Empires of Faith

Comparativism, Art, and Religion in Late Antiquity

India to England, AD 200-800 

A conference at the University of Chicago 
in collaboration with the British Museum and the University of Oxford

October 2 and 3, 2015

Empires of Faith is a large-scale 5-year-long research project between Oxford University and the British Museum, funded by the Leverhulme Trust in the UK and administered by Jas’ Elsner, Visiting Professor of Art and Religion and Associate Faculty, Department of Art History.  It explores the genesis of the visual cultures of what have come to be regarded as the ‘World Religions’ in the long late antiquity (c. 200 to 800 AD) across Europe and Asia.  The project includes scholars specializing in different elements of the art history and archaeology of the religious cultures of the Roman empire, the Kushan empire, the Sasanian empire, the early Christian east and west, Islam and Judaism.  
The  conference will present  a range of methodological and historiographical questions and queries about the disciplinary basis of a comparative study of late antique art and religion.  Inevitably, there must be a significant deconstructive exposure of the ideological freighting of political interest and nationalist investment in all kinds of ancestralisms and alterities from the period of European imperial colonialism via the post-World War I crisis to the totalitarian and racist ideological programmes of the 1930s and 40s, as exemplified in the history of scholarship on the always-fraught questions of religion and visual culture. The papers will thus all be not only historical in looking at late antiquity, visual in looking at material culture, but also historicist in placing the scholarly frames of approach in their specific cultural and temporal contexts.    
Key guiding questions will include:
  • How does one construct a sound scholarly basis to conduct the comparative study of art and religion across this range of geographic contexts and religions?
  • How do we counteract the Eurocentrism, Orientalism and ancestralist identifications endemic in the long historiography of work on religion and art in the key formative period between the ancient world and modernity for all these cultures?
  • How can we use visual and material evidence (that is, the disciplines of art history and archaeology) to write the history of religion?  In what senses is religion in fact constituted by material culture (artefacts, spaces, buildings)?


Venue: Swift Lecture Hall (3rd floor)

Day 1, Friday October 2, 2015

The visual rise of the world religions: West:

9.00 a.m. The Birth of Late Antique Art: Vienna
Jas’ Elsner, Corpus Christi College, Oxford and Chicago (Divinity School and Art History)
Response: Clifford Ando (Classics)

10.00 a.m. The Invention of Byzantium: Russia
Maria Lidova, Wolfson College Oxford and British Museum (Early Medieval Art)
Response: Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature)

11.00 a.m. coffee

11.30 a.m. Art History and Theology in Germany
Stefanie Lenk, Wolfson College Oxford (Art History)
Response Kevin Hector (Divinity School)

12.30 lunch

1.30 p.m. The Invention of Anglo-Saxon Art
Katherine Cross, Wolfson College Oxford and British Museum (Medieval History)
Response: Aden Kumler (Art History)

2.30 p.m. coffee

3.00 p.m. Pre-Christian Roman Religion: Public Cults and Mysteries
Philippa Adrych, Magdalen College, Oxford
Dominic Dalglish, Wolfson College, Oxford
Response: Margaret M Mitchell (Divinity School)

Discussion, followed by reception

Day 2, Saturday October 3, 2015

The visual rise of the world religions: East

9.00 Kushan 1: The rise of the Buddha image in Mathura and Gandhara,
Robert Bracey, British Museum (Indian Art)
Response: Richard Neer (Art History)

10.00 Sasanian Art, Zoroastrian Religion: Motives and Legacies.
Rachel Wood, Wolfson College Oxford and British Museum (Near East)
Response: Richard Payne (Oriental Institute)

11.00 coffee

11.15 The Beginnings of Islamic Art
Nadia Ali, British Museum (Ummayad Art)
Response: Fred Donner (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

12.15 lunch

1.15 Late Ancient Jewish Art
Jas’ Elsner, Chicago (Divinity School and Art History)
Response: Paul Mendes-Flohr (Divinity School)

2.15 Kushan 2: the Problems of Hindu art in modern India
Robert Bracey British Museum (Indian Art)
Response: Paul Copp (East Asian Languages and Civilizations)

3.15 coffee

3.30 Ways Forward:
Eurasian Mithras: 15-minute papers by Philippa Adrych (Ancient History), Robert Bracey (Indian Art/Numismatics), Dominic Dalglish (Classical Archaeology), Stephanie Lenk (Art History), Rachel Wood (Classical/Near Eastern Archaeology)

Respondents: Bruce Lincoln (Divinity School)/Claudia Brittenham (Art History)


Sponsored by the Divinity School, the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, the Center for Ancient Religion, the Department of History, the Department of Art History, and the Center for Global Ancient Art – all at the University of Chicago; and by the British Museum; the University of Oxford, and the Leverhulme Trust.