ALEXANDRIA, VA – A 3,000-year-old carving from Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) will go on display at Christie’s New York April 13th in advance of a planned sale in October. Proceeds from the sale will underwrite Bicentennial initiatives such as the Vocations Scholarship Fund
, making residential seminary education more accessible to candidates who reflect the changing face of the Episcopal Church.
“We are beginning to look toward our bicentennial in 2023,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D., dean and president, “Both this sale and the resulting scholarship fund illustrate just two of the ways VTS is changing as we look to the next century of service to the Episcopal Church.”
The carving in question is a seven-foot stone panel from the Northwest palace of the Assyrian ruler Ashurnasirpal II. Known as the Bearded Winged Apukalu, it is one of three low-relief carvings sent to VTS in 1859 by Dr. Henri B. Haskell from an excavation begun by Austen Henry Layard. Carvings from the same excavation are on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the British Museum in London, among others. In 2017 a routine insurance audit revealed the value of the three tablets had more than quadrupled, raising concerns about their unsecured location in the Seminary library.
Insurance premiums for the three tablets jumped to $70,000 per year. After months of study and consultation with students, faculty, and staff, the Board of Trustees determined to sell the largest of the three tablets.
“It was a difficult decision,” says Markham. “These are world-class treasures that have been part of Virginia Seminary’s history for over 150 years. But in the end, the Trustees felt that the cost of maintaining the entire collection would pull resources from our primary mission to educate lay and ordained leaders for the Episcopal Church.”
The Vocations Scholarship Fund, which the sale will underwrite, will support Seminary education for international students, students of color, and second-career students. VTS has a long commitment to graduating students without the burden of educational debt.
Director of Admissions Derek Greten-Harrison says that, as the demographics of the Episcopal Church have changed, so has financial need. He points out that a student’s finances may “look okay on paper,” but not accurately reflect how much aid they require to pay for seminary; for example, while standard financial aid metrics do not account for existing student debt, they do classify an applicant’s retirement accounts as resources to pay tuition. International students have extra expenses such as long-distance travel and the expense of two households—their life at VTS plus their family back home.
Virginia Theological Seminary’s commitment to low student debt is more than a marketing strategy or a nice idea, says Greten-Harrison. “We’re graduating students into a profession that rarely comes with a high salary. There’s a moral dimension to saddling them with a lot of debt.” Looking over a list of student applicants, he describes “a terrific candidate” who arrived in the US as a refugee, now a leader in his church and community.
“The kind of work he’s doing to support his family hasn’t left him much to fall back on.” Greten-Harrison points out that VTS established the Bishop Payne Scholarship in 2007 to help bridge this kind of gap for Black Episcopalians. As the Seminary begins to serve more Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students, he sees a need for a financial infrastructure to support these students as well.
VTS will retain a laser reproduction of the auctioned carving for teaching purposes. The two slightly smaller tablets from the excavation will remain at the Seminary and will be the focus of a symposium, “Reconstructing the Reliefs from the Temple of Ninurta,
” planned for the spring of 2019. Conference organizer, the Rev. Melody Knowles, Ph.D., academic dean and Old Testament professor, says invitations will go out this summer to a slate of international scholars.
“We at Virginia Seminary are part of a tradition that values artifacts from the past and continues to interrogate them with new and emerging questions. Our students and faculty flourish in a context where ancient texts and contemporary perspectives continue to spark new analysis.”
The sale of the Bearded Apukalu will also help fund appropriately secure display space on the Virginia Seminary campus for the remaining reliefs without invading funds intended for the Seminary’s daily mission and ministry.