Beauty is in the eye of the believer

January 20, 2006

PILGRIMAGE - THE SACRED JOURNEY The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Architecture, until April 19

The growth of religious extremism and hostility in the modern world is alarming. It is partly founded on extraneous economic and political factors, and partly on fear of the loss of traditional cultural values. But underlying it is ignorance of the rich intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage that is to be found in all the major religious traditions. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is attempting to redress this situation by founding the Ashmolean Inter-Faith Exhibition Service (AIFES).

Its object is to draw attention to the material artefacts of diverse religious traditions, setting them alongside one another in order to help people to understand and appreciate the artistic creativity that exists in different faiths.

It is in art that ultimate needs, desires and ideals can be expressed. So it is often in art that a spiritual vision can be manifested with a beauty or simplicity that silences verbal polemic.

Religious traditions differ. But in art such differences can be seen as complementary and as being part of cumulative traditions of excellence that share many basic concerns while approaching them in distinctive ways.

This, at least, is the aim of AIFES, and its first exhibition, now at the Ashmolean, is on the theme of "Pilgrimage". Exhibits range from rare and ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible to beautiful 11th-century Cambodian statuettes of the Buddha and miniature representations of Mecca. Seven religious traditions are represented, the range limited only because the exhibition is confined to works of art held in Oxford collections. The exhibition is organised under five themes. "Departure" represents the putting aside of everyday life in a search for spiritual wellbeing, and objects, particularly manuscripts, are exhibited that set out the meaning and goal of pilgrimage. "The Journey" has artworks such as maps of the Holy Land and Varanasi that chart the difficulty of, but also fascination with, journeying through strange places. "Sacred Space" shows how religious buildings reflect different religious needs and ideals. "The Central Shrine", represented by images of the Kaaba, the Buddha's place of Enlightenment, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, symbolises a point where the physical world is believed to be especially transparent to the spiritual. Finally, "the Return" is represented by images and artefacts that enable pilgrims to remember their journey when it is ended.

This is an exhibition with a purpose. It is of intrinsic artistic interest, bringing together a number of fascinating artefacts grouped around a common theme.

But it is also a reminder of the close historical association between art and religion. The arguments of dogmaticians can often be transcended by glimpses of sometimes alien beauty that creatively extend the landscape of the mind.

And the exhibition is a way of bringing different faiths into contact at a place that is not threatening while promoting understanding of a human diversity that expresses common underlying concerns.

If religion is truly concerned with the love of the good and beautiful, and not with the expansion of territory or the elimination of disagreement, it is in art that one might find the purest form of religious education. That is what James Allen, professor of Islamic art at Oxford University, and his colleagues at the Ashmolean, have managed in this small but beautiful exhibition.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity at Oxford University.

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