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Weekly theme: Meeting the gods

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 15:47 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

The Holy Thorn ReliquaryBelief and faith are almost universal themes throughout human history and a few weeks ago in this series we heard about the early moments of some of the world's great religions.

This week, as lead curator JD Hill explains, we'll hear about five objects that show how, between AD 1200 and 1500, people created images in an attempt to bring them closer to their gods and ancestors.

What we are seeing are the results of a similar desire that occurred in very different cultures around the world - to make images which help them feel closer to their gods. But as well as recognising the similarity in inspiration, it's fascinating to see how a common need can result in the creation of such different objects. As always, the objects reveal so much about the particular cultures and religions that made them.

In Western Europe pilgrims flocked to shrines to see holy relics, including the bodyparts of saints. The Holy Thorn Reliquary is a gloriously ornate object built to house one of the thorns that supposedly formed part of the crown placed on Jesus' head at his crucifixion. In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox Church created images of Christian saints - known as icons - to be the focus of worship.

In Hindu India, worshippers used statues of the likes of Shiva and Parvati - as they do now - to develop an incredibly personal relationship with their individual gods. While on the other side of the world, similar expresions of devotion in Huastec Mexico saw statues of the mother goddess visited to ask for forgiveness.

From Easter Island, Hoa Hakananai'a tells the story of the moment when religion in this remote spot changed. When the Polynesian inhabitants stopped erecting statues of their ancestors, they created a birdman cult in its place. Hoa was probably made to honour ancestors, but the distinctive marks of the new cult are carved on his back.

As Neil often says, spin the globe and you'll see just how in tune we humans are, despite the vast distances separating us. But, as JD points out, not all religions were - or are - the same:

In choosing five objects from around the world we are conscious that some religions deliberately chose not to create representations of the divine. For example, Judaism and Islam clearly felt at this time that the divine was something not appropriate to make images of.

What strikes me as we enter the final week of the latest set of programmes, is that here we are in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, knocking on the door of Tudor Britain and the Italian Renaissance. In my mind that's not so long ago, but during the same period there were cultures - and religions - in different parts of the world that left no written records. All we have now with which to discover and understand them are the objects they made.

I'm reminded of the power of objects, not only to embody the divine but also to unravel the lives, thoughts and beliefs of the past. Can't wait until September and the next set of programmes? Me neither.

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    I have to wait till September for my daily treat?! My only consolation is that I've discovered how many other good programs from the BBC care available in the USA by spending time at the BBC website.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am writing this just after listening to Friday evening's programme. I found it fascinating to try to understand these courageous, intrepid explorers who finally erected such monumental sculptors. However, I was disappointed - and I am afraid not for the first time - when Neil McGregor, with his own inimitable intonation which conveys a great deal of meaning, referred to the coming of 'slavery, disease and Christianity'. I find it exceedingly irritating - and it seems increasingly fashionable - that in order to appreciate one culture it appears necessary to downgrade another, viz one's own. Indeed, often the negatives of the culture being extolled are ignored so that we are given a kind of romantic 'Noble Savage' impression of it and are left with the implication that 'we' destroyed it. I had thought this kind of thinking was on the wane, but I see that I was wrong.

  • Comment number 3.


  • Comment number 4.

    The Polynesians certainly were incredible navigators and successively settling an island as remote as Rapa Nui was an extraordinary feat! I am the curator responsible for Hoa Hakananai’a, one of the British Museum’s moai. (We have one other, lesser-known moai of this type collected at the same time, but significantly smaller and named Moai Hava – museum number Oc1869,1006.1.)
    The Rapa Nui population may have reached a high of 7-9,000 people in the 1500s, but was on the decline after this. The 900 people taken as slaves in 1862-3 may have represented half of the population at this time – the fact that only 15 survivors made it back to the island from Peru, unfortunately carrying small pox with them, truly is a tragedy to be acknowledged. The total population thereafter was a mere 600 (see Alfred Métraux’s ‘Easter Island’, 1957). These facts are essential to a full and balanced understanding of the history of Rapa Nui, the situation of islanders in the present, and their relationship to their cultural heritage, of which the moai are magnificent and enduring examples. Of course, the moai themselves are also testament to the distinctions between people in Rapa Nui society, according to rank and lineage. Like most/all other human societies, Rapa Nui society was not free of inequalities and violence.

  • Comment number 5.

    I hope you are going to finish the series with something from the gift shop.



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