About the Project

Why did new religious imagery and iconographies emerge in different religious traditions across Asia and Europe in the period AD 200-800?

Taking the broadest possible view, the Empires of Faith project examines imagery from those religions that have survived (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as well as the polytheisms of India) but also many lost religions from the cults of the Roman Empire to Manichaeism. To do so, it looks across the north Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds, the Indian Ocean and beyond, from Britain and Spain in the west to the Indian subcontinent and the borders of China in the east.

The project aims to put the best of new and current research on late antique religious history and archaeology at the University of Oxford side by side with the unparalleled scholarly and material resources of the British Museum, in an experiment in intellectual collaboration between the two institutions in the United Kingdom with the greatest strengths in the material culture of this period.

Varaha, the boar avatar of Vishnu, 9th-10th century, Ashmolean Museum EA 1969.43.

The intention is both to forge a method for doing a global comparative art history of religions, within the specific temporal and geographical limitations of the project, and to produce a series of fundamental studies on key themes of religious change, self-assertion and identity through visual means. No research project has ever before attempted to take such a broad view of this subject, region, and period. Only by looking at this area as an interconnected whole, and by bringing together perspectives from a wide range of academic specialisms and disciplines will these vital features of this pivotal period – and their continuing legacy – be able to be properly understood.

Objects provide a rich source of evidence to explore these complex developments that still have lasting consequences for the modern world. Not only do the iconographies and forms of worship of all these major world faiths originate between AD 200 and 800, but the particular relationships between state and religion established then persist as an issue to this day, shaping key debates about the possibility and desirability of containing multiple, conflicting religious and social identities within a single state. The project develops innovative ways of integrating objects into the discussion of these key questions: earlier studies have been mostly conducted with reference to textual evidence.

In societies where few could read, political authority and religious truth were constructed and communicated through images and objects to both elites and wider constituencies. In this period, artefacts and images – and the architecture in which images occurred and some objects were used –embodied and disseminated complex theological and political ideas. This can be seen in religious and political imagery made at this time, whether monumental such as the Bamiyan Buddhas or the mosaics of the Roman emperor Justinian at Ravenna, or in miniature: for instance, the images of Hindu divinities on the seals of Gupta kings or the first Islamic gold dinars which displaced the image of the caliph himself with a verse from the Qur’an proclaiming the oneness of God.

Part of the Mshatta facade, 8th century, Jordan, now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.