What’s the correct position from which to view the exhibition – what should we be looking for? Katherine Cross gets down to ground level with a youthful take on Imagining the Divine.
With its central themes of sacrality and representation, Imagining the Divine has not been marketed particularly at young children. Yet, as one of its curators, I have found myself accompanied by my one-year-old daughter when showing friends and family around at weekends. She’s still a bit young for the Ashmolean’s family trail (available here).
What, I wonder, could the exhibition offer to someone whose favourite game is pointing out people’s noses? (Incidentally, we tried to play this in the Greek and Roman Sculpture gallery – but several of the statues turned out to be missing that particular appendage.)
The first things she discovers are animals, hidden throughout the exhibition galleries. They are only obvious in the section on Vishnu and his avatars – the three-dimensional sculpture of Varaha, the boar, stands out. Despite the importance of animal images here, the avatars of Vishnu represent a hierarchy in which humans are superior to other creatures. Elsewhere, animals are found in frames, around the edges of images, or needing to be puzzled out of patterns. While my eyes are drawn to the face of Christ on the Hinton St Mary mosaic, my daughter is just as interested in the dogs and deer racing around the sides of the floor. In searching them out, I realise how frequently animals are subsidiary to human representations of the divine, carrying their own weight of symbolism and mythology. And we also find monsters: the dog-headed St Christopher depicted on the Vinica tiles, and the mysterious winged horse in human clothing on the Franks Casket. In these hybrid images, the supernatural blurs the boundaries between human and animal.
We also encounter objects at different levels and from new perspectives. A toddler’s-eye view looks across the surface of Buddha’s feet, which stand raised up from the ground – not imprinted in the earth, as I realise I had previously imagined them – the bumps of the toes’ knuckles revealing three-dimensional soles. The urge to touch them has never been so strong! My daughter sits down on the synagogue mosaic printed on the floor, and we growl at the lion; unaware of the upside-down label text, her back to the rest of the images, she focuses on the single aspect of the iconography that catches her interest.
The standing stones from the British Isles suggest a game of peekaboo, so we peer around the four sides of the sculptures. The designs on front, back, and sides become much more connected than when I viewed them on my own. Surely these stones have often been surrounded by social activity, not always focuses of individual contemplation.
Whenever showing a visitor around, I come away with new perspectives on the objects in the exhibition. Visiting with my daughter reminds me that, while some of these objects (like the luxurious Qurans) were kept carefully secured for the eyes of a select, educated and hushed minority, many of them communicated the sacred to the entire community – even to its smallest members, and even to those without language.
Author: Katherine Cross