Imagining the Divine: where’s the BBQ?

Dominic Dalglish responds to three appraisals of the Imagining the Divine exhibition from some of the UK’s leading scholars. In this piece, we look at the suggestions of Neil Macgregor, former Director of the British Museum and current Director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.  

In the first piece, we took a closer look at ‘blobs’ thanks to the insightful critique of Mary Beard – here we’ll be looking at that of Neil Macgregor. The hope is that by responding to what are very interesting observations, it will serve to open up some of the different ways that we can think about the objects and images in the exhibition. Let us know what you think. 

Neil was responding to a question by Mallica Kumbera-Landrus asked at a recent event with Mary Beard about the aspects of religion that we cannot expect to address in an exhibition (c.38:55).  

Neil responded second at about 41:00; I have paraphrased below: 


What’s missing [is that] you go into an exhibition on religion in the ancient world, and where is the sacrificial animal, where is the smell of roasting meat, the smoke rising to the gods – the absolutely central part of religious practice, the smoke of sacrifice, the burning of sacrifice… that’s the image, a central part of the image, of contact – of connection between the human and the divine… 

You’ve got a restaurant just next door, it could have been managed! You can only exhibit what’s survived, and that does risk narrowing our understanding, particularly the absence of smell and noise. 

Neil Macgregor - TORCH Sheldonian 17.1.2018
Neil MacGregor, with Mallica Kumbera-Landrus, speaking at the Sheldonian in January © Image Stuart Bebb

Clearly, we should have given Neil something to eat before he came to speak, because he seemed to have food on the brain. But to summarise, I’m going to refer to the complaint as ‘BBQ’. 

As Neil well knows, there is a slight practical problem here – museums don’t even allow red wine in galleries because of the threat to the floor so I daresay that a sacrificial lamb would not go down well. But his point is, just as Mary’s was, a very good one.  

As was suggested with ‘blobs’, there is an issue with survival; clearly the same concern is also going to be the case in this instance, as Neil himself noted. Unfortunately, the fire burnt up many of the things that Neil wants to point to.  

Cyprus Limasol museum altars
A collection of altars in Limassol, Cyprus © Image Dominic Dalglish.

We could have displayed an altar, or several, in the various different religious situations that we find them. Altars are perhaps the clearest demonstration of ‘acts’ – that religion involves not just mindful contemplation but also doing. This was something that the curators discussed at length but was decided against for two interrelated reasons. The first is that it might have been a token object. We focus on the development of iconography, so what would an altar add? Altars deserve to be better understood than simply to appear alongside statues as suggestive appendages. This ties in with the second point – that we often don’t know precisely where they were positioned, how they were used, and what their status was across the variety of places and periods that we find them.  

Classicists often assume that altars must appear outside the front of temples: you offered a sacrifice to the god inside from the outside. The trouble is that there are countless examples, particularly from the Roman world, where this is simply not the case. We find them inside and outside, they can be small and very, very large, round and square and so on. In an exhibition that seeks to explore the connections between different religious traditions, we took the decision not to insert something that should receive a great deal more attention than it usually does. 

Hamat Tiberias floor in the exhibition
The floor of Hamat Tiberias, Israel, reproduced in Imagining the Divine, Ashmolean Museum © Image Stefanie Lenk.

But can we be more positive? For one thing, we can point to the excellent work of the installers of the exhibition and the design team.  How will you walk on the floor of Hamat Tiberias as you enter the Jewish section – will you step on the images, or tiptoe around? As you look at the stones in the northern Christianity display, will you think of their setting – the feel, the smell, the sounds around them? And will you circum-ambulate the stupa – will the images draw you around it as devotees once were? These are all parts of how these objects and images functioned, and we welcome your thoughts on them. 

Standing stones
Standing stones in the Imagining the Divine exhibition, Ashmolean Museum © Image Stefanie Lenk.

There are other points, too. Much of what Neil was stressing was the importance of senses – how can we get to the smells, tastes, sounds, and the touch of religious experience, and the practice of it all? Aside from providing snacks, opening up the back stories of pieces can help, in part so that we can see beyond the incredible images that adorn them and treat them as objects too.  

Gold glass roundel with biblical scenes AD300-400, Rome, Now Ashmolean
Gold glass roundel with biblical scenes AD300-400, Rome, now Ashmolean © Stefanie Lenk.

Above is a gold glass roundel with scenes from both the New and Old testament, suggesting that this was a Christian object. Below is a similar object; a fragment of gold glass that clearly depicts a Menorah, a distinctively Jewish object.  

Fragment of a gold glass roundel with Menorah AD300-400 Rome, now Ashmolean
Fragment of a gold glass roundel with Menorah AD300-400 Rome, now Ashmolean © Dominic Dalglish.

Both come from a specific funerary context – they were embedded into the walls of the Roman catacombs, probably in the third century, perhaps to mark associations that individuals had to religious communities. In and of itself, that gives us a fascinating practice, but we can do more with them than that. Many of these objects appear to have once been the base of drinking vessels – that above is inscribed in Latin ‘drink; live!’. After use as vessels, the excess glass was removed leaving the roundel at the base that then had a second life as an identity marker. It might not be the drink that we taste, but we can get a sense of how these objects were part of religious experience. 

The four Maskell Ivories showing New Testament scenes
One of the Maskell Ivories featuring the crucifixion of Christ and the suicide of Judas, British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Like the gold glass, the ivory panel above and the three others like it pictured below, are usually approached for the images that they bear. This is not unsurprising – these are extraordinary carvings not only for what they depict (the crucifixion of Christ and the suicide of Judas in combination) and the way they depict them (the beardless Christ), but also the incredible skill in their rendering.  

Maskell Ivories
The four Maskell Ivories featuring scenes from the New Testament, British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum.

These images are undoubtedly our focus in the exhibition. But we have also tried to think about their liturgical setting – in the case accompanying this object you will find a censor for the burning of incense, a ewer to hold important liquids, and the Christian gold glass roundel. The ivories here formed a box that might well have held communion – the body of Christ, meant to be dispensed as part of religious practice. The literal sacrifice of Christ on the cross cannot be disassociated with the presence of God in the host within the box.  

So, whilst we’re already discussing the possibility of a BBQ at our next exhibition, we hope that what’s installed in Imagining the Divine will suffice for now. Many thanks to Neil for raising a stimulating subject and do let us know your thoughts! 

Neil MacGregor’s exhibition ‘Living with Gods: people, places, and worlds beyond’ is on at the British Museum until 8 April 2018.


Author: Dominic Dalglish

Features Image © Stuart Bebb.

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