As the Empires of Faith project draws to its close, we are pleased to announce a three-day conference as our concluding event.

Imagining the Divine: art in religions of Late Antiquity across Eurasia
Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles’, Oxford.
Thursday 11th – Saturday 13th January 2018


Please note that registration for the conference is now closed.


The conference brings together early career researchers and established scholars of the art and archaeology of Late Antiquity (c.AD 200-800), across cultures and regions reaching from Gupta India to Umayyad Iberia, to discuss how objects can inform our understanding of religions. Major transformations are visible in the production of religious art and in the relationships between people and objects in religious contexts across the ancient world during this period. These shifts in behaviour and formalising of iconographies are visible in art associated with numerous religious traditions including, but not limited to, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, religions of the Roman Empire, and paganism in northern Europe. Studies of these religions and their material culture, however, have been shaped by Eurocentric and post-Reformation Christian frameworks that prioritised Scripture and minimised the capacity of images and objects to hold religious content. Despite recent steps to incorporate objects, much academic discourse, especially in comparative religion, remains stubbornly textual.

During the first day of the conference, speakers will consider how artefacts can shape our understanding of the development of religions in Late Antiquity. Questions surrounding how interactions with other cultures and religions informed those developments are of particular interest.

The second day will use an explicitly comparative structure of joint presentations to explore the role of artefacts in themes and phenomena relating to religious life.

In association with an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum curated by the Empires of Faith team, entitled Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions, this conference seeks to explore the ramifications of placing objects first and foremost in comparative study of religions in Late Antiquity, and to consider the potential for interdisciplinary conversation to reinvigorate the field.

Central questions include, but are not limited to:
– How can we understand late antique religion from artefacts?
– What factors contributed to the development of religious iconography during Late Antiquity?
– What modes of interaction between people of different cultures and faiths are visible in the creation, commissioning, and use of artefacts with religious significance?
– How flexible were the meanings conveyed by religious imagery and the uses of objects in sacred contexts?
– In what ways can we conduct a comparative exercise, and what are the benefits and challenges of such discussions?



Thursday 11th January

15:30  Registration opens

16:00  Welcome                               Prof. Jaś Elsner (Empires of Faith)

            Keynote Address                 Prof. Finbarr Barry Flood (NYU)

Drinks reception followed by a private view of the Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions exhibition, Ashmolean Museum.

Friday 12th January – Materiality of Religions

09:00      Registration

09:30      Welcome

09:45     Material Religion in comparative perspective: how different is BCE from CE?
Prof. Christoph Uehlinger (University of Zurich)

Chaired by Stefanie Lenk (Empires of Faith)
10:45     Bodies, Bases, and Borders: Framing the Divine in Greco-Roman Antiquity
Prof. Verity Platt (Cornell University)

Chaired by Dominic Dalglish (Empires of Faith)

12:05     Material Practice and Metamorphosis of a Sign: Early Buddhist Stupas and the Origin of Mahayana Buddhism
Prof. Lars Fogelin (University of Arizona)

Chaired by Robert Bracey (Empires of Faith)

Afternoon session chair: TBC

14:05     Images in synagogue mosaics in late-Roman Palestine
Prof. Martin Goodman (University of Oxford)
15:05     Empire and Faith: Religious Encounters on the Franks Casket
Prof. Catherine Karkov (University of Leeds)

16:30     The sideways images of Eastern Christian gospel-books and Manichaean service-books
Prof. Zsuzsanna Gulácsi (Northern Arizona University)

17:30     General discussion.          Chair: Prof. Finbarr Barry Flood

Saturday 13th January – Visual conversations in art and religions of Late Antiquity                                                    
09:30     From Kufa to Kells: The Church, the Caliphate, and the Illuminated Word (7th-9th centuries)
Prof. Ben Tilghman (Washington College) and Dr Umberto Bongianino (University of Oxford)  

Chaired by Dr Katherine Cross (Empires of Faith)                  

11:30     From Sarapis, to Christ, to the Caliph. Faces as a re-appropriation of the past        
Prof. Ivan Foletti (Masaryk University) and Dr Katharina Meinecke (University of Vienna)

Chaired by Dr Nadia Ali (Empires of Faith)

14:00    Buddhist and Islamic amulets: forms and functions
Dr Gergely Hidas (The British Museum) and Prof. Emilie Savage-Smith (University of Oxford)

Chaired by Dr Maria Lidova (Empires of Faith)


16:00   When is a cross Christian? Sacred symbols and supernatural powers
Dr Ine Jacobs (University of Oxford) and Dr Katherine Cross (Empires of Faith)

Chaired by Dr Georgi Parpulov (Empires of Faith)


17:30     Concluding discussion chaired by Prof. Jaś Elsner (Empires of Faith)

19:00    Conference party. All welcome.


For a pdf of the conference programme, click here

Registration is free but essential as space is limited. Lunches and refreshments are included in registration. All delegates are invited to join the speakers for informal dinner and drinks at the end of the conference, Saturday 13th, but this is not funded by the conference.

To register, click here


If you have any questions about the conference, please email Dr Rachel Wood at


We are very grateful to the generous sponsors of this event: the John Fell Fund; The British Museum; The Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research; Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.



Illustrations © Clarice Holt