Imagining the Divine: Rise and Shine

Statue of a Ram bearer, 3rd-4th century, marble, Zubeir, Iraq. The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

Imagining the Divine shows how the world’s great religions found their way into the artistic limelight in this exhibition currently on in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum has recently been taking a spiritual direction that might seem alien to those who remember its galleries filled with desiccated classical plaster casts.

The rejuvenated Ashmolean has taken on a quite different role. In addition to permanent galleries that were refurbished beyond recognition eight years ago, there are exhibitions happening there with as much vigour as any metropolis in Britain. Perhaps with more controversy, too.

Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural

Last year’s big event at the Ashmolean was Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural. This exhibition was much appreciated by those who always hope that there is more to Islamic art than some lovely calligraphy and a supposed antipathy towards figural imagery. ‘Power and Protection’ introduced some occult chic that was not appreciated so much by Muslims with an aversion to superstition.

As with all religions there are accretions that have little to do with the newly introduced faith and a lot to do with what came before. Christianity, especially Catholicism, has tended to accept the pagan past more readily than Islam, which tried its hardest to bring a new broom into Mecca 1,400 years ago. The past has not entirely been swept away. There is a name for this time – Jahiliyaa, or ‘time of ignorance’.

This year, the Ashmolean is taking a broader but no less exhilarating approach. Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions gets down to the eye-catching basics of faith. It is not about texts and abstract rumination. This is an exhibition about things. These are some of the most powerful representations of ideas that embrace the soul. What could have more purpose than an image based on faith? Whether it is a tribal fetish of unknown purpose or a scrap of calligraphy, the physical product is more likely to move the viewer than a learned exegesis of the Qur’an or Bible. 

Imagining the Divine is in itself the outcome of some serious rumination. It is an outcome of the ‘Empires of Faith’ project that has been examining early religious art for the past three years. Now comes the physical manifestation of all that theorising. Whilst there have been many exhibitions that tackle a single religion and its visual roots, this takes on five of them.

Five Great World Religions

As three of the five have had an uneasy relationship with any sort of imagery, the exhibition is a revelation. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always had elements of aniconism or even iconoclasm. Buddhism and Hinduism, on the other hand, are almost unimaginable without figural imagery. What they all have in common is that these five faiths are very much alive today. More unexpected is the extent that ideas and images were exchanged between cultures that are sometimes seen as developing in isolation — and can still be extremely hostile to one another.

Tracing these often-concealed exchanges between the leading faiths brings us back to the world of objects. Familiar and seemingly exclusive images, such as Jesus Christ or Buddha, have much deeper roots than some would like to admit. Even Islamic anti-imagery is a product of time and place.

Making Connections

This exhibition provides the connections that make it easy for an art lover to understand a history that is far more complicated than expected. Scholars of any one type of religion or religious art tend not to share their views or even fraternise with the others. My own experience of the common room of the Oriental Institute (adjacent to the Ashmolean) was of Islamists, Egyptologists, Sinologists and all the others guarding their pitch carefully. Dialogue between religions is an even bigger task.

Key Exhibits in Imagining the Divine

The collaboration of the curators is what holds this exhibition together, but the building blocks are the artefacts. Their visual appeal is as apparent as their significance to world history. Their place of origin can also have contemporary resonance. A key exhibit is an 3rd/4th-century statue of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders.

Just hearing the description will be enough for most Christians to make a mental leap without seeing the statue at all. The image itself might lessen the connection as the shepherd figure is without the beard that has been de rigueur for Christ for much longer than a millennium. This carving in a delightful honey-coloured marble is indeed a Christian image, adopting Mediterranean-world prototypes that were as popular as the multipurpose god Apollo — another forerunner of Jesus.

Hermes The Ram Bearer

Hermes, the Ram Bearer, also made a natural bridge between the classical and Christian worlds, which would have been understood by Jesus himself when he said: ‘I am the good shepherd’. In a pastoralist world, a good shepherd was as significant a person as could be imagined. The more familiar image of the crucified Christ, with a beard, took much longer to become established. This Jesus shepherd is not only clean-shaven but also with a coiffure of curls to match the sheep above his head.

The crucified Christ with beard and long straight hair would have been far less accessible or aesthetically pleasing to those brought up on Graeco-Roman ideals. The origin of this statue in Iraq, where ISIS did its most serious damage to lingering Christian culture, brings home the antiquity of Christianity and how it survived semi-intact until recent atrocities. Judaism was dealt with in Iraq with greater finality and longer ago.

Acceptance of Variant Faiths

In India, the situation has not always been so much ‘us and them’. The acceptance of variant faiths has often built up a picture that is incomprehensible to simple monotheists. In recent times there has been growing evidence of Hindu intolerance. If we go back to two sculptures in Imagining the Divine, we can see the versatility of Vishnu adherents. Instead of persecuting worshippers of non-approved idols, the cult of Vishnu integrated other cult figures, such as Rama or Krishna, into its belief system. These deities were worshipped as avatars or emanations of the principal god Vishnu. Even the Buddha was claimed as Vishnu’s ninth reincarnation.

The boar sculpture, varaja (an avatar of Vishnu) in the exhibition would have been particularly displeasing to the Muslim conquerors of India. The tolerance of the Mughals ensured the survival of countless temples and sculptures  that might have vanished under a less broadminded leadership. However, in India’s case it took just one bigot, Emperor Aurangzeb, to undo the remedial work of several generations.

An exhibition such as this is a rare undertaking. In Imagining the Divine, The British Museum, Oxford University and the Ashmolean have shown not only the willingness, but also the expertise to create something aesthetic and agreeably connective. It is appropriate that it should be taking place in one of the world’s oldest museums – and without any dusty old plaster casts. Instead they have the cutting-edge contemporary version: 3-D printing.


From 19 October to 18 February 2018, at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford,