This weekend I had a chance to visit Imaging the divine at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford before it closed.
Imaging the Divine explores the visual history of religious images in the first millennia of our era. It covers the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of these religions could be called Axial Age religions. Karl Jaspers, who coined this term, argued in the middle of the twentieth century that the period of 8th to 3rd Century BCE saw an expansion in new ways of thinking across a broad swathe of geographical area with little interaction between them. For example, in Greece law was codified and Socrates started chatting, Persia saw the development of the religion which developed into Zoroastrianism and China saw the development of Confucianism. These developments are not covered in the exhibition. Christianity and Islam were later developments, although both were powerfully influence by the religions and schools of thought developed during the Axial Age. The thesis of the Axial Age has been brought into question, but it continues to inspire many. This exhibition examines the longue durée just after the axial age, in the early years of the silk roads.
The return of Whig History
The exhibition works a careful line between presenting the artefacts as a continuous artistic development from earlier forms (from within or without particular traditions) and random developments. For example Buddhist stupas developed from reliquary mounds native to Indian culture.
Yet the exhibition reeks of whiggery. It is that only those religions which have survived into the modern day that are examined in detail. For example, whilst there are busts of Zeus there are no Manichaean artefacts even though this religion straddled much of the period and area under investigation during this period.
Another notable feature was that the exhibition was very male. I imagine the curators would argue that this reflects the religions under investigation. It felt to me as part of a wider malaise towards non-elite individuals that is perhaps too much a part of the Oxbridge mindset. It would have been nice to see some Isiac artefacts, perhaps an Isis-Thermouthis or Isis-Aphrodite terracotta to compare against Hindu Nagas. An Isis Lactans terracotta could also be compared to Maria Lactans. The lack of female representation was regrettable in terms of the story it told about us today and the understanding of historical development of religion.
UX and the divine
That said the UX was mostly good. The flow of the crowd was well accounted for. However one intriguing detail was that often the exhibition’s artefacts would be numbered left to right in a cabinet and the captions were laid out right to left. I couldn’t work out whether this was consciously done to help hovering or not. Also, some of the smaller or more finely detailed items (for example, the manuscripts) were hard to focus on due to oversized display cabinets.
Overall, the exhibition was a fine show but felt strangely isolated from contemporary movements and it didn’t quite speak openly to the modern day.