British Museum blog

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum


The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

Blog 03_544

It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

Blog 02_544

This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched’; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

Blog 04_544

The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

Blog 05_544

The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Ganesha

Detail of Ganesha statue
Manisha Nene, Assistant Director, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)

Carved schist figure of Ganesha (1872,0701.59)

Carved schist figure of Ganesha (1872,0701.59)

Today is the Hindu festival of Ganesha Jayanti, Ganesha’s birthday. It has a special significance for the British Museum this year because we are starting to install the next Room 3, Objects in Focus display about Ganesha. It will bring together a stone sculpture of Ganesha from the British Museum collection with aspects of the contemporary worship of the elephant-headed god in Mumbai. The main annual Ganesha festival, Ganeshchaturthi, is celebrated in August-September, but now is another significant time for worshippers of Ganesha.

A contemporary statue of Ganesha for the display has already arrived from Mumbai

A contemporary statue of Ganesha for the display has already arrived from Mumbai

Different traditions celebrate Ganesha Jayanti on different days. It is usually observed in the month of Magha (January-February) on the fourth day of Shukla paksha the bright fortnight or waxing moon in the Hindu caldendar, particularly in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The celebrations of Ganesha Jayanti in the month of Magha are simple, with devotees observing a fast. Before worship, devotees take bath of water mixed with til (sesame seeds) after smearing a paste of the same substance on their body.

Domestic shrines and temples are decorated for the occasion. Special offerings are made to the permanent Ganesha images which are worshipped daily. In some places Ganesha is symbolically worshipped in the form of a cone made of turmeric or cow dung. Food offerings of ladoos (sweet balls) made of til and jaggery (sugar) are offered with great devotion. In some households and temples small images of Ganesha are placed in cradles and worshipped.

Baby Ganesha in a cradle. © CSMVS

Baby Ganesha in a cradle. © CSMVS

The practical reason for making offerings prepared of til and jaggery or applying sesame paste to the body is that when this festival is celebrated it is mid-winter and the body requires high energy supplements. The devotees consider their beloved Ganesha as human being and offer preparations of sesame and sugar to provide energy and keep the body warm.

Unlike the Ganeshchaturthi festival which we will feature in the display, the Ganesha Jayanti festival (Magha shukla Chaturthi) is publically celebrated in a relatively small number of places, where specially-created clay images of Ganesha are worshipped and immersed in the sea or river after 11 or 21 days.

During this month the devotees go on a pilgrimage to one of the many Ganesha temples across India. In Maharashtra there are eight places which are particularly sacred to Ganesha, known as Ashtavinaykas (Ashta means eight and Vinayaka is one of the many names of Ganesha) and the pilgrimage is known as Ashtavinayaka yatra. These are at Morgaon, Theur, Lenyadri, Ozar, Ranjangaon, Siddhatek, Pali and Mahad.

London, a world city in 20 objects: Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing in a ring of flames

Shiva NatarajaRichard Blurton, British Museum

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja

Fine bronze sculptures of the gods of Hinduism were produced in the Chola period in southern India for use as processional images. These portable representations of the gods could be taken from the temple, dressed and decked with garlands, and then paraded through the streets, enabling all to have a beneficial view of them. Within the temple itself, images of the Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, were venerated in images of stone and these never left the sanctuary. However, bronze images, such as this one of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, could easily be carried on platforms and paraded through the streets by devotees. Processions carrying such images and with many thousands of participants, are still a feature of south Indian temple festivals in towns such as Madurai and Chidambaram.

Lord Shiva is depicted in this famous dance form as the deity at the extremes of time, the lord who crushes ignorance underfoot and who ushers out one cycle of existence and dances in a new one. In Indian lore, time is cyclical and made up of endless iterations and this image shows the god at the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The dance of Shiva at this moment of dissolution and of creation, is conceived of as full of wild movement. The dreadlocks of the god (usually discreetly tied up on top of his head) fly out unchecked around him, providing some indication of the fury of his circular dance – though one foot is, nevertheless held up for his devotees to shelter beneath. The flame he holds in his upper left hand represents the destruction at the end of one cycle, while the sound of the drum in his upper right brings in the new cycle. Not for nothing has this image of the god, full of cosmic symbolism, become the one that people internationally associate with Hinduism.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2012.

The Shiva Nataraja is on display in Room 33: China, South Asia and Southeast Asia

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, London: a world city in 20 objects, , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,955 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. They will be seen alongside fascinating objects from major Egyptian museums for the first time in the UK in this blockbuster exhibition.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #history #ancientegypt 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

#archaeology #ancientegypt #history 
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016
#archaeology #ancientegypt #history
Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,955 other followers