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A comparative approach to religious art

19 January 2018

We no longer call them the Dark Ages – and rightly so. Nearly 50 years ago the historian Peter Brown successfully rebranded 150–750 AD as ‘late antiquity’. Brown emphasised the cultural continuities, rather than ruptures, between the pagan Roman and Christian eras. He also drew in the neglected East, arguing that Islam was the inheritor of antiquity, not its destroyer. The Ashmolean’s new exhibition ‘Imagining the Divine’ develops Brown’s approach – now flourishing in academia – and presents it to a public perhaps still attached to Edward Gibbon’s narrative of decline and fall.

It is a hugely ambitious project – probably too ambitious for the small exhibition space. The show tackles the early artistic traditions of five religions – Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam – until around 1000 AD. Offering a comparative approach to religious art, the lead curator Jaś Elsner and his team of experts also subtly make a point about the invention of traditions. Religions might regard themselves as separate entities with pure provenances, but aspects of their iconography were likely borrowed from someone else at some point – even if they were given a distinctive twist.

To prove their point in the first room we begin, as it were, at the end. Each faith has an exemplary work from its mature phase. First there is a stunning 15th-century ink-and-gold Hajj certificate, which doubles as an an iconic portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed, his sandal at its foot, his shrine near the top. Beside this is a colourful 18th-century depiction of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, including a four-armed seated Buddha. The Buddha himself is centre stage in a burnished blue, red, and gold thangka surrounded by Hindu gods. A Byzantine icon has a handsome bearded Christ raising his right hand. And finally, in what is probably the exhibition’s most impressive piece, an elaborately designed parochet from a Venetian synagogue. (It’s a pity, then, that Judaism is the most sparsely represented faith in the other rooms.)

Standing Caliph Dinar, 697, probably minted at Damascus. Courtesy of The Ashmolean, Oxford

Standing Caliph Dinar, 697, probably minted at Damascus. Courtesy of The Ashmolean, Oxford

Their visual motifs are echoes of the earlier works the exhibition then leads you through. Take the bearded Christ. Busts of the Egyptian deity Jupiter-Serapis, here with a flowerpot shaped crown on his head, show him as a shaggy-bearded old man. When Christians came to paint Christ they turned to this familiar template. Early Muslims did something similar. An Islamic coin minted in the 690s uses the same hirsute model to represent the Caliph Abdul Malik, under whose auspices the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the old Jewish temple. Likewise, an imprint of the Buddha’s feet decorated with wheels and swastikas can’t help but recall the Prophet’s sandals in the Hajj certificate.

Such cross-diffusions are intriguing, though what they quite add up to is never made explicit. One repeated image across different religions and different times – a fragment of the Buddha raising his hand, Jesus pointing on an exquisite 5th-century ivory box – hints at correspondences that may, or may not, have anything to do with each other.

Footprints of the Buddha (c. 100–300), found at Amavarati, India. © Trustees of the British Museum

Footprints of the Buddha (c. 100–300), found at Amavarati, India. © Trustees of the British Museum

Religious traditions also reacted against each other. One fascinating object is a carved basalt sculpture of a tantric goddess from around 1000 AD. Muslims chiselled out the goddess’s raised hands making it impossible to recognise her divine attributes. This act of religious imperialism is made more intriguing by the fact that the sculpture, with an Islamic flower-motif carved on its obverse, was re-used 500 years later in a mosque in Gaur, now on the India-Bangladesh border. Did the Muslims want to tap the divine energy of the goddess?

The prohibition on idol worship in the Qur’an led to a scriptural rather than figurative artistic culture: believers were asked to imagine God through calligraphy, not icons. (There are some stunning Qur’an manuscripts here ranging from 700 to 1000 AD.) Such is the familiar story at least, which goes unchallenged here.

But that story is also wrong, or at least not wholly correct. As historian Robert G. Hoyland has argued, the standing caliph coin may actually be an image of the Prophet. This fascinating theory is not mentioned on the object label, though there is one line in the catalogue. Moreover, Buddhist visuals were hugely influential on Islamic representations of the Prophet. In one 12th-century Iraqi manuscript the Prophet is seated like the Buddha. (I’m grateful to Jaś Elsner for sharing this image with me: I wish other visitors to the exhibition had the same privilege.) Similarly, it seems odd to show a Sasanian silk textile fragment with winged horses without hinting at the rich illustrated tradition of the Night Journey story, in which the Prophet files to heaven on a winged horse.

The Ashmolean might argue that it’s too risky to show images of the Prophet; that’s their decision. But at the Met’s ‘Jerusalem 1000–1400’ exhibition last year, the curators displayed a Timurid manuscript with the Prophet (face uncovered) meeting an angel with 70 heads – each one resembling a mini-Buddha. Without some acknowledgment of that cross-fertilisation we miss an important part of the story.

Ballycottin Cross (7th–8th century), found in Ballycottin bog, Ireland. © Trustees of the British Museum

Ballycottin Cross (7th–8th century), found in Ballycottin bog, Ireland. © Trustees of the British Museum

To compensate for this lack, the curators have elsewhere been extra respectful to Islam. In the last room there is a copper cross brooch dating from 700–900, found in Ballycottin, Ireland, with the Arabic inscription ‘God Wills It’ engraved at its glass centre. Evidently we are supposed to see this as an emblem of what mutually cooperative Anglo-Islamic relations were like – and could be now. Sadly the brooch can’t bear this weight. It is displayed with the pin pointing down, rather than to the side, so as to make the Islamic invocation the right way up. But most likely the wearer thought it was a pretty foreign pattern and had no clue about its real meaning – a bit like having a misspelled Arabic tattoo on your ankle.

There is so much that is stimulating in this exhibition that it might seem churlish to complain about what isn’t there. But the effect of eliding the Islamic figurative tradition makes the religion’s arrival seem more like the clean break Gibbon claimed it was. This was a chance to educate the public – Muslims and non-Muslims – about a largely forgotten past of devotional paintings of the Prophet. If only the curators had not left us to imagine it.

‘Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions’ is at the Ashmolean, Oxford, until 18 February.

From the January 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.