British Museum blog

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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The role of the pedlar

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Disguise and Deception looks at the importance of appearances in Elizabethan England.


Margaret Spufford, historian

The pedlar was a very elusive figure indeed. He (or she – there were women pedlars too) was peripatetic and they lived literally near the edge of society, the vagrant fringe.

Pedlars were essentially salesmen who worked in and out of markets and there were large groups of them around big towns. London had the largest contingent of pedlars who would have worked out of the city, up and down the roads. There would have been people circulating to and fro; some people travelled as far as Edinburgh to London and back. They travelled by foot, carrying their wares in packs on their backs. As they became more prosperous, they might have been able to afford to buy a horse.

As well as pedlars based in the bigger cities, there were those based solely in individual market towns all over the country. They would live in a market town and would work out of it, circulating during the week to spread wares.

Pedlars were also entertainers. They were certainly multi-skilled and often earned their night’s lodging by singing. They sang, told stories, shared the latest news. Pedlars were talkers and were highly socially skilled people. In fact, I would say that the whole business of singing and performing which you find amongst these people is an aid to selling. The skills are almost indistinguishable, they have to be entertainers to make a living.

Their role was extremely important in circulating goods and news very widely, but they were unpopular with the authorities. Pedlars were heavily legislated against. I think there were something like 11 bills in parliament against pedlars and hawkers in the 17th century. They were beaten, they were unpopular and with a town’s shopkeeper they were very unpopular indeed because their living was being undercut by the pedlars’ presence.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Disguise and Deception

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , ,

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Don’t forget to look up! ☝🏼 The triangular feature above the columns of the Museum’s main entrance is called a pediment. Originally it had a bright blue background and the statues were all painted white. 
The sculptures in the pediment show the development of ‘mankind’ in eight stages – a very old-fashioned idea now, but it was designed and built in the 1850s. The left side shows the creation of man as he emerges from a rock as an ignorant being. He meets the next character, the Angel of Enlightenment who is holding the Lamp of Knowledge. From the lamp, man learns basic skills such as cultivating land and taming animals.

The next step in the progress of civilisation is for man to expand his knowledge and understanding. The following eight figures represent the subjects he must learn to do this – architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, and music and poetry. The final human figure, on the right, represents ‘educated man’. Learn more about the Museum’s architecture and its fascinating history in our new blog – follow the link in our bio! We’d love to hear what you think. 258 years ago we opened our doors to the public for the first time! The British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum, founded in 1753. It was created to be free to all ‘studious and curious persons’ and it’s still free today, but a few things have changed…

Did you know that the @natural_history_museum used to be part of the British Museum? The Museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum’s collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington.

This photograph by Frederick York shows a mastodon skeleton on display here in Bloomsbury, before it moved to South Kensington in the 1880s.

Explore more of the Museum’s history on our new blog – follow the link in our bio and let us know what you think! The British Museum opened to the public #onthisday in 1759, the first national public museum in the world! 🎉

The Museum was founded on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects to the nation. The British Museum Act gained royal assent in June 1753 (which makes us older than the USA!). The original collection featured 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’, 5,447 insects, a herbarium (a collection of dried plants), 23,000 coins and medals and 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts.

This photograph of the front of the Museum was taken in 1857 by Roger Fenton, the Museum’s first official photographer.

To mark this anniversary, the Museum is launching a blog where you can find all kinds of interesting articles – things you didn’t know about the Museum, curators’ insights, behind-the-scenes stories and more. Follow the link in our bio – we’d love to know what you think! In the early 1830s, following the success of ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’, #Hokusai worked to produce several follow-on print series. These featured waterfalls, bridges, and the flower series depicted in both large and small sizes. Hokusai probably composed this design without seeing the waterfall or referring to an existing image. He was free to use his imagination, and produced a strikingly idiosyncratic print that contrasts the marbled currents at the top with the perpendicular drop of the falls. Three travellers warm saké (rice wine) as they enjoy the view.
Our upcoming exhibition will explore Hokusai’s iconic work, and allow you to learn more about his enigmatic life. The exhibition opens on 25 May 2017 – learn more and buy tickets by following the link in our bio.
The exhibition is supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Amida waterfall, deep beyond the Kiso highway. Colour woodblock, 1833. The Tōyō Bunko, Tokyo. On display 7 July – 13 August 2017.
#Hokusai #waterfall #Japan #JapaneseArt #print #nature #landscape Our #Hokusai exhibition will feature stunning works – from dramatic landscapes to exquisite depictions of birds and flowers, like this bullfinch. He worked tirelessly to capture what he called the ‘form of things’ and to show how they relate to one another. Hokusai has depicted a male bullfinch, distinguished by its pink marking from cheek to throat. The bird and flower stand out in relief against the background of deep Prussian blue (a colour that had only recently been invented, used to great effect by Hokusai).
The exhibition ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ will open on 25 May 2017. With many of the works coming especially from Japan, it’s a rare opportunity to see the artist’s work on display in the UK. Follow the link in our bio for more information and to book tickets! 
Join us for a #FacebookLive broadcast later today at 17.30 GMT and ask your questions to our Hokusai curator Tim Clark! 
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour woodblock, 1834. On display 7 July – 13 August 2017.
#Hokusai #Japan #JapaneseArt #print #bird #nature #cherry 🌊 Hokusai’s most famous print, known as ‘The Great Wave’, will be one of the highlight works in our upcoming #Hokusai exhibition (25 May – 13 August) . It was created when the artist was in his early seventies and was one of a series – ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ – which celebrated the sacred mountain with views from different seasons and locations. Hokusai increasingly identified with Mount Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.

The exhibition ‘Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave’ will feature sublime prints and paintings by one of Japan’s greatest artists. Follow the link in our bio for more information and to book tickets!

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquired with the assistance of the @artfunduk 
#Hokusai #Japan #GreatWave #MountFuji #JapaneseArt #Japaneseprints #seascape #nature #wave #sea #mountain #🌊
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