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Seeing the Divine
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Seeing the DivineAll around the Museum are images of gods, goddesses, saints, and figures from the myths and religious texts of almost every culture in the world. These range from great works of art to simple crafted artefacts, pieces that may have taken months to create or mass-produced as cheap objects for daily devotion. This plethora of pictures, statues and sacred objects reveals the central importance of the role religion has played in human life for at least the last 40 000 years. Some of the oldest works of art ever created (and the oldest in the Museum) were probably images of myth created for ceremony and ritual. Religious impulses have driven people throughout history to create images of the divine for a range of purposes. Some statues and images were a focus for worship while others might act as a container for the deity, or may actually be, or at times become, the deity. Other images were not intended for use in worship but created as a means for telling the myths and important stories of a religion, or even simply as decorative art.

As well as these images of gods and divine beings, there are many objects across the Museum collections that were used in rituals and worship, such as Olmec votive axes, or as containers for objects of veneration, such as the Buddhist and Christian reliquaries, or as souvenirs of pilgrimage or as aids for religious journeys. Some of the largest objects in the Museum are religious images from China and Easter Island. The size of these statues physically embodies the role religion has in people’s lives but also shows how religious images were used to demonstrate the power of a group or to prove the wealth of an individual.

Seeing the Divine


One of the oldest works of art in the British Museum, perhaps an image of an ancient myth.


The objects in this chapter allow us to compare and contrast the ways different cultures and religions have conceived how the divine might look, with images of manifestations of the divine spanning 4000 years across the world. They include gods and goddesses from ancient Greece and Rome, Babylon and Mexico alongside Hindu deities, the Buddha, Christian saints and angels and deities from the Pacific and North America. There are striking differences between them, of course, but there are also similarities, such as a widespread conception of the divine as a human-like from. However, although the Museum contains numerous images of gods, goddesses and other divine beings, it is important to remember that not every religion considers it appropriate to create images of the divine. Of the three great monotheist religions that originated in the Middle East, Christianity is unusual in allowing, indeed often encouraging, images of Christ, Mary, angels, saints and other biblical scenes. In stark contrast, Islam and Judaism forbid images of God. Even in Christianity there have been movements that rejected, even actively destroyed, religious images. Examples include the iconoclastic movement in Byzantine Orthodox Christianity and some Protestant groups during the Reformation. For the first 300 years of Christianity very few images seem to have been created showing Christ or scenes from the Bible. The British Museum has one of the oldest known images in the history of Christianity, which depicts Christ as a human, and also the oldest known image of the Crucifixion.

Images of the Buddha are also common across Asia, yet it was considered inappropriate for 400-500 years after the Buddha’s death to create an image of the Buddha in his human form. An interesting question for a museum, considering how many images of the divine have been created across the world, is how to convey the choice not to create such pictures and statues – perhaps by displaying an empty case?

Seeing the Divine


Detail from one of the oldest known images of the Crucifixion in Christian art.




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