Empires of Faith in Edinburgh

Members of the Empires of Faith team travel to Edinburgh to share their research and discuss the ongoing development of the ‘Imagining the Divine’ exhibition.

For our forthcoming Imagining the Divine exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, we are joined by Dr Yuthika Sharma as a co-curator to work on the section telling the story of the development of images of the Indian deity Vishnu. Yuthika is a lecturer in medieval art at the University of Edinburgh. After dragging her south of the border for many meetings and store visits, it was a treat to be able to return the favour and pay a visit to the Edinburgh College of Art, a faculty of the University.

The audience was a diverse crowd of art historians, historians, and philologists. The History of Art department at Edinburgh has a remarkable span of specialisms, complementing the vast geographical range of our project and exhibition and leading to fruitful discussion. Our talks drew on the historiographical problems that are explored in a forthcoming Empires of Faith volume, presented through the practical problem of putting together the Imagining the Divine exhibition.

After a warm welcome from Professor Richard Williams (Head of the School of History of Art), Yuthika kicked off proceedings with a presentation about how to convey to a general audience the complex history of representations of the Dashavatara – the ten avatars of Vishnu. Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu) has many competing strands. On the one hand, there are the avatars: physical incarnations of the god such as the fish Matsya, the lion-headed Narasimha, and other deities like Rama or Krishna. On the other, there is the divine essence of Vishnu – a more remote, less relatable power. Yuthika explored how artists reconciled these competing philosophies in sculpture. In response to Yuthika’s paper, Paul Dundas, Reader in Sanskrit, raised an interesting discussion about the use of the word ‘Hinduism’. Among the avatars of Vishnu is in fact the Buddha, which led us nicely into Robert’s Bracey paper on The first Buddha images and European imperialism.

Yuthika Sharma presenting on the avatars of Vishnu

Robert introduced the problem of ‘iconic’ and ‘aniconic’ in Buddhism, and gave an overview of existing evidence and historiography, dedicating particular attention to two highly influential scholars of Buddhist imagery from the early 20th century – Alfred Foucher and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Robert showed how various trends in the foundation years of the field still influence contemporary narratives, and he pointed out the importance of new methods and technical analyses in sorting out unresolved questions. The talk finished with a discussion of the difficulties of incorporating complex and ongoing academic research into public displays, and the necessary compromises that must be made. Halle O’Neal, Lecturer in Japanese Buddhist art, responded to the paper. She was particularly interested in the way in which colonial histories and nationalist responses have shaped our understanding of Gandharan and Mathuran art, and explained how she used the debate between Foucher and Coomaraswamy to engage her own students with this period.

Robert Bracey explains some historiographical legacies
Discussion of a fragmentary Gandharan sculpture in the special collections

In the following talk by Rachel Wood, Afterlives of Sasanian sacred iconographies, we saw some of the difficulties in classifying certain Sasanian artefacts as indicative of Zoroastrian belief, and how images have been under-appreciated or not critically-appraised in scholarship. Linked to the theme of the exhibition, we can see a complex picture of interactions between religious communities from the material record of the Sasanian Empire. The second section of Rachel’s talk explored interpretations of Sasanian motifs that were used in post-Sasanian contexts, which is addressed in a subsection of the Imagining the Divine exhibition on how artists in the early Islamic empire responded to the visual traditions of their Sasanian predecessors. Her final section raised the additional complications caused by how the Sasanian period has been used to further 19th- and 20th-century imperial, national, and religious interests. Rachel’s respondent, Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila (Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies), elaborated upon how these issues are compounded by the absence of contemporary written sources.

Rachel Wood presenting some points of post-Sasanian significance attached to Sasanian art

After lunch, the speakers and participants were given the opportunity to visit the University’s special collections where Dr. Andrew Grout had selected a number of objects relevant to our discussions. Much of the collection is accessible online at http://collections.ed.ac.uk but it is always wonderful to see the objects firsthand, especially with their curator.

Alain George discusses a Qu’rān folio

With only six lines of text per page, this Qur’an would have numbered between 30 and 40 volumes. Having the sacred text divided across many volumes enabled the Qur’an to be used by several people at the same time. Not only that, but fewer words per page also aided memorisation of the word of God, as well as placing additional visual emphasis on the words themselves. The letters are extremely regular and precise – presumably created using a grid – and text has only a few diacritics, added in red to indicate the short vowels.

Page of a miniature Byzantine illuminated Gospel, MS 219, 12th century, showing an Evangelist.
Uruvupalli charter, Sanskrit, on 5 copper plates, issued from Palakkada in AD 447.

Copper plate charters such as this often recorded donations to temples or, in the case of this example, the designation of the village as a religious endowment.

In her talk about the development of the image of Christ, which will be the focus of the first section of our exhibition, Maria Lidova demonstrated various difficulties that we encounter when dealing with late Roman art. The interpretation of certain artworks usually identified as representing Jesus is not always straightforward. Depending on the viewer, the same image could have multiple interpretations. However, this ambiguity of meaning is not seen as a problem but as an inherent feature of the period when the Roman world was gradually re-identified as a Christian empire. Artists followed different paths to create the new Christian iconography: from full integration of earlier imagery, to complete renouncement.  Maria emphasized the importance of art and material evidence in our studies of religion and showed instances when the surviving artefacts can actually fill in the gaps left by written sources. Neils Gaul, A. G. Leventis Professor of Byzantine Studies, responded to one of Maria’s themes of how the image of Christ became integral to Byzantine emperors’ presentation of power.

Fragment of a Late Roman marble sarcophagus of the 3rd century reworked in the early 5th century, possibly showing Christ flanked by apostles, Bode Museum 2430, Berlin

Nadia Ali gave the final talk of the day, on the place of early Islamic-period art in the context of Late Antiquity, focusing on the Umayyad palace of Qusayr ‘Amra in Jordan. Rather than focusing on the patronage of the caliph al-Walid II (709-744) alone, Nadia showed how the wall-paintings in the palace should be viewed in light of the artists’ awareness of contemporary visual forms and compositions. Her respondent, Alain George (Senior Lecturer in History of Art), also a specialist in Islamic art, continued the discussion by posing further questions about our understanding of the artists’ intentions, their choices, and where they came from.

Nadia Ali on the wall-paintings of Qusayr ‘Amra

We would like to thank all those who attended the day, and in particular to Yuthika Sharma for organising the event, Andrew Grout for the store visit, and to our respondents for their thoughtful insights.


Authors: Rachel Wood, Robert Bracey, Maria Lidova, Nadia Ali

All images ⓒ Maria Lidova 2017

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