Forever Lund Scholar: Sarah Theller

Theller on the London EYE during her study abroad in 2020.

A tiny silver figure, a trip to Copenhagen and the courage to question our methods and mindsets about Viking Age art.

Like any study of the past, art history can feel like time travel. Looking at objects made by people ages ago creates a sensation of being there. It’s part of art’s allure. But it can lead us to misunderstand both art and history.

Rather than approaching the past as a puzzle to solve and declaring “this is how it was,” emerging art historians like Sarah Theller restrain the impulse to define and categorize, making intellectual space for new ways of seeing and thinking about ancient art and people.

“A lot of my thesis was just questioning,” says Theller, a painter, sculptor and art historian who traveled to London on the Edward O. Lund Scholarship in 2019. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from Fresno State the following spring, then a master’s in Art History in 2023.

Second-guessing became a driving force for her research, which explored representations of women in the art and mythology of Viking Age Scandinavia.
Theller has Swedish roots and grew up in rural Ohio, so was well-versed in Norse myth. She was surprised to find little scholarship on it beyond archeologists with some art history training, not art historians.

Instead of changing her topic, she dove into the knowledge gap.

“The lack of iconographical analysis was incredibly challenging,” she says, “and fun. Because I got to completely go through this process. It made me question myself a lot. Like, ‘Is this right? Am I judging too much, here?’”

Her resulting thesis, “The Gilded Valkyrie: How Christianization and Binary Concept Distort Interpretation of Viking Iconography,” aimed “to re-analyze methods of classification of metal figurines from Late Iron Age and Viking Age Scandinavia using current social art historical approaches informed by interdisciplinary research with archaeology and gender studies.”

Theller questioned scholars’ ideas but also their methods and mindsets, including disciplinary differences in sciences and humanities that affect how art is interpreted.

She noticed that some representations were labeled “female” or “male,” a standard practice known as “sexing,” even if they lacked features such as genitalia or symbolic indicators of sex. Weapons or trousers indicated “male.” Long hair, “female.”

Most writing about the Viking Age dates from after the Christian conversion of Scandinavia between the eighth and 12th centuries, so can impose perspectives drastically different than the way that Vikings saw the world, she explains, as can our own contemporary views.

Rather than depicting people as binary opposites such as female or male, warrior or healer, Viking Age art often combines or confounds categories, Theller says.
Overlooking such complexities can misrepresent cultures and, worse, keep research from exploring less-traveled paths, she says.

“Instead of focusing on ‘What is it?’ or “Why did someone create it?’ or ‘What might it mean?’, we’re focused on labeling it.”

In January 2023, Theller’s research took a turn.

She received a College of Arts and Humanities travel grant and flew to Copenhagen to see the Hårby Figure, part of a major exhibition at The National Museum of Denmark.

Unearthed in 2012, the 1.3-inch-high gilded silver figurine dates around 800 AD and has been celebrated as a rare example of mythological Valkyries, supernatural servants of Odin who whisked fallen warriors up to Valhalla.

Archeologists quickly dubbed it “a female Valkyrie” and nobody asked why.

Standing before it herself, Theller did.

The Härby Figure, which archeologists dubbed “a female Valkyrie” almost immediately after it was unearthed in 2012. Theller had other ideas.  (Photo: Sarah Theller)

 “I thought it was strange that she was labeled this way because of how she was represented,” she says. Although the figure carries a sword and shield, “she doesn’t exactly look battle ready. So, I started questioning that.”

The trip gave her the chance to work with leading Danish archeologists Leszek Gardela and Peter Pentz, the museum senior researcher who helped organize the exhibition, and took her through it himself.

Walking the exhibits engaged in an intellectual “back and forth” with him was pivotal, Theller says. As he pointed out details, her thinking made startling moves.

“I just threw out what I thought, that the Valkyrie was more like a priestess,” she says. “It’s not that this was just a person or it was just a supernatural being. It was both. It was a person engaged in a ceremonial role and they took on the supernatural, like they embodied a deity or a spirit.”

She expected skepticism, maybe laughter.

“They didn’t say anything like ‘No!’ or ‘Yes!’ but just nodded, enthusiastically,” she says. “That felt really good.”

Theller’s 2023 graduate art show, titled “Ragnorak” or “twilight of the gods,” drew on her art history research and personal experiences to explore ways that violent imagery can help us confront trauma and “ugliness” behind it.

The trip emboldened her to challenge prevailing ideas in her final thesis, which earned the 2023 College of Arts and Humanities Outstanding Thesis award and invitations such as a Fresno County Archeological Society guest lecture.

Theller also chose to present a graduate art show titled “Ragnarök”, or “twilight of the gods.” She was named the college’s 2023 Graduate Student of Distinction and a Dean’s Medal runner-up.

She says it may never have happened without the Lund Scholarship

Hopping on a plane to go see Viking art “is not something kids from small-town Ohio think they’re going to do,” she says, “but I knew from the Lund [trip], ‘Okay. I can do this.’”

Going to London led her to study art history and gave her confidence to do what she thought she could not, she says. It’s given her a mantra for life.

“I kind of trick myself, now,” she says. “If I’m, like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ I literally say, ‘Yes, you can. You went to Copenhagen. You went to London.’”
Theller thanks everyone who helped her find the courage to fly to a foreign city to look at a tiny little object, and to keep asking questions.

“I realized my own strength,” she says. “I want to say thank you, especially Buddy and Lisa, for a life-changing journey.”

Theller with a Viking Age Scandinavian runestone at the National Museum of Denmark in 2023.

Forever Lund Scholar: Sarah Theller

by | Jun 9, 2024 | Forever Lund Scholars

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