Exploring artwork from five major world religions in a single exhibition is no mean feat. The Ashmolean and the British Library have come together as part of the Empires of Faith Project to look at different means of expression and to draw attention to the continuous interactions between faiths in the first millennium AD, focusing on the visual evolution of the big 5: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Each religion has key symbols or images which act as a source of identification, whether that is in the form of a or deity or spiritual leader such as Buddha, or in a more abstract form such as images of the menorah or Muhammad’s tomb. These images are seemingly distinctive in modern times, and indeed, the exhibition opens with five examples of art from each religion which are well known as indicators of each religion to the modern viewer. However, that’s where the familiar comes to an end.
Take the Statue of Kriophoros (ram-bearer) from 200-400 AD which shows a man with a ram wrapped securely around his shoulders. In the classical context, this represented the god Hermes who is said to have carried around a ram to avert a plague consuming a city. The Christians in the
The exhibition is separated into sections on each faith, beginning with Christianity in the Roman Empire then onto Judaism, where you can see an incantation bowl, described as a ‘demon mousetrap’ by our guide and curator Stefanie Lenk, which could have been owned by Jews, Christians, Mandaeans or Zoroastrians. Onto Hinduism which focuses on the development of the cult of Vishnu in the first millennium, which saw the integration of pre-existing heroes and gods (including Buddha or Narasimha, the man-lion) as being avatars of Vishnu, and so reducing their significance as unique deities by incorporating them into the persona of Vishnu. The section on Buddhism draws works from the two locations
The Islamic section is split into two parts: the incorporation of visual culture from the lands muslims conquered, showing the visual culture of the conquered and how it was adopted into Islamic art, and the reaction to visual cultures through the art of calligraphy in the Qur’an. Here the issue of iconoclasm was explored and challenged through the display of the Sculpture of Tantric goddess; carved in a beautiful Islamic motif on one side, the other side displaying a goddess who has been carefully altered to remove attributes which would help with identification rather than simply destroyed, displaying some appreciation of the former artist’s work.
Finally, the exhibition ends on familiar ground: early Christianity in the
I found that although I am more familiar with the Christian and Islamic practices and principles, I was most surprised by the origins of the well-known imagery and how interwoven the objects were with the societies and art of those surrounding them. I was particularly astounded by the three Jupiter statues at the very beginning (which themselves had borrowed characteristics from Egyptian gods) and their similarity to conventional images of Jesus e.g. long wavy hair and a beard. Preconception of the big five religions as fixed entities will be changed for the better through this exhibition.
While not as vivid as last year’s exhibition Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural, this exhibition prompts questions about our perception of religions in isolation from the areas the believers lived in and the gods that were worshipped there. While it’s easy to focus on the importance of the text when discussing religions, Imagining the Divine helps to unearth the significance of the visual in the way it shapes our understanding of different faiths.