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Many Princes without their Hamlet

10 November 2017

Nicholas Cranfield reviews the British Museum’s ‘Living with Gods’ exhibition

© Trustees of the British Museum

Processional Cross: from Ethiopia, 19th century

Processional Cross: from Ethiopia, 19th century

UNDER the Old Dispensation, the great basilica of Our Lady of Kazan in Leningrad, served from 1932 as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. It offered an opiate of seeing, vitrine after vitrine, the cult objects from the perverted communities of religious believers. The more violent aspects of anti-religious bias were toned down when it was revamped in 1981.

It traduced the sacred scriptures of all faiths as legends and lies, and although Old Believers and covert Christians would gather in front of icons and nod their prayers under the steely gaze of otherwise indifferent guards, the purpose was clear; Christ was “the Jewish Fortune-teller”, depicted as the Oppressor.

When I visited, two young men, one Russian Orthodox and the other Baptist (who had been instructed in school that Christians ate babies), offered a guided tour of the collection to earn some roubles for their church communities, with whom I subsequently worshipped. The museum was a comprehensive show of the anthropological and societal corruption brought about by belief.

The almost too frenetic jumble of objects from around the world assembled in Bloomsbury frequently reminded me of Leningrad. That distorted exhibition seemed to have a clear ideological purpose, whereas the premise of the British Museum show, curated by Jill Cook, and for which Neil MacGregor (Features, 3 November) is writing a Penguin history to accompany his Radio 4 series of talks (March 2018), is somewhat ambiguous.

At the outset we are challenged: “Seeing how people believe rather than considering what they believe suggests a natural inclination for transcendent worlds and beings. Stimulated by our senses our minds connect and express thoughts that through stories, objects, images and rituals decrease anxieties and help to form strong social bonds, making our worlds well-ordered and understandable.

“As this tendency is natural to all human beings, it begs the question of whether the modern human species should be defined as wise, Homo sapiens, or as believing, Homo religiosus?”

Apart from the non sequiturs and the nice misunderstanding that “religion” equates with “belief”, the startling provocation of this slipshod thinking leads into a consideration of whether, however diverse our religious cults, there might be an underlying innate neurological trigger to find God or gods in the meaning of the world.

It opened on the day when the Western Church commemorates All Souls, and so includes a papier-maché figure of a red devil from Mexico where the Day of the Dead, as it is called, is a universal celebration by the Living of their Dead. Common strands are drawn of how other cultures honour their dead and celebrate life.

A large wooden model of juggernaut for deities to ride in from an Indian temple from the 18th century stands in front of three large Coptic processional crosses used across Ethiopia every September to commemorate the finding of the True Cross in 328 by the Empress Helena. The design on an embroidered cotton “Hundred Bird Coat” (20th century) for the Guzhang Festival of the Miao people in Hunan Province is here turned into a shopping bag. The festival, which is held every 12 years, lasts four or five years and is claimed to be China’s largest.

Elsewhere, we find beads used around the world to help men and women say their prayers. Not a single Greek rope of kombouloi among them, we see here a contemporary Spanish jeweller’s rosary. Comprising a string of emeralds with a pyx-like carrying case (Tiffany’s), this is set beside the more spartan wooden beads (and natural seeds, like the sea chestnuts) of other faiths, as if to pass judgement on luxuriant Christianity as a religious cosmetic.

In a display given over to fire, the rather beautiful early-14th-century Swabian diptych depicting the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is referred to as “two painted panels”. Nothing is said to indicate its importance in medieval Christianity.

The first object we encounter, sentinel-like, is the extraordinary masterpiece of carved ivory of “Lion man”, said to be 40,000 years old: the oldest figurative image, half man, half lion. Ivory is notoriously difficult to date accurately, which explains why the current global agreement is almost impossible to police, but, give or take a couple of millennia, this is an amazing work (illustrated in last week’s feature).

Rightly placed at the centre of Jill Cook’s brilliant exhibition “Ice Age Art” in January 2013, it is a rare find from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany. Uncovered by a Nazi archaeological dig in the summer of 1939, it was not assembled from a couple of hundred fragments until the 1960s. The grandeur of the figure, which may, or equally may not, have had a cultic purpose, stands as proudly as Michelangelo’s David.

The Soviet creed I recall finding displayed in Leningrad in 1988 is explored here with a small painting of a cosmonaut laughing at the great void of space. “There’s no God!” he shouts. Maybe such propaganda is really the call of a lonely soul to find an inner meaning. One of the “Lampedusa crosses” made from the flotsam of a migrant boat in 2015 and sculpted refugee boats (bent mudguards and burnt matchsticks) offers a final reflection on the ineffable.

The objects, so many of them incredibly beautiful, have been untimely ripped from their faithful context. It will need Neil MacGregor to give it all some meaning and to bring it alive.


“Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 8 April 2018. Phone 020 7323 8000.

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