Imagining the Divine

Why do we assume Jesus had a beard? That is one of the questions posed by Imagining the Divine, an exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. The exhibition has been described as “unmissable” by the television classicist Mary Beard. The Ven. Martin Gorick was one of the preachers who used the exhibition as inspiration for a sermon series at Christ Church Cathedral throughout January. Here are his reflections.

Photo: Ashmolean Museum

The Ven. Martin Gorick

Between 1-1000AD, systems of belief developed across Europe and Asia. The images associated with them were forged not in isolation but in a vibrant exchange of ideas and in the contact between different societies and local traditions. One of the earliest known depictions of Christ shows a young man bearing a striking resemblance to a classical god, not the bearded holy man we know today. Before the invention of a cross-legged figure in meditation, the Buddhist Faithful were inspired to worship merely by an impression of the Buddha’s footprints.

Each week we have taken a favourite image or object from the exhibition and woven a sermon around it. I was drawn to a 2nd century hand of the Buddha from India. Carved in red sandstone, the hand is from a larger than life statue. The hand is raised in a gesture of reassurance known as Abhayamudra. In the centre of the open palm is a multi-spoked wheel, a common Buddhist symbol.

Powerful and compelling in its own right it made me think of hands in Christian imagery and Christ’s painfully open hands often shown with the mark of the nails in the centre of each palm. Religions are different, but they also connect. The human longing for God goes back to the dawn of time, and the ways that longing has been expressed are many and various. The exhibition reveals connections from the past that I was unaware of, and helped me to reflect about what is common and what is particular in Christian imagery. As diocesan interfaith adviser I have many opportunities to meet and talk with people of other faith traditions. I have learnt much about life, love and God through those encounters, and have always found that they bring my own Christian faith alive to me in new and exciting ways.’

This exhibition is ticketed and runs until 18 Feb. Entry is free for Ashmolean Members.

 The Ven. Martin Gorick is the Archdeacon of Oxford.