Religious Ceremonies of the World

In a previous post I explained how we have been holding workshops with external specialists. These enable us to draw from a broad spectrum of expertise when focussing on specific areas of the galleries and their development.

We recently held another of these workshops, this time focusing on a significant work that was first published in 1723: Picart and Bernard’s Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations). As its title suggests, Cérémonies attempted to provide clear documentation of the rituals and ceremonial life of all the known religions of the world.Title page from Volume I of ‘Cérémonies'

This substantial publication (consisting of nine volumes) was created through the collaboration of the skilled engraver Bernard Picart, who designed the book’s illustrations, and Jean Frédéric Bernard, the publisher who compiled, edited, and contributed original essays to the contents.

Picart and Bernard endeavoured to enable the comparative study of religions, providing readers with information to help them consider and determine their own views on religious beliefs. Presenting the world’s religions side-by-side helped to support a proposition that all religions were equally deserving of study and intellectual understanding. Their work had a long-lasting influence on the representations of the world’s religions in the West.Example of a page looking at Judaism, from Volume I of ‘Cérémonies … ‘, 1723 National Art Library, London

The range of religions included in the publication is vast and each representation gives references or evokes numerous religious, cultural, and political issues and concerns.

To help us develop the interpretation that will accompany the volumes of Cérémonieson display we are holding a number of workshops with various religious specialists. Their knowledge and experience can help us to understand better the accuracy and historic significance of the depictions provided of different religions. Many of the images contain numerous small details (such as particular religious paraphernalia) that specialists can help us to scrutinise and put into context.

For this first session we brought out a number of the National Art Library’s actual volumes of the publication and used them alongside a number of photographs and print-outs to prompt discussion and further explore elements of the publication.

Picart session

Key questions about the visual depictions of each religion include:

·         What exactly does it show? (Does the image match with the title and text provided?)

·         How accurate is it?

·         Is their any evidence of bias or prejudice?

·         How recognisable are the practises depicted to those undertaken today?

Jeff Berger (Rabbi at Rambam Sephardi Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation) told us that 300 years after publication, most of the practices shown in the Jewish plates are still current, such as those depicting Sukkoth. The content of some of the Catholic plates may however be puzzling to some Catholics today, due to a number of changes in the Catholic Church over this period.

The accuracy of some depictions was affected by the difficulties Picart and Bernard had in compiling reliable information. For example, although Islam features prominently in the publication, the plates depicting Islamic rituals and ceremonies can appear rather wanting. Picart was unable to observe these events and had no good source material. By contrast, the plates on Judaism are remarkably accurate because Picart was able to draw them from life in Amsterdam, where Jews had greater freedom than elsewhere in Europe.

There are a number of issues to consider and address as we produce interpretation for Cérémonies in the galleries. Crucially we need to make it clear that the views expressed in the publication are those of Picart and Bernard, not the Museum. We also need to consider how modern viewers may react to its content, for example:

·         They may find it difficult to empathise with religious ceremony.

·         Those with religious belief can be offended by their faith and practices being misrepresented.

·         Believers may find the ceremonies of other faiths objectionable.

·         Others might consider the suggestion that different religious practices are all equal is blasphemous.

All of which gives us a lot to think about.

A joint project between the UCL (University of California, Los Angeles) Digital Library Program, the Getty Research Institute, Utrecht University, and the Huntington Library has resulted in all four (French, Dutch, English and German) of the first editions of Cérémonies being made available online here.

Sections of a recent publication on Bernard and Picart’s work can be read online: The Book that Changed Europe: Picart & Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World (2012)

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