Empires of Faith

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Empires of Faith is a research project based at Wolfson College, Oxford, and at the British Museum, London, thanks to the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust. The project aims to put the best of new and current research on late antique religious history and archaeology at the University of Oxford side by side with the unparalleled scholarly and material resources of the British Museum, in an experiment in intellectual collaboration between the two institutions in the United Kingdom with the greatest strengths in the material culture of this period.

Taking the broadest possible view, the Empires of Faith project examines imagery from those religions that have survived (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as well as the polytheisms of India) but also many lost religions from the cults of the Roman Empire to Manichaeism between 200 and 800 AD. To do so, it looks across the north Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds, the Indian Ocean and beyond, from Britain and Spain in the west to the Indian subcontinent and the borders of China in the east.

The intention is both to forge a method for doing a global comparative art history of religions, within the specific temporal and geographical limitations of the project, and to produce a series of fundamental studies on key themes of religious change, self-assertion and identity through visual means. No research project has ever before attempted to take such a broad view of this subject, region, and period. Only by looking at this area as an interconnected whole, and by bringing together perspectives from a wide range of academic specialisms and disciplines will these vital features of this pivotal period – and their continuing legacy – be able to be properly understood.

Objects provide a rich source of evidence to explore these complex developments that still have lasting consequences for the modern world. Not only do the iconographies and forms of worship of all these major world faiths originate in this period, but the particular relationships between state and religion established then persist as an issue to this day, shaping key debates about the possibility and desirability of containing multiple, conflicting religious and social identities within a single state. The project develops innovative ways of integrating objects into the discussion of these key questions: earlier studies have been mostly conducted with reference to textual evidence.

As of 2016 the project has participated at international events at the University of Chicago, the Humboldt University in Berlin, and here in Oxford. The first book from members of the project, ‘Images of Mithra’ is set for publication in March 2017, and an exhibition curated by Empires of Faith will headline the Ashmolean Museum’s Autumn program in 2017.

For more information, see: www.empiresoffaith.com


Jas’ Elsner

Past Events