Research volumes

Empires of Faith: Histories of Image and Religion in Late Antiquity, from India to Ireland

Table of Contents
General Bibliography

The study of art in late antiquity is framed by two fundamental constraints: religious and political. Firstly, Late Antiquity is the period in which almost all the world’s major surviving religions came into being or underwent significant transformation, including the acquisition of visual forms of communication and self-definition that have persisted to this day. This was a time when some of the dominant religious models of antiquity became extinct: the plethora of pagan cults that comprised the religious fabric of the Roman Empire collectively and swiftly died; Zoroastrianism lost its hegemony in Persia as the Sasanian state lost power, but it managed to survive. One may list Christianity, Islam, and the Mahayana forms of Buddhism as new religions in the late antique period. On the other hand, Judaism, the range of Indian religions that we now call Hinduism, and early (or Theravada) Buddhism are religions that witnessed major change, including the rise of characteristic iconographies. Modern practitioners of those religions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, heavily invested in them in a variety of ways; adherents of other faiths or those who have left their own often have feelings that are still more charged. There is therefore no doubt that their study – and the study of their art – cannot be separated from complex issues of polemic, apologetic, ancestral idealization, and various forms of critical condemnation from contemporary opponents. It is not surprising that these apologetics and polemics have come to crystallize around canonical monuments and major artistic masterpieces from the past, since these have acquired ancestral significance for modernity. They have become the embodiments of essential modern religious and national identities, vested at moments of origin or significant historical transformation. The problems caused by ideological investment are huge and their history is very long; standing aside from them is all but impossible. But we can at least be aware of the problem and – in some forensic detail – of the way it has played out and continues to do so, both across the range of current religions and cultures of Asia and Europe and across the history of scholarship on their pasts in late antiquity. This is one of the determining factors of modernity and postmodern identity in lived experience in the world today.

Detail of the hand and forearm of the Buddha, sandstone, 2nd century, Mathura, India. Ashmolean Museum.

The second constraint derives from the historical moment when scholarly interest in late antiquity – both in relation to the West and to the arts of Asia – came to its first fruition under the imperial apogee of European powers in the later nineteenth century. These imperial powers controlled territories whose inhabitants represented ancient and non-Christian cultures – for instance British India, Muslim Bosnia within the Hapsburg Empire, the Islamic world of French North Africa, and Russian expansion into Central and East Asia. There was, at the same time, the persistent presence of the Ottoman Empire to the immediate east of Europe, and beyond it Persia. In combination, these made a potent case for European self-definition by superior alterity and the insistence on difference from the foreign other, on the part of the Christian European powers. Among the colonized, in some cases, native or nationalistic positions appropriated the language of hegemonic imperial discourses in the East – whether in the dominions of the Ottoman Empire, itself independent of the European powers, or in the European colonies and conquests of India, the Far East and Africa. But the imperial discourses could also be resisted with alternative anti-colonialist and post-colonialist narratives about religion, ethnicity and nationhood, constructed in direct contradiction to standard European accounts. At the same time, the positivistic confidence of western scholarship, well funded by imperial coffers and founded on a rigorous philological command, coupled with the rise of a vibrant archaeological and anthropological drive in precisely this moment of the late nineteenth century, bred a range of brilliant academic ventures. These ventures formed the basis of modern scholarly disciplines, including art history. Of course, the colonialist and imperial impetus – the urge to see foreign natives as primitive and in need of western civilization – and the search for Orientalist primitive origins (notably Aryanism) are urges just as ideological, prejudiced, and incapable of objectivity as the claims of religious polemic and apologetics. Particularly complex in matters of religion is the native attempt in the 19th and early 20th centuries to reinterpret ancient religions, like Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, in terms that made them more palatable to European ways of thinking and more like the normative Christianities promulgated by Western powers and Western missionaries; in many cases this involved fundamental transformation of ancient and traditional religious practice.

Detail of St. Cosmas, stucco wall-painting showing SS Cosmas and Damian, 6th-7th century, Egypt. BM 1919,0505.1.

The problem facing this book is thus two-fold. First, it must clarify and undermine the untenable biases of the stories we have learned, inherited, and retold, and which we too often continue to tell. These are interesting and important in their own right – formulated to construct cultural norms and identities in modernity through a kind of ancestral mythology about selective events and objects from the past. But they are mainly myths, even if sometimes sustained by a formidable scholarly apparatus. Second, we need to begin to forge a new basis, within the context of a globalized world, where the range of cultural phenomena around art and religion in late antiquity can be treated with equivalence and a degree of dispassion, in such a way as to throw some comparative light on a range of broadly related phenomena at the junction between antiquity and the medieval world. That dispassion can of course only represent a current and contemporary position, which will in its turn be susceptible to critique from a different place or a later time. This second goal, a large project for a generation, is beyond the scope of this volume. But to begin the process of achieving it requires a long hard look at the difficulties of comparing incommensurate narratives of self and other, mainly constructed by European scholars, but often developed in colonial and postcolonial contexts by scholars from within the cultures on which they were working. The assumptions underlying these narratives – especially about religions whose scholars are also believers – were frequently designed to make the objects of their study unique or exceptional and in any case so special that they cannot be compared with others. To clarify the range of apologetics and polemics embedded as axiomatic starting points in modern scholarship is a formidable task, and we have attempted in this book at least to begin that process.

Tombstone of Ghariba, marble, Tunisia, AH 431/AD 1040, Ashmolean Museum EA 2006.21.