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Exhibitions the British Museum and Ashmolean
review for Country Life, December 13, 2017

The British Museum and the Ashmolean are currently hosting simultaneous exhibitions about religion. The former is entitled "Living with Gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond", the latter "Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions". I can’t recommend these two exhibitions, packed full of moody, odd, exotic, evocative and occasionally chilling religious objects, more highly. I found it deeply moving, a gallop through thousands of years of the collective subconscious - while also watching how the glowing torch of human compassion has been passed on, from culture to culture, into our own trembling hands.

They also make a wonderful complementary pair. Both museums have achieved a delicate intellectual balance, curating exhibitions that transcend any particular religious identity, yet retain the respect of pious believers and the interest of atheist humanists.

This is possible because, despite their ambitious exhibition titles, they have actually taken on comparatively modest remits. We are (thank God) not plunged into morality and ethics, nor the evolution of temple architecture or the body of the scriptures, but concern ourselves with small portable objects, the practical instruments of worship. There’s a wonderfully free-ranging collection of rosaries - used by all faiths and set to their own numerological traditions, be it 99, 108 or 52. And although the number of religions and mythologies touched upon in these two exhibitions could become baffling diverse, one never feels overwhelmed. For there is always the simplicity of a human made object to admire - be it the unique carving of a lion-man out of mammoth ivory (the world’s oldest totem carved in the mid-winter of an ice age) or one of the millions of recently discarded badges of chairman Mao – and in each case we are left to wonder what they once meant to both maker and owners.

We also discover, time and time again, that the craftsmen who made these objects were not creating their own personal vision of the divine, but working at a remove. They were either inspired by the visions of a shaman, or worked at the direction of priests or within their own artistic heritage. The Ashmolean exhibition (which concentrates on a chronological overview of the five worldwide contemporary faiths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) is especially good at chronicling this. It shows us how the artists of the Late Roman Empire played around with various heroic options (drawn from the artistic traditions previously associated with Apollo, the deified Ceasar and Dionysius) before bearded Zeus-Jupiter was recast as the face of Christ. It is also interesting to be reminded that Christ was never depicted on the Cross before the 5th century, just as the Lord Buddha was never depicted in human form until a fusion of Hellenistic, Indian and Central Asian artistic traditions incubated the world’s most successful personality cult at Gandhara.

The British Museum has generously lent from its own collections to the more tightly focused Ashmolean exhibition. It has in its turn borrowed (especially from Germany) to create an exhibition with an extraordinary cultural reach - deliberately inclusive of the four thousand religious traditions of this world, not just the big five as at the Ashmolean. This allows the British Museum to drift freer of the morality-based monotheisms into much older, darker (and still abiding) beliefs in the power of spirits and restless ancestors. Here religion is not so much a moral path towards a future paradise, but a battle of magic propitiation fought out on this pagan earth against malevolent forces. This is both dark and entertaining – for there are wooden phalluses from Shinto shrines, exquisitely jointed bronze dragons, ancestor masks from West Africa, spirit dolls from the Siberian forests and a model of a juggernaut chariot in which the gods might process out of their temples to celebrate the seasons.

I also now consider myself free to drink and be merry, for I have already been enlightened by the equivalent of a hundred sermons and uplifted by a dozen carol services. In the end, much to my surprise and against all my existing prejudices (towards the mystical traditions of Christian Orthodoxy and Islam) I found myself viewing the simplicity, style and family-based dignity of both the Japanese and the Jews with new found affection.


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