Woodstocker Books


Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions

Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions


Jas Elsner et al, edited by Stefanie Lenk and Georgi Parpulov.

Ashmolean Museum 
Size: 8.75 in x 11 in
Pages: 200
Illustrations: 200 color, 10 b&w

International experts collaborated to bring this stunning publication (and the exhibition it depicts)  to fruition. The result of new research, the authors are leading scholars and members of Empires of Faith, a collaborative team from the  British Museum and Wolfson College, Oxford. 

The cover shows us what is believed to be the first images depicting the Buddha -- his feet.  Religion -- and religious art as it has evolved -- has been a fundamental force for constructing human identity. How did the early art of our religions look, what was the meaning of those  images, how did ancient cults transform into faith systems?

Here is the visual culture of the earliest periods of the world’s major religions -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. The specific visual images that we relate to one religion came from cultural encounters, things that were accepted and integrated into one's beliefs or rejected. Art and artefacts were a medium of people's imagination and perceptions, beliefs and hopes.

In the words of the exhibition's Professor Jas Elsner, Co-Curator of the exhibition (at the Ashmolean Museum. thru the winter of 2018):  "This work demonstrates how an earlier era of religious transformation and turmoil generated dialogue, encounter and visual exchange which formed the key identities of the world religions... parallel with the world of today, when cultural exchange, migration and globalization are of critical importance.”

Exhibition consultant Mary Beard commented: “This is... groundbreaking...  Not just fabulous things to look at (though there are plenty of those) – but an attempt to raise big questions about how different cultures have made their gods visible to themselves, how the imagery was formed and evolved, and how different traditions of representation interacted with one another. It couldn’t be more relevant.”

Included are rich holdings of the Ashmolean alongside loans of precious objects that have survived from the earliest periods of each of these religions. Lenders included the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Institution Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, National Museum Scotland, Bodleian Library, British Library, the Nasser D Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, Sarikhani Collection, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, Lichfield Cathedral and Birmingham Museums Trust as well as rarely seen objects from private collections.

In the first millennium AD, in the period we call 'Late Antiquity,' religious visual imagery evolved.. Bridging the traditional divide between classical, Asian, Islamic and Western history, this publication highlights religious and artistic creativity at points of contact and cultural borders between late antique civilizations. Among the rare treasures: some of the oldest surviving Qurans; early Christian sarcophagi,  a rare cult- statue of Dionysus; early figurative and pre-figurative images of the Buddha; Vishnu avatars; late ancient Jewish artefacts; and a variety of rare maps, scrolls, drawings, coins, manuscripts and amulets.

Table of Contents: List of Contributors; Preface; Encounters; Religions in the Roman World; Gods in Combination; The Rise of the Image of Christ; Jewish Art; Scripture; Word as Image; Envisioning the Buddha; Amulets and Magic; Maidens and Mothers, Virgins and Lovers; Vishnu: The Enigmatic Image of a Deity; Sacred and Imperial Power; Iconoclasm; The Emergence of Islamic Art; Aniconism; Christianity in the British Isles; Sacred Space; Travelling Objects; Chronological Table; Map of the World (Britain to India) c.250 AD; Map of the World (Britain to India) c.850 AD; Index of Geographical Names; Index of Personal Names.

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