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Empires, faiths, and identities

10 November 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on views of religion at the Ashmolean, in Oxford, and the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

The Hinton St Mary roundel: Dorset, early fourth century

The Hinton St Mary roundel: Dorset, early fourth century

THIS year, as a current exhibition in Spain’s National Library in Madrid brilliantly demonstrates (“Urbs beata Hierusalem”, to 7 January 2018), marks not only Luther’s call for reform 500 years ago, but also in 1517 the seizure of Jerusalem from the Mameluks of Egypt by Selim I.

Throughout the following four centuries, the life of the Near East was dominated by the Ottoman Turks, who, none the less, allowed continued access to the Holy Places, under the control of the Francsicans. Pilgrimages continued, and a pattern, already established for nine centuries of accommodation and mutual survival within the very different lives of the People of the Book, continued.

That exhibition charts the often surprising links between Jew, Christian, and Muslim. The Ashmolean has turned its attention to the artistic images of five great world faiths, in partnership with the British Museum, whose own exhibition, arranged by Neil MacGregor, “Living with Gods”, opened a fortnight later.

The Oxford exhibition is the culmination of a four-year research project, Empires of Faith: a collective enterprise that has examined the first millennium CE, when the visual identities of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and later Islam were all forged. The curator Stefanie Lenk is a doctoral student at Oxford, studying the use of pre-Christian imagery by the Christian communities of the Late Antique world of the Mediterranean. Her co-curator for this exhibition is Jas Elsner, who is widely known in Oxford and Cambridge, as well as in Chicago and Rome, for his work on attitudes to art in Late Antiquity.

Throughout the exhibition, and in the richly illustrated catalogue, the organisers have decided to use only the Christian dating system “simply for the sake of uniformity”. Given the sensitivity with which much of the exhibition and the project has had to be handled, this seems crass in the extreme. Perforce, I shall need follow their lead, even though my own primary-school children will point out the inconsistency.

Assimilation and often hostile rebuttal of earlier cultures and religions, the adoption of figurative and anthropomorphic images, and their subsequent, often unexplained, rejection make for a fascinating inquiry into what it means to represent the divine.

Seventy-six objects are drawn from the museum’s own collections, while the BM has loaned a further 20, including three standing stones from England, Wales, and Scotland, and the V&A 16.

Other lenders include the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield (the remarkable St Chad Gospels of 725-750), the city of Birmingham (“The Staffordshire Hoard”), and, from further afield, the terracotta tiles from Vinica in FYROM and a seated cross-legged figure Jina from Mathura, India.

The exhibition roughly spans the 650-year period from the rise of the Sasenian kingdom to the Carolingian world. It covers the reach of the former Macedonian kingdom and of the Roman Empire, and consciously follows the trade routes and lines of migration across three continents.

It is, therefore, something of an unexplained luxury to find that the first gallery brings together artefacts from a much later period. We get to see a scroll depicting the avatars of Vishnu in watercolour (V&A) from colonial India (Madras, 1771-79) and, also from the Victoria & Albert Museum, a 17th-century linen parochet, embroidered in Venice in 1676 to cover a Torah ark.

From the 15th century CE comes a portable painting of the Buddha, a Cretan icon depicting the seated Christ between the Virgin and St John, who intercede for us (Deësis); and a souvenir certificate presented to a woman, Maymunah, who completed the hajj in 1432-23.

Equally as suddenly, we are brought back to the world of the Roman Empire with a rare cult figure of Dionysus which was worshipped in his temple at Cyrene in Libya. Clutching a bunch of grapes in his left hand as he struggles to hold up his toga, he stands, one and three-quarter metres tall, seemingly indifferent to his devotees. His strong association with wine and his apparent death and rebirth suggest a salvific cycle for which Christianity evolved another vocabulary.

Opposite is a carved marble figure of Hermes carrying a ram, saved from Zubeir in modern-day Iraq, just south of Basra in the early 20th century. At first glance, we might think that we have found a depiction of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Christians certainly appropriated much of his cult.

The inveterate second-century Greek traveller Pausanias tells us that at Tanagara, in Boiotia, the Tanagrans celebrated how the god saved their city, walking around it while carrying a ram over his shoulders. The early Classical sculptor Kalamis commemorated the event with a statue of the naked god carrying the ram, an image that was transferred to their coinage. Apart from an untraced statuette in Berlin (lost in 1945), all surviving statues, as here, show Hermes wearing a shepherd’s cloak.

The exhibition wrestles with the problems of representation. Why was Jesus first portrayed as a fresh-faced youth (as we see in the first known depiction of the crucifixion, on an ivory panel from the fourth century), but then later as fully bearded? Was there any reason why Buddhism stopped portraying the Buddha and chose instead to mark his presence (or absence) with carvings of his footprints? There are no proscriptions in any of the Buddhist texts, but only a few early sketches images of the teacher survive.

Judaism and Islam (and in some periods Christianity) are presumed to be aniconic, but we are shown the mosaic decoration of the Dome of the Rock and of early synagogues by way of a reminder that an uneasiness with figural images did not prevent the creation of rich imagery. Early pilgrims to Mecca were apparently given badges on which Muhammad was depicted as a visual means of spreading the new faith. None is included here.

As the followers of the Prophet spread, so, too, did the use of Arabic. In the ninth century, the Karaites were a group of observant Jews living in Egypt who rejected rabbinic law and practised a strict literalist interpretation of the scriptures. Their scriptures, written in Arabic cursive, have been ornamented with gold, owing much to the contemporary decoration of Qur’ans as two folios from the book of Exodus show in glowing detail (British Library).

There are, of course, also stories of determined iconoclasm, and the exhibition makes no bones about the destruction of images, as in the grave stele from Yemen, where the donor figure of Rabi’at has long gone, although, when it was first carved, the patron included, in Sabaean, an anathema against any such iconoclast — all to no avail. No more identifiable is an eight-headed Tantric goddess shorn of her attributes before being turned over to provide a decorative wall for a Bengali mosque, or perhaps a Hindu temple.

The visual sign of absence of another kind is contained in a footprint, which is a commonplace for all faiths, whether that drawn on a pilgrim’s scroll in Mecca or those of the Buddha or Vishnu, or Jesus, at the rock of his ascension or in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis on the Appian Way.

We learn that in Sri Lanka the most famous of all of Buddha’s Buddhapada is on Adam’s peak, which Hindus claim for Shiva, and which is regarded by Christians as that of St Thomas the Doubter and by Muslims as that of Adam. The dome-slab sculpture carved with the Buddha’s footprints comes from Deccan and measures 65 x 70cm.

Setting foot in this exhibition is to enter a world of great beauty, and to leave with as many questions raised as answered.


“Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 18 February. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org

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