Buddhist art in general. “I could take those methods and apply them to this corpus that had been routinely misinterpreted and never looked at before as a group together.”
She found the images in the codex were all sideways compared to the text. Proving this, she said, took 10 years and an entire book. Explaining why has taken her into another decade — and another book.
“That kind of approach — tremendously time consuming, but now that I’m 20 years into it, it landed a Guggenheim. I’m very honored that my work has started to be recognized at this national and international level,” she said in earnest.
At the Humanities Center, Gulacsi will expand research based on her most recent book that was published in the summer of 2015. She will use these comparative examples to point out the importance of this shared culture of teaching with images in different parts of the world at that time, including early Judaism in Mesopotamia — just 10 days walking distance from where Mani created his “Book of Pictures.”
This field of discoveries is a constant intellectual challenge, Gulacsi explained. Without research, she said, she would not be an effective teacher for her students mounting their own research.
“I pride myself on involving my students in research at the undergraduate level,” she said, noting her colleagues do the same. “We are all scholars. We are all sacrificing to be able to do our scholarship besides teaching, and it’s just a life that is very satisfying to me personally. It’s an honor to be able to do this.”