The exhibition, Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, and its catalogue are results of a multi-year, collaborative research project between the British Museum and the University of Oxford entitled Empires of Faith. The research project's purpose was to explore the emergence of religious imagery and iconographies across Asia and Europe in different religious traditions between 200-800 C.E., while the focus of the exhibition and catalogue was slightly broader, covering the first-millennium development of five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (see here). The curators state that they set out to determine the early visual formulations that led to the iconic imagery of the second millennium C.E., although this was not the topic ultimately addressed.
The exhibition begins with five images that display the features now standardly viewed as representative of each of the religions’ visual cultures. Thus the visitor is confronted with a Tibetan thangka of a Buddha with curled hair and an ushnisha (cranial protuberance indicating wisdom) seated cross-legged with his left hand in his lap and the other touching the earth in front of his right knee; a wooden panel painted with a seated image of Christ with long hair and a beard flanked by his mother Mary and St. John the Baptist; an embroidered curtain to cover an ark depicting the tablets of the law surrounded by twelve scenes representing Jewish festivals and holidays; a watercolour painting for a British customer of the twelve avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu; and a paper pilgrimage certificate showing the Ka'ba and the stations along the road to Mecca, as well as a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed's sandal decorated with one of his sayings. All are dated between the 15th and 18th centuries, and all display features instantly recognisable to many, believers and non-believers. As is made clear in the exhibition and catalogue, these images did not arise immediately after the founding of the religions or in isolation, but rather emerged over time in encounter, dialogue, and exchange with local and other visual contexts, religious and otherwise (Figure 1). The implication is that the subsequent sections will explain how such imagery developed.
After viewing the initial five images and reading the introductory label, the viewer turns a corner and is confronted by three marble heads of the god Jupiter and text about the combinations of gods’ names and representations, as well as comments on the bearded, mature imagery. This is initially a baffling jump, and its relevance only becomes clear later in the section when images of Christ, clean-shaven and bearded, are discussed. Similar discontinuities and apparent shifts in topic exist in other sections of the exhibition, such as the appearance of calligraphy in the Buddhist and Islamic sections (Figure 2), items that had been repurposed in the Islamic section, and the inclusion of Christian objects from the British Isles at the end of the exhibition. The varying sizes of the exhibition sections are also unexplained, with Judaism, for instance, represented by seven objects in the catalogue compared with seventeen in the Buddhist section (Figure 3). The Hindu section is also limited compared with the Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian materials (and the curators could have clarified the rationales for various other decisions, such as choosing to focus on the god Vishnu) (Figure 4). What are the reasons behind these disproportionate representations? Why include Rome and the British Isles? What about the Sassanians and other contributors to image formation? The labels also tend to discuss the objects and their functions rather than explaining how they contribute to the point(s) of the exhibition.
The research underpinning the catalogue was ambitious, spanning numerous topics associated with the study of religion and art. Some of the ideas touched upon in the Introduction include: the rise of religious identities; patterns of religious change; objects and the formation of belief; how objects transmit and accommodate new religious ideas; the impact of religious images on the formation of religious bodies of thought; the role of the artists and patrons; the relevance of style, technique, material, and setting for the processes of religious transition; the importance of imagery for ritual; and how objects and decoration establish identity and self-definition. Such a vast conceptual array cannot be addressed thoroughly in a single publication, and the reader is plunged into chapters that have not been clearly shaped to answer specific questions. Additionally, the “object in focus” and thematic sections are not presented so that they clearly relate to a main topic. For instance, the special topics of the Bamiyan Buddhas and Female Donors addressed in the catalogue are interesting and informative, but do not contribute to an understanding of the development of imagery from the first millennium into the second, or at least not explicitly. The thematic sections, in particular, should have been developed together in a single introductory chapter examining particular theoretical considerations at play. These could then have been extended and amplified within the chapters on each religion.
The fundamental problem with both the catalogue and the exhibition is the lack of a rigorous focus on a specific issue or group of issues. This in part naturally arises from the vastness of the subject, but the consequence is that the essays range over a variety of topics in an uncoordinated fashion, and tellingly, none of the chapters ends with a conclusion relating the material described to an overarching theme. The exhibition and catalogue would have been better served if the focus had remained the key iconographic, religious, and stylistic inputs that led to the creation of each religion's iconic forms, which the curators had established as the main theme at the outset of the exhibition and in the catalogue's introduction. To avoid a straightforward analysis of iconography for each religion, these assessments could have been explored through the lens of religious material culture and how object form impacts people and their behaviour.1 It is now acknowledged that abstract religious concepts emerge from specific material worlds and that visual formation relates to the practice of belief.2 People are shaped by the objects that they encounter and use, as was made abundantly clear by the examples provided in the catalogue and the exhibition. Couching the iconographical analysis in this methodology would have provided a strong theoretical and structural base for the extensive detail of the catalogue and the exhibition. It would also have ensured that each chapter followed similar lines of enquiry that contributed to a broad view of religious activity in the first millennium. An alternative would have been to drop this focus. If the emphasis had been broadly upon the development of religious imagery in the first millennium, there would not have been a disjuncture between concept and content. While this study has provided numerous examples of the formation of religious imagery, these have not been grounded theoretically to establish the foundations for further cross-cultural, scholarly work on this subject.
Despite these issues, the exhibition and catalogue are pioneering studies that make important contributions to the cross-cultural examination and explication of religious imagery. Studies of specific interactions have been written for all the religions examined here, but a unified analysis of the religious imagery of the larger first-millennium world has not. The exhibition and catalogue reveal the multiple impacts of local and broader environments on the creation of early religious pictorial traditions. All the religions were surrounded by multiple forms of religious practice, diverse belief systems, and abundant visual patterning, and each drew selectively upon these to form distinctive iconographic and symbolic traditions that persist to this day. Such interactions involved dialogue, borrowing, adaptation, appropriation, reconciliation, influence, and confrontation and differentiation in order to make the imagery clear to followers and specific to the religion. The numerous examples proffered to the visitor and reader demonstrate the complexities involved, and they therefore contribute to our understanding of human interactions and how we are shaped by the material world around us.
On the practical side, I have a few quibbles. In some instances, the lighting in the exhibition is inexplicably low, such as on the terracotta Christian plaques and some of the Hindu sculpture, none of which is light sensitive, and occasionally does not light the objects fully. Furthermore, in the Christianity in the British Isles section, the small brooches and crosses were positioned on a wall above a case with manuscripts so that it was impossible to stand close enough to examine the details. Finally, the maps provided in the catalogue were insufficiently detailed to support the geography and sites covered, and it lacks a bibliography.
Regardless of these issues, however, I enjoyed the beautiful objects and the variety of materials on display in the exhibition and noted with interest the use of replicas where the original is too fragile to travel and large-scale photographic reproductions for objects still in situ or which have been destroyed. The incorporation of replicas and photographs of original objects is a bold step for museums and opens the door for discussions about the purpose of museums and the roles of the objects within them. This was overall a thought-provoking project, and the curators and contributors are thus to be commended for bringing a variety of understudied subjects to public attention.