Rowan Williams

The Hinton St Mary floor mosaic (from Imagining the Divine)

How do you show what is, by definition, invisible? It is a conundrum that all religious traditions confront. These exhibitions – Imagining the Divine at the Ashmolean and Living with Gods at the British Museum – let us see how a whole spectrum of religious systems, eastern and western, handle this question.

The makers of some of the artefacts on display – statues, coins, books, ritual objects, carved stones – would not have imagined that they were making what we would think of as art. They certainly did not believe they were providing decoration or illustration. But neither did they think they were exercising their creativity to make a new sort of thing, an “art object”.

‘Imposing calm and stillness’ … a Buddha fragment.
‘Imposing calm and stillness’ … a Buddha fragment. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

What they did understand, though, was the problem of showing the invisible. They were well aware that the intellectuals and contemplatives who were shaping the doctrines of their faiths agreed that the divine could not, strictly speaking, be imagined. The divine was never something lying around to be watched, copied, exhibited. It was the active foundation for all activity within the world, without being another example of that activity.

Religious art has to evoke this sense of being in touch with something other than what I think, I do, I imagine. Yet this will involve a lot of imagination and thought, and no artist or craftsperson comes to the task with a blank slate. A culture will have built up a repertoire of images. But what they try to bring alive is the moment when the religious practitioner is brought to a halt, slowed and finally stopped, by an “other” that escapes capture. The religious image is first and foremost a vehicle for getting this slowing and stopping to happen – not an interesting picture of mysterious things that we can look at and walk away from.

The image that appears near the start of the excellent exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine is a broken fragment from a monumental Buddha figure – a forearm and hand, palm facing outwards in a gesture instantly recognisable as imposing calm and stillness. It is an image that casts light on how all the objects in the exhibition need to be thought of. The oldest British object on display, the mosaic floor from the Dorset village of Hinton St Mary, apparently showing Christ surrounded by the conventional paraphernalia of classical domestic decoration, may seem to tell against the idea that this art is not only decorative. But the positioning of the head of Christ at the centre of the scheme declares simply that this is the axial point, where things converge. Even the routine exercises of domestic ornament spin and twist towards this one centre, where a pair of eyes confronts you directly. Once again, the palm is raised: “Stop, stay with this, don’t panic and don’t hurry away.”

Looking at these images is a seriously different experience from looking at religious images from post-Renaissance Europe. These exhibitions push us back towards a far more fundamental level of religious imagining, which we cannot understand without a faint glimpse of what it might be to be stopped, looked at and acted on – not just to be a spectator, bustled through a gallery.

  • Rowan Williams is a former archbishop of Canterbury and master of Magdalene College, Cambridge

Mary Beard

The Glorification of Germanicus by Peter Paul Rubens (from Imagining the Divine)
Rubens’ painting captures brilliantly the logic – and some of the puzzles – of ancient Roman religion and power. It is a slightly moody version of a large, lustrous cameo that had started life almost certainly in the imperial palace at Rome and ended up in Paris, where Rubens saw it. It features members of the first dynasty of emperors at Rome: the human ones in the centre and, at the top, those who, at their death, had been promoted to gods. There is still debate about exactly which imperial prince is which, but everyone agrees that Emperor Tiberius (42BC-AD37) is enthroned in the centre, with his mother Livia next to him. It has often been thought that Germanicus – Tiberius’s glamorous adopted son (and rival) – is the young man who seems to salute the emperor. In the heavens, the first emperor, Augustus – now “the divine Augustus”, but looking much as he always did – presides over the human scene below, while other members of his family fly up to join him as gods, on different means of transport.

The Glorification of Germanicus by Peter Paul Rubens.
‘Wonderful cameo’ … The Glorification of Germanicus by Peter Paul Rubens. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Rubens’ version does not conceal the difficulties the Romans had of imagining the emperors in heaven and how they might have got there. Augustus floats precariously and the prince on the right seems to have hitched a ride on the mythical winged horse Pegasus. But Rubens was also celebrating the pagan Roman identity of the scene, which had only recently been rediscovered.

In Rubens’ day, this wonderful cameo had for centuries been imaginatively identified as the biblical scene of “The Triumph of Joseph at the Court of the Pharaoh”; it was probably only for this reason, as an icon of Christianity, that the precious object had been preserved. But, in about 1620, Rubens’ friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc had shown that it was nothing of the sort, but rather an image from the heart of the Roman court. What Rubens was really capturing was how the scene had been correctly re‑identified and reclaimed for Roman paganism.

For us, it is testimony to something else – to the fluidity of these religious images and to a long history of their interpretation and reinterpretation from one religion to another.

  • Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge

Kamila Shamsie

Zamzam flasks (from Living With Gods)
I can still remember how it felt to touch the glass Zamzam flask that my father brought home from the office one day when I was five or six years old. One of his colleagues had returned from Hajj and brought with him the flask, filled with holy Aab-e-Zamzam (Zamzam water), for my father and his family. The flask was shaped much like those in the British Museum exhibition – a disc-like body with a long neck. Concentric circles were embossed on the glass; my memory is of running my thumb over the circles. I have no memory of drinking the water, but I can imagine now how it must have felt to imbibe something that contained within it such a powerful origin story.

God tested Ibrahim by asking him to leave his wife, Haajar, and their infant son, Ismail, in the desert. Ibrahim, strong in faith, did what was asked of him. Soon, Ismail began to cry with thirst. Haajar ran up the nearest hill (Al-Safa) to try to locate water and, finding nothing, ran down into the valley and then up another hill (Al-Marwah). She repeated this circuit seven times, increasingly desperate. At the end of the seventh circuit, she looked down from the hill and saw Ismail beating the heel of his foot on the desert floor as he cried out. Where his foot struck the earth, water began to flow. Haajar ran down and built a wall of stone around the water to contain it, and so the Zamzam well was formed.

An early 20th-century Zamzam flask from Mali
‘Faith requires no more than a single drop’ … an early 20th-century Zamzam flask from Mali. Photograph: British Museum

During Hajj, pilgrims re-enact Haajar’s search for water by making seven circuits of the two hills and returning home with Zamzam water. Today, mineral water bottles often serve as Zamzam flasks, which is something of a disappointment to those of us whose earliest touch memories involve the embossed glass of a long-necked vial. Some years ago, a friend of mine was on a flight with pilgrims returning from Mecca and told me that everyone was weighed down by large plastic bottles and even water cooler containers filled with Zamzam water. Surely, that misses the point. It was the smallness of the flask, brought for all four members of my family, that attested to its miraculous nature. What need was there for us to gulp down the water in large quantities? Faith requires no more than a single drop.

Vishvapani Blomfield

Seated Buddha (from Imagining the Divine)
In the first centuries after the Buddha’s death, some time in the fourth or fifth century BC, there were no images of him. Early carvings depicting scenes from his life represent him with a wheel, a footprint or a bodhi tree – the tree that sheltered the Buddha when he gained enlightenment. There are no Buddhist commandments against graven images, but human depictions of all sorts were considered vulgar; perhaps the sculptors felt it was impossible to give a fixed visual form to qualities that couldn’t be expressed.

Seated Buddha, carved in Gandhara in the early centuries AD.
‘Cosmic significance’ … Seated Buddha, carved in Gandhara in the early centuries AD. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum

The challenge for the monks who started to produce images in northern India and Gandhara (in modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan) in the first and second centuries BC was to represent those ineffable qualities in physical form. This is the standard by which Buddhist artworks, such as this beautiful seated Buddha, need to be judged.

For devout viewers, much of the image’s meaning is conveyed through the iconography. The bump on the head, the long earlobes and the dot on the forehead are traditional signs of the superman of Indian legend, while the halo connects him to the divine power of the sun. This is an individual man, the symbols say, but he is imbued with cosmic significance.

However, the finest images also convey something else – an animating presence – and this is what draws me to this figure. The downward gaze and the muted smile are subtle enough to suggest that the Buddha is resting within an inner dimension of experience, but vibrant enough to suggest that he responds to our presence. Because traditional Buddhist viewers have more regard for a statue’s iconography than its human qualities, they usually don’t think in terms of its artistic quality. Modern viewers are likely to reverse the priorities. But perhaps there is a third way. In this statue, and others like it, the cosmic meaning and the human experience coexist and express an expanded, distinctly Buddhist, vision of human possibility.

Julia Neuberger

Jewish tombstone (from Imagining the Divine)
The tombstone shown in this exhibition is heartrending. A man called Pardos is lamenting his daughter Sabina’s death, at the tender age of age of 10, in an inscription written in Greek that was found in a Roman catacomb. The date is unclear, but the menorah – the seven-branched candlestick – begins and ends the inscription, a sign that the deceased child was Jewish.

Nowadays, people often think the star of David is the Jewish symbol, but the menorah, hugely important as part of the temple ritual in Jerusalem, predates it by at least two millennia and was far more common as a symbol of Judaism until the last hundred years or so. It had huge significance. Indeed, if you examine the Arch of Titus in Rome, you can see Roman soldiers carrying a huge menorah away from the now-destroyed temple, alongside a Torah scroll and other temple vessels, to a victorious Rome.

Greek tombstone.
‘Heart-rending’ … the menorah that begins and ends this inscription indicates that the deceased was Jewish. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum

Did Titus think removing the menorah would break the Jews? He could not have been more wrong. For the symbol of the menorah still has the power to move me, partly because it has lasted so long. We light a nine-branch one at the festival of Hanukah. We have one in the synagogue, in a prominent position for all to see. It predates the Romans, it is described early in the Hebrew bible, it was used throughout the Greek period, in the middle ages, in modern times wherever Jews were and are found. It symbolises Judaism.

Modern menorahs are made in the shape of Noah’s ark or fanciful flower-adorned blocks. But none compare with this classic symbol – the seven-branch candlestick that still spells, as it did for the grieving Pardos: “I am a Jew.”

  • Julia Neuberger was the first female rabbi in Britain to have her own synagogue

Shashi Tharoor

Indian juggernaut (from Living With Gods)
It is a beautiful, elaborately carved wooden vehicle used for a sanctified purpose – to wheel an image of a deity worshipped by millions to a temple in full public view – and yet it has given its name to an awful English word, “juggernaut”.

A painted wooden model of an 18th-century Hindu temple vehicle
Colonial mangling … painted wooden model of an 18th-century Hindu temple vehicle. Photograph: British Museum

The word is a colonial mangling of Jagannath (Sanskrit for “lord of the world”), a manifestation of the Hindu god Krishna. The legend of its creation – carved but unfinished by the great sage Vishwakarma, given eyes and a soul by Brahma, the creator – almost certainly masks a different story. As Hinduism spread through the subcontinent, it absorbed local animist and tribal faiths it encountered by accommodating their images of worship into the Hindu pantheon. Jagannath was probably a tribal god who was reimagined as a manifestation of Krishna through an elaborate story that fits within Hindu lore.

One of the ways of fostering the new deity’s acceptance by the people was parading him four times a year in elaborate yatras – pilgrimages or processions – on land and water, of which the most famous is the Ratha-Yatra, or chariot procession, in the Hindu month of Ashadha. This is when the idol is wheeled to the temple in an enormous chariot as devotees line the streets in a frenzy, hailing the lord with chants and prayers.

How did the deity transported in this devotional procession become transmogrified into an English term for a relentless, remorseless, unstoppable force that destroys anything in its path? Orientalism began early, alas: four centuries before the British conquest of India began, distorted tales about India were propagated in the 14th-century travelogue of Sir John Mandeville, who described the festival in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. He depicted Hindus throwing themselves under the wheels of the enormous Jagannath chariots as a religious sacrifice and being crushed to death.

Hinduism, in fact, has no concept of such human sacrifice; if Mandeville really saw a Hindu killed under the wheels of a chariot, it can be only because a poor devotee fell accidentally into the path of the chariot, which could not stop or turn on the narrow road. Still, the tale, the false image of the faith it portrayed and the unfortunate associations of the word persisted. A look at the lovely object in the British Museum’s collection shows you that such an exquisite piece of art would only have been used to transport a figure of reverence, not one of fear. But, alas, the damage had been done.

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