The 31cm tall Lion Man in front of us could be a child’s toy, slightly damaged from age or wear, if that’s not a glib observation to make. It is not a child’s toy. Instead what it is is a 40,000 mammoth ivory figurine of a lion/man hybrid, carved over hundreds of hours in prehistoric Germany at a time where those hours might be more practically spent gathering food or staying warm- this lion man was carved for a greater purpose. Perhaps for the purpose of religious worship.
‘What is it about belief that is so intrinsic to human behaviour?’ is the fundamental question this exhibition asks, the result of collaboration by the British Museum, Penguin Books, and the BBC, and the Lion Man is the first artefact in this exhibition. The first thing that strikes anyone walking in is that the British Museum haven’t been constrained by age or provenance of their artefacts. Throughout the spiral of the exhibition space it’s clear that this is an exhibition which focuses on the interaction of objects with nothing more in common than being associated in some way with religion, and seeks to explain why we use objects in religion at all.
Unlike other exhibitions, these objects are not grouped in terms of chronology but in terms of theme. Objects from all cultures corresponding to the elements of ‘light’ ‘water’ ‘cosmos’ and ‘fire’ are next to each other- for example in ‘water’, plastic zamzam jars c. 2014 sit next to a Christian glass flask from 500-600 AD. Although I’m usually one for neatly laid out chronology, this curatorial choice worked brilliantly. What it conveyed, which I think was the point of the exhibition, was that world religions (and not just the ‘major’ ones) use elements in ways that are incredibly similar, and therefore are all underpinned by similar ideas. ‘Water’ in many religions, for example, is used as a cleansing element. By juxtaposing the old and the modern, this exhibition showed the interconnections between ancient and modern ideas, and showed (me, anyway) that although we view ourselves as in some ways “advanced”, many of us still use these ancient ideas in our everyday lives, and should feel a closer proximity to the people of the past than perhaps we do. After the displays grouped around the elements, we saw how objects are used for rituals, and why ritual and religion are so closely intertwined. Jewish religious objects shared space with Eritrean Eucharist panels, again juxtaposing objects to contrast them, and to encourage us to draw similarities. Accompanying explanation told us that prehistorical rituals gave structure to our lives, and gave a sense of community from the mutual response that ritual entails. Looking at the Eritrean items, I began to fathom how far away Eritrea was, and yet how similar these items are in purpose to the items in every Catholic church in the world.
Although differing objects around the same theme were laid next to each other, the exhibition also showed how religions use exactly the same objects. Muslim Tasbih, Buddhist Mala and rosaries were displayed together, and it began to feel as though the major theme of this exhibition was community. Superficially, the objects look the same- theologically, they are not the same, but their similarity here was more pertinent than their differences. What the exhibition was encouraging us to embrace is a sense of world community, and a sense that human beings are underscored with a compulsion for religion. Wars are fought between religion, and lives overturned by religion, but the overarching point was the similarities between cultures are stronger than the conflicts, at least with respect to the items here. Near the end of the exhibition, this theme of conflict and coexistence is returned to more explicitly, with objects from the Soviet Union, and associated with Christianity in Japan. These objects, including a Japanese notice board denouncing Christians, and a painting from Soviet Russia, hinted that although religion may be fundamental to humanity, so might conflict and intolerance, which was a sobering thought to end a rather uplifting and harmonious exhibition on, but nonetheless important. It reminded us that although there are strong ties between the religions, we should be mindful of these ties, and seek to embrace them rather than to jump to intolerance and conflict. It also reminded us of the slippery slope that we fell down in between carving a lion out of ivory, and killing for our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us.
Another contrast which the curators made plain in this exhibition was the elaborateness and the ostentation of some objects, and the plain frugality of others. A intricately painted Russian icon showing the saints was displayed next to tobacco tie healing prayers, made during the HIV epidemic, and for me this encapsulated the whole point of the exhibition. The two objects were different in tradition (one Russian Orthodox, the other part of Native healing culture), different in appearance (one detailed and elegantly painted, the other plainer), but both are objects which people have put faith in and both are objects which people use to fulfil their beliefs and rituals. Despite the differences between the objects, both are indicative of the idea that humans are united in religious instinct, and united in how we seek relief from pain from our faiths.
I certainly enjoyed this exhibition more than most I have visited, because it was one of the first where I started to think seriously about what the curators were trying to do when placing objects in conjunction, with what journey the curators were trying to take us on, and with what conclusion. The conclusion I drew was certainly powerful one of the benefits of coexistence and respect, but I did leave wondering whether displaying these objects apart from their religious contexts erases the main differences between them, and whether by trying to draw similarities between objects from differing religions is perhaps oversimplifying the theologies and philosophies of the religions. Perhaps. The same view was also explored in Jonathan Jones’ Guardian review. But perhaps what it’s also trying to do is to introduce the viewers to religions that we would otherwise be unlikely to hear about, and by showing how they’re similar to religions we might already be familiar with, encourage us to learn more about others’ cultures. Equally, it would be incredibly hard to delve into the complex theology of each religion in a way which would hope to do each religion justice in such a short space of time, and although this criticism is warranted, perhaps deeper theological insight would be better saved for another exhibition.
As we left, we passed behind the lion-man sculpture, whose shadow was thrown on the back wall, reminding us of where in the human psyche all these objects came from. For me, this was the most striking image of the whole exhibition.
This exhibition runs until the 8th April at the British Museum.