This extraordinary Ashmolean exhibition, Imagining the Divine, asks how the world's big religions first attained their visual identity

Jas Elsner, Stefanie Lenk, Robert Bracey

(L to R) Professor Yas Elsner, Principal Curator Stefanie Lenk and Robert Bracey of the British Museum

Almost two thousand years before anyone had heard of the 1960s, Andy Warhol and a glibly Western notion of the ‘secular’, art was not only the humble servant of religion but actively expressed it, in a sense ‘created it’, hence the ultra-intelligent title of this exhibition Imagining the Divine —because that’s what largely pre-literate communities of people did. They imagined God and gods through various ideas conveyed through pictures and objects.

By the early modern period, say the authors of this simply breathtaking new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, we can already see the settled and familiar imagery of the five big world religions: Islam; Hinduism; Judaism; Christianity and Buddhism.

The principal curator Stefanie Lenk, who is strongly linked to both of the authoring institutions of the exhibition, the British Museum and the University, starts the exhibition right here with these later, more recent images, as if to reassure us with familiarity.


The ante-chamber of the exhibition starts with the familiar depiction of five world religions

There is a certificate from the hajj; a silk-embroidered linen curtain from 1676 used to cover a Torah Ark; a Cretan Byzantine icon showing Christ in the manner to which we are accustomed; a Tibetan seated Buddha figure, again very familiar, and finally a late-18th century watercolour depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu.

These five objects inhabit one room, each one set against different colours that are then retained in rooms considering each tradition in turn.

Having warmed everyone up with the familiar, the exhibition takes the visitor  back in time to the first millennium AD (the curators emphasise that the BC/AD timing is purely for utility).

What we are shown is laden with curiosity, with ambivalence and with visual borrowing and appropriation, reminding us that these great religions that we know now by name if not always from experience, had to emerge and define themselves against locality, imperial power and of course each other.

One of the most enthralling examples is the transition from non-anthropomorphic depictions of the Buddha to the seated person, Sakyamuna, who we take for normal. Courtesy of the British Museum comes this pair of feet from AD 100-300, found in Amaravati in India, just 67.5cms high and carved from miraculously-preserved limestone.


Buddha was typically shown by his absence, but all that changed between 200-400 AD

The purpose of the feet was to allude to the former presence of a being, and presumably to make the Buddhist theological point about the absence of self. Brilliantly oblique and simply brilliant, this manner of depicting the Buddha did not survive the competitive intermingling of other religions, so that by 400 you suddenly have a seated figure.

The authors are careful to note the contested or peripheral ‘borderlands’ where a particular seated figure was found (Gandhara, modern Pakistan and Afghanistan).


Robert Bracey discusses the advent of the seated Buddha, which was a late novelty but became ubiquitous

Keen to explore how such ideas might have spread, given the entirely immovable monumentality of the Bamiyan Buddhas (Afghanistan), the curators go a step further and present a marvel of survival: a 7th century cloth amulet that would have been ferried up and down the silk route by a traveler. At its head is a Buddha.


Buddha's head at the top (Left in this image). No one knows to whom this 7th century cloth amulet belonged, nor how it survived 

It’s naturally impossible to convey in a few words the richness of the different traditions and objects on display. Yet the exhibition is jewel-like rather than ‘blockbuster’ – whatever that term now means (big?).

Rather than overwhelming the visitor, the objects are so carefully chosen that they conduct her directly towards a sort of proto-globalised melting pot. Deliciously, for people who want their theological boundaries to be cut and dried, the non-bearded Christ found in Roman mosaic form on a floor at Hinton St Mary, Dorset, is all mixed up with pagan and Roman ideas.


This Christ figure is mixed up with Roman and pagan references, and has no beard

It might be evidence for the advancing state of Christianity north of the alps by an ‘early’ dating, but more intriguingly it also happens to be mixed up with a veritable pile of other Roman and Pagan ideas and images that have nothing to do with Christianity As We Know It.

Monotheism is unraveled by this exhibition, while theism mingles unselfconsciously with paganism and myth. Where Vishnu is concerned (but it applies to the other religions), ‘the integration of cults into a larger religious system was a result of competition and self-definition in relation to other local belief systems and religious practices.’

The curators, who include Lenk’s co-curator Oxford’s Professor Jas Elsner, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, plus a distinguished cast of post-docs, are at pains to point out that religious images were not the ‘fixed and inevitable consequence of a religion’s theological point of view.’

By bringing to bear the skills and insights of art historians and anthropologists and classicists, who by the way are no longer talking merely to themselves, you can almost see local craftsmen evolving, over decades, new iconographies of the divine that evidentially had at least as much to do with fashion and artistry and the marketplace as with the tidy dictates of religious authority.

Given the recent celebration of 500 years of Europe’s Reformation on October 31st, 2017, the authors point out the great mistake of viewing it purely as a row between the Pope and Martin Luther. They note that just fifty years earlier Constantinople had fallen to Ottoman Turks, and that by 1529 Muslim forces had reached Vienna. The ‘Reforming’ impulse was also about survival amidst globalization. Don’t mention ISIL, but that’s what’s great about this exhibition: it provides a fertile context in which to consider the ever-melting pot of religion.

Pictures by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse and by Ashmolean Museum/British Museum, for the purpose of promoting the exhibition by agreement with the curators.

Imaging the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, runs from 19 October 2017 – 18 February 2018 at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.