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 16,407 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Here @edoardofanfani captures the youthful look and friendly expression of this statue of Amenhotep III. The colossal limestone statue originally stood with hundreds of others in the temple of Amenhotep III, which was on the west bank of the River Nile near the ancient city of Thebes. 
Statues depicting the pharaoh often show him with his eyes appearing to look down on the viewer, and a slight smile emerging from his lips. He is wearing heavy makeup, with sweeping eyeliner that nearly touches the temples, and stylised eyebrows. Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum 
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #eyebrowsonfleek This great photo by @comertcomi shows one of ancient Egypt’s most highly respected animals. Cats were associated with the goddess Bastet and she is often represented as a domestic cat. This statue is a particularly fine example, with gold rings and silver decoration. The collar also contains a silver wedjat-eye and sun-disk which are protective symbols. It also has a scarab on its head – scarabs were associated with rebirth in ancient Egypt. The eyes were perhaps originally inlaid with glass or stones. 
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Cat #Egypt #🐱 #catsofinstagram #regram #repost This week we’re focusing on Egyptian statues and sculpture at the Museum. This great shot by @sisterofpopculture shows the majestic statue of Ramesses II. Made of pink and grey granite, the sculptor has skilfully used the natural colours in the stone to suggest the difference between the face and body. 
This colossal statue was originally part of a pair that stood outside the Ramesseum (the pharaoh’s huge memorial temple). He is also known as ‘Ramesses the Great’ – he ruled for 66 years and his influence reached to the furthest corners of the realm. 
Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #regram Opening in March 2017, our #AmericanDream exhibition presents the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time. These will be shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.

From Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Ruscha, Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu – all boldly experimented with printmaking.  With over 200 works by almost 70 artists, trace the creative momentum of a superpower across six decades. Click the link in our bio to book your tickets now! 
Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Made in California. Colour lithograph, 1971. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
#print #printmaking #art #🇺🇸 Taking inspiration from the world around them – billboard advertising, politics, Hollywood, and household objects – American artists created highly original prints to rival their paintings and sculptures. #Printmaking brought their work to a much wider and more diverse audience.

Many of these works also address the deep divisions in society that continue to resonate with us today. This screenprint by Andy Warhol was commissioned by the Democratic Party for the 1972 presidential campaign. Instead of portraying the Democratic candidate McGovern, Warhol chose to represent his opponent Richard Nixon. He appropriated the image from the cover of Newsweek magazine, using the colours from Nixon's wife's outfit for his face, creating a demonic look.

See this new acquisition by the Museum, and many other extraordinary works in our #AmericanDream exhibition, opening March 2017. Click the link in our bio for more info.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Vote McGovern. Screenprint, 1972. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.
#art #Warhol #AndyWarhol #🇺🇸 #print #Democrats #politics America. Land of the free. Home of the brave...
We are delighted to announce our #AmericanDream exhibition – opening in March 2017!

The past six decades have been among the most dynamic and turbulent in US history, from JFK’s assassination, Apollo 11 and Vietnam to the AIDS crisis, racism and gender politics. Responding to the changing times, American artists produced prints unprecedented in their scale and ambition. 
Experience this extraordinary history in ‘The American Dream: pop to the present’. This major new exhibition is sponsored by Morgan Stanley and supported by the Terra Foundation for American art. Click the link in our bio to book your tickets now.

Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I. Screenprint, 1973. Collection of Johanna and Leslie Garfield. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging.
#🇺🇸 #art #JasperJohns #printmaking