Mosaic Art

From the Divine to the Demonic in the British Museum | Pro Club Bd

RESEARCH has demonstrated connections between religious beliefs and patriarchal attitudes. Higher levels of religiosity appear to be associated with stronger patriarchal beliefs. Although no religion sanctions violence against women, religions have been and still are a powerful source of patriarchal orientations.

If this is true, the British Museum’s Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic exhibition is tasked with demonstrating the extent to which religions engage with female power – involving magic, mercy, wisdom, rage and passion – and shape it our perception of femininity and gender identity to this day.

This exhibition brings together more than 80 unique objects: ancient sculptures, sacred artefacts and contemporary art from six continents. Exhibits include painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculptures, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, vibrant Japanese prints, and Indian relief carvings alongside contemporary sculptures. With these, the exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints, and other spiritual beings associated with diverse realms of human experience: from wisdom, passion, and nature to war, mercy, and justice.

The exhibition looks at divine and demonic figures who have been feared and revered within a variety of faiths for more than 5000 years to examine how different traditions view femininity and how female authority was perceived in ancient cultures. Enriched through the collaboration of contemporary believers, denominations, and insights from high-profile collaborators – Bonnie Greer, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique, and Deborah Frances-White – it demonstrates the significant roles that goddesses, demons, witches, spirits, and saints have in of worship played and still play.

The worship of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, shows how her ability to destroy is worshiped alongside her ability to create. The Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, who transcends gender and is visualized in male form in Tibet and female form in China and Japan, reveals the importance of gender fluidity in some spiritual traditions.

Known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan, Lilith is both the subject of a spell to protect against demons and, in Kiki Smith’s sculpture, a defiant spirit unprepared to be subdued. The terrifying Hindu goddess Kali, depicted in art with severed head and bloodied sword, is worshiped as the Great Mother and liberator from fear and ignorance.

Christianity appears most prominently and positively in the section dealing with compassion and redemption. The focus here is on visualizations of the Blessed Mother Mary. These range from an icon of the “Pioneers,” to a late medieval French statuette of the Madonna and Child carved in ivory, to the head of a crosier showing the Ascension, and objects – pilgrim medals and a straw mosaic – commemorating sightings or visions of the Virgo.

A vibrant blend of reverence and humanism is found in these artifacts, all regarding Our Lady as a boundless source of compassion and protection for those who are vulnerable.

A similar focus on compassion is of course found in other religions as well, and here that focus includes images of Guanyin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. Interestingly, when Christianity was introduced to China in the 17th century, parallels were drawn between Guanyin and Maria as embodiments of compassion. Between the 1640s and 1720s, Guanyin porcelain figurines holding a child were exported to Europe and listed in shiploads as Holy Maria. One of them can also be seen in the exhibition, as well as a calligraphic image from 1980 that shows the importance of Mary in Islam.

Photo © The Trustees of the British MuseumThe Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, 45 color screenprint on black paper

A chapter of the Koran is named after Maryam. Osman Waqialla, in his play, Kaf ha ya’ayn sad, has written the entire chapter in tiny script, with five letters woven around the beginning, presented in a bold large font and each also highlighted in gold. Through this presentation of the Qur’anic verses, Maryam is remembered, honored and held up as an example for all to follow.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the influence of Christianity is less benign and more problematic, particularly when sex is at the center of action and thought. The exhibition shows examples of how the Christian tradition has misinterpreted the Genesis story of Eve’s temptation by the serpent in the Garden of Eden to equate Eve – and thus all women – as the source of temptation. A particularly distorted picture in this regard is The Fall of Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder, depicting the serpent as a reflection of Eve herself.

Photo © Pace GalleryLilith, Kiki Smith, 1994

In contrast, the Irish sheela-na gigs, which prominently display their vulvas — although later viewed as moral warnings against lust before then being censored — seem to have been a celebration in the church context of female fertility. Feminist theology often reconnects with such understandings, as in Judy Chicago’s screenprint The creationin which creation pours out of the vulva of a reclining woman in all its vitality and diversity.

At the beginning of the exhibition, Professor Beard warns visitors not to expect easy answers there. The exhibition invites them to “explore a problem that has confronted every culture in world history. How does one represent feminine power or desire in material form?” The exhibition confronts her with the diversity of perceptions of femininity around the world, from ancient times to the present day. With the five commentators as a guide, and with comments from some groups of contemporary believers, visitors are invited to explore these diverse objects and the equally diverse understandings of feminine power that they symbolize and share.

While there are no easy answers to the problem of depicting female power, there is a wealth of imagery and ideas to grapple with here.

Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic is on view at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1 until September 25th. Telephone 020 7323 8000.

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