There are some problems with the connection: a student response

Penny Coombe and Sajda van der Leeuw of Talking Religion, respond to the second group workshop on the use of comparative approaches to the study of religion through material culture.

“No created being is unconnected with Him: that connection … is indescribable, because in the spirit there is no separating and uniting, while (our) thought cannot think except of separating and uniting.”

Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, The Masnavi, Book IV, 3695-3744.

How to study religion through material culture? This is the leading question behind the workshops of the “Talking Religion” research group. Inevitably, this question leads to another: What is religion? And another still: What is material culture? The first question was not given an answer in many ways in the preparatory texts of the first workshop. The authors of the texts that were read for the second workshop also agreed that, in the end, religion cannot be defined, although one of them, Rodney Needham, suggested that the etymology of religion can be traced back to the Latin – albeit to two possible origins: it derives either from ligare, literally “to tie” (or also: to bind, to unite), or to legere, which would mean “to collect” (also: to gather).[1] Religion as that which connects, seems to be a palatable answer. But we need to be cautious: as Needham concludes a bit further on: “The concept of religion is … easily susceptible to being analyzed away.”[2] Talking about religion, something that the “Talking Religion” research group obviously aims at, is clearly a difficult undertaking.

Talking about material culture is equally problematic. How to discuss an object without turning it into text? How to do justice to the materiality, the “thingness” of the thing? And yet, how to do this without losing sight of that which it signifies? Here, too, we find ourselves in quicksand.

Hence, trying to connect “religion” with “material culture” seems the desire of a madman (or a determined eccentric, surely? Ed). Why then, would a bunch of reasonably intelligent people devote themselves to the question of, “How to study religion through material culture”? Because we are all mesmerised by whatever we each mean by religion. And we all simply love whatever we each mean by material culture. From which anyone reasonably intelligent can conclude that we are all reasonably mad.

So our second workshop began. This workshop was all about comparison: how can we usefully compare objects and images that are associated with different religions and different kinds of experiences? What are the separations and connections? With the ice broken after our first workshop day together, the group was in fine voice and the debate swiftly began. We thought about ambiguity – can a sculpture be both a goddess and a statue at the same time? And we considered agency – how do our responses change how we should consider the objects? We saw that at the heart of comparison is recognition of difference, but also the fact that we, viewing and analysing works of art, construct separations and structures around objects in order to compare them.

With more discussion came more questions. This is one of the best things about participating in the Talking Religion group – the chance to question some fundamental ideas and concepts (what is material culture? what is art? what makes something religious?), so as to shatter one’s thoughts and then reconfigure them in the light of views from art historians, linguists, philosophers and classicists. Some hard thinking in progress, we may have been in danger of analyzing it all away with our dives into theory. With a timely reminder from one participant that we need to be able to communicate all of this to a general audience at the Imagining the Divine exhibition at the Ashmolean, it was time for coffee!


Ghalilat stele, orginially from Yemen. British Museum 125041


Suitably refreshed, we attempted comparisons of images ourselves. Divided into three groups, arranged over different parts of Wolfson College grounds in the sunshine, each group looked at a set of five images and discussed them along the axes of power and authority. The sculpture group considered a diverse range of pieces including the magnificent heroic-sized equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius from around 175 AD now in the Capitoline Museum, Rome, and a limestone grave marker from 1st century AD South Arabia for Ghalilat, daughter of Mafaddat, now in the Ashmolean. Bronze was often melted down after the Roman period for the metal, and limestone was useful in making lime mortar for building. Yet, these objects survived – was this because they invoked the authority of the divine? Do they hold some other power? Marcus Aurelius was readily confused with Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, and perhaps because of this the statue was saved to stand in the 8th century in the Lateran Palace of Pope Sixtus IV. The inscription on Ghalilat’s marker carried a threat of retribution and destruction by the storm god Athtar should anyone break her stele. Such reading belies much nuance and our discussions strayed into contexts, questions of literacy, the power of images and poses, social structure and cultural capital.

Ballycottin cross
The Ballycottin Cross, British Museum 1875,1211.1

“Small objects” were those of another group: a cross from Ballycottin, Ireland, which was originally a brooch from c.700-900 AD with an Arabic inscription that probably means ‘[as] God wills’; a magic amulet in copper alloy from around the 6th century, originally probably from Egypt, with a bust image of Christ as well as a figure that seems similar to the Egyptian god Horus, flanked by lions and hexagram, with Greek inscriptions that invoke divine help against the forces of evil. Then another brooch, this time bearing Mithras; an Intaglio, a carved cornelian, with menorah, from around 100-300 AD; as well as a golden coin of Abd al-Malik from c.695-697 AD. These five small objects were compared in terms of religious authority: who would have made these objects and what religious or political power were they supposed to convey? What can we deduce from iconography? What about overlaps between supposedly distinct ‘religions’ (a figure of Horus gets related to a figure of Christ)?

The last group considered the theme of “architecture”. From a Chinese translation of the Heart Sutra onto a paper scroll, in the form of a Buddhist stupa (a mound-like structure containing relics) from c.800-900 AD; to the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, from 300-500 AD that were demolished by the Taliban regime in March 2001. And from the Cumae baptistery from the 4th century AD in Italy to the Cordoba mosque-cathedral (which was once half Muslim and half Christian), and the Llywel stone in Wales (a carved sandstone from c.500-550 AD that was probably used as a landscape marker), questions arose on what makes a space sacred and the significance of the location of certain sacred objects. For example the Cumae baptistery, on top of a hill, overlooks the surrounding landscape. There were also questions about presence and absence: the “negative space” of the Bamiyan Buddhas seems to remain sacred, even after destruction of the sculpture.

The colossal carved niche of one of Bamiyan’s Buddhas, now supported by scaffolding. Author: Jaffnaanna.

Jas Elsner and Neil McLynn responded to our presentations, posing more questions about the versatility of the images and the objects, and the levels of investment by artist and patron. Their help in finding a way through the wide subject and contexts of these objects was highly appreciated. Everyone agreed that it was difficult to connect objects of such a highly diverse nature, but that there was something to be gained from thinking in such ways. When at the end of the workshop someone’s phone (apparently unable to connect to the internet) went off saying “There are some problems with the connection”, everyone had to laugh. It seemed the right conclusion to a long yet fruitful day.

[1]Needham, R. (1981): Circumstantial Deliveries, Ch.4, p. 73.

[2]Needham, R. (1981): Circumstantial Deliveries, Ch.4, p. 73.


Authors: Penny Coombe & Sajda van der Leeuw

Cover image: Rosemania

© 2017 Empires of Faith

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