The Buddha. Vishnu. A bearded Jesus. A Parochet. A guilded Hajj certificate. The Ashmolean’s engrossing and important new exhibition begins by addressing the assumptions most of us hold about the ‘big five’ religions. Yet it sets these up only to slowly dismantle and shatter them.
While these may be representative of religion in the early modern period which these artefacts hail from, the exhibition takes the viewer back 1000 years to investigate the more ideologically porous time in which the images of these religions, both literal and figurative, were formed. The exhibition as a whole is a rare chance to see the impact of research work, laid out in a visual and almost tactile way.
The exhibition is a culmination of the ‘Empires of Faith’ project based at the British Museum and Oxford University, which is evident throughout with the focus on clear explanations and intellectual exploration. Next, the exhibition takes the viewer through early Christianity, some of the remarkable objects synthesized in the room including the Hinton St-Mary mosaic with the Chi-Rho symbol behind it. In this instance, possible ambiguities are not quite emphasised enough: it is labelled as a figure of Christ, whereas there are convincing arguments that it is in fact a depiction of Constantine. This would have been an interesting debate for the exhibition to untangle and delve into, especially in the context of the room as a whole, which investigated a crossover between temporal and divine rule.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this room is the small cabinet of curiosities in which the figurines and coins sometimes cannot be identified, due in fact to the extent to which the cultures and symbolism intertwined and intermingled. The section on Judaism, while small, powerfully challenges understandings of early Judaism. Indeed, the figurative illustrations of a God, alongside Romanesque and Islamic techniques and styles, demonstrate the transformation Judaism has undergone between then and now. Turning the corner into the main room of the exhibition, a reverential silence seems to fall. The cavernous hall befits the exhibition’s focus on the divine, and seems almost a shrine dedicated to the art that fills it.
Indeed, the works and relics in this room are worthy of respect, intricate both in artistic terms and in the analysis that accompanies them. One relic in particular demonstrates the close relationship between image and understandings of the divine, the sculpture of a goddess left unidentifiable due to her powerful attributes having been chipped off. The final section takes the visitor through rich Islamic texts, and then the British Isles. Yet here it feels like the exhibition slightly loses its focus and clarity. This is not to say it is not interesting or beautiful.
Indeed, the placement of three standing stones against a backdrop of a rugged vista is visually stunning. Here too, there are early medieval English illuminated manuscripts, gilded and intricate, as well as a fascinating example of a monk practising such illumination. However, while an interesting case study, it slightly feels as if the exhibition just trails off, rather than finishing with a visual bang.
The exhibition is cleverly coloured, with each of the religions it explores assigned a hue in order for the viewer to more clearly follow the complex ideas about religious assimilation that are distilled in the exhibition. Yet given that the exhibition’s focus is on the relationships and similarities between religions, this can be more unhelpful and confusing than elucidating. Indeed, the division of the exhibition into more discrete religious sections means that a copy of the Qu’ran, and a codex Torah to which it was remarkably similar, are situated at different ends of the exhibition.
Similarly, a blue Qu’ran and an Anglo-Saxon codex that was a clear imitation are placed in separate sections. While this is a result of the multiplicity of connections that the researchers discovered, it is disappointing for the viewer and makes the links on which the exhibition is based far harder to make. This is a strong and powerful message from academia about what unites us, and the religions that many follow.
Indeed, at a time when deep divisions are forming along sectarian and religious lines, this is a timely reminder that they were not, and are not, so distinct after all. While the exhibition in many respects throws up more questions than it answers, it has begun a pertinent and long-needed discussion on religion, and what it can demonstrate about the power of unity and assimilation. Indeed, as the Co-Curator Professor Jaś Elsner says, “This discussion has been begun at a time when cultural exchange, migration and globalisation are of critical importance.”