A Jewel of a Thousand Facets’

Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
‘Puzza, or the “the Chinese Cybele,” sitting on a lotus flower’; engraving by Bernard Picart from Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World, 1720s

In 1723, the engraver Bernard Picart and the printer Jean Frederic Bernard revealed the varied religions of the world to European readers. In seven splendidly illustrated folio volumes that appeared from 1723 to 1737, Religious Ceremonies of the World offered—at least to anyone strong enough to lift one of the volumes and open it—a tableau of the world’s priests and believers, in action. Passing in turn before the reader were stately papal rituals with casts of thousands and Jewish families around the Seder table, Russian Orthodox baptisms and Protestant funerals, Freemasonic temples and Chinese altars. Slabs of text compiled from the best sources elucidated each image, and elaborate references and bibliographies offered guidance to the reader who wanted to know more.

At first sight, these volumes seem dignified and ceremonious, not radical or critical. One could imagine a wealthy connoisseur buying them to amuse and edify a bookish child. In fact, the Swedish aristocrat Jan Jacobus de Geer did exactly that. He subscribed to the publication in advance, he explained, because his son Charles “loved travel books which contain such extraordinary stories.” Unwieldy, weighty, dense with proliferating detail, the Ceremonies lacks the subversive look of “those books that one reads with one hand,” the neat little pornographic novels that, as Robert Darnton has taught us, spread the new ideas that booksellers and customers labeled “philosophy” through eighteenth-century France and beyond.

In fact, though, in the years around 1700, massive compilations were as likely as neat little octavos to pack an intellectual punch. Pierre Bayle infused seditious thought after subversive thought into the weighty volumes of his Critical and Historical Dictionary, first published in 1697. He too deployed footnotes—layer after layer of footnotes—to prove his own probity as a scholar, to expose the errors of his rivals and enemies, and to provide ironic commentary, rather like Stephen Colbert’s “The Word,” on orthodox inanities. The genre, format, and scale that Picart and Bernard adopted all exemplify a period style—one that they in turn helped to perfect, by adding their vivid visual commentary, and that reached its climax in that greatest of all polemical reference books, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, with its stunning illustrations of the arts and crafts.

Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, the three distin- guished historians who have now produced a major study of Picart and Bernard’s work, see Ceremonies as more than one ship of the line in the literary fleets of the Enlightenment. Ceremonies, they argue, not only provoked readers but actually “changed Europe.” Western Europeans had studied foreign religions for centuries. Scholars traced the genealogies and tabulated the attributes of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Catholic inquisitors and Protestant professors studied Jewish rituals. Dominicans copied out long explanations of the codices that survived Spain’s conquest of Mexico and Peru. Jesuits mastered the Confucian classics and learned how to write “six-legged essays” about them in the style demanded by the Chinese examination system. Oxford professors plumbed the mysteries of Islam and Zoroastrianism.

Bernard and Picard knew all of this literature, and they drew on it heavily. But they also transformed it. Catholics and Protestants, humanists and Hebraists had studied other religions in order to ensure that their own tradition remained pure even as they won converts in greater numbers. Bernard and Picart, by contrast, juxtaposed the rituals of Catholic and Protestant Christianity with those of the Chinese, the Jews, the Indians—and of the Christian dissenters whose austere, distinctive little churches formed a prominent feature of the Dutch religious world. And they used this comparative approach to make two novel, radical points.

All the peoples of the earth, they showed, had religions, and all religions shared certain practices. Every religion had ways of dealing with childbirth, marriage, and death. To that extent, every one of the religions they surveyed—from the monotheistic traditions that made exclusive claims to truth to the polytheistic rituals of Aztec and Asian priests—reflected the same universal human desire to obtain divine approval and regulate human relations. In an age when Jews excommunicated Spinoza, the Catholic Inquisition still persecuted heretics and backsliders, and Quakers still encountered formidable hostility in Protestant England, Ceremonies treated the Christian churches as expressions of the human relationship to the divine like any other.

Without being heavy-handed or repetitive, Bernard and Picart found many ingenious ways to make their case. Since the fifth century BCE, when Herodotus first described a form of suttee, the burning of widows had seemed to observers from what became the West a repulsive custom. But Picart, when he depicted a widow casting herself into the flames, gave her face a beatific expression—that of a saintly Catholic mystic like Teresa of Avila. Again and again, subtle verbal and visual signs, half-hidden footnotes and deft turns of the engraver’s burin suggested that religion was not a Western monopoly but a universal constant in human society. So, more generally, did Bernard and Picart’s emphasis on rituals, as opposed to doctrines—an emphasis that enabled them to make their case visually, as they could not have made a more purely theological case.

Relativizing Christianity was radical enough. But Bernard and Picart had more in mind. They held that religions became corrupt in the course of time. Every religion developed rituals, and temples in which to hold them, and priests to conduct them. Priests—whom Bernard compared to “mercenary workers”—multiplied, as did the objects they and their followers used for worship, and the simple beliefs that had once formed the core of each tradition fell into oblivion, as superstition and intolerance grew.

Bernard and Picart were not atheists, as some of their contemporaries and friends were. But they were remorseless in exposing the ways of priestcraft. Picart’s vivid, teeming frontispiece—in which a figure crowned with a tiara tramples underfoot a pious rabbi clutching a Torah scroll, while grave Muslims study a text in the foreground—makes clear that they had a special animus against Catholicism. Yet they also appreciated aspects of each of the religions they surveyed. By comparing all of them and tracing their origins, they tried to find a modest, austere, original core, “divinely inspired yet humanly invented,” on which all might agree.

The first and in some ways the richest section of Ceremonies describes Judaism. Bernard and Picart were hardly the first Christians to undertake this task. But most of their predecessors studied in order to condemn. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Jews in parts of Italy and the German world were subjected to ritual murder trials, confinement in ghettoes, the burning of the Talmud, and the censorship of other Jewish books. Enmity did not preclude curiosity. Prelates and inquisitors looked into Jewish rituals. But they did so in the hope of proving that the Jews really used Christian children’s blood to bake matzo, or at least that they denounced Christians when they prayed. Jews defended themselves, and some Christians read and listened more sympathetically than others.

In the midst of these communal and intellectual struggles, Jewish converts to Christianity, Jewish rabbis and legal authorities, Christian scholars who hated Judaism, and Christians who respected it created a new ethnographic literature—a series of texts that described, in detail, the religious structure of the Jewish year and the ceremonies that marked the stages of life. Some Jews tried to preserve in writing the customs (minhagim) of their individual communities, and to express something of their meaning. Converts and Christians mostly emphasized what they saw as the unbearable heaviness of Jewish being, the burden of the meaningless or evil rituals that Jews had to observe. Illustrations served both sides. Woodcuts of Jewish ceremonies helped show why Christians needed to avoid contagion from these strange people, who dropped their sins with bits of bread into running water on their new year’s day and whirled chickens around their heads as part of their ritual of repentance. But woodcuts of Jewish women lighting Sabbath candles with their daughters in the Minhagim books conveyed the warmth that characterized traditional Judaism, as lived by families.

Picart and Bernard, in other words, had a rich body of materials to choose from as they set out the ways of Jews. Bernard, as Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt make clear, did his best to find texts that represented normal Jewish ways accurately and dispassionately. He printed the description of the “rituals and customs” of the Jews that the Venetian Jewish scholar Leone Modena had drawn up in order to offer a better- informed alternative to the hostile compendia of the Christians. He added a further text composed by Richard Simon, a Catholic scholar and member of the Oratory who had first translated Modena’s treatise into French. He also drew on Jacques Basnage’s detailed history of the Jews—though he did not accept Basnage’s view that the rabbis had only done harm to their religion. And he supplemented their already rich information with newer material about the Karaites—Jews who, so it seemed to early modern Protestants, had rightly rejected all the accretions of tradition in favor of observances explicitly mentioned and prescribed in Scripture.

Most earlier Christian writers, and Jewish converts before them, had treated Jews as inextricably caught in the web of their traditions. Those who had refused to leave Judaism for Christianity had found themselves stuck outside of history, or at least sacred history—unable to change their beliefs and rituals in any substantive way. Bernard, by contrast, showed that Judaism had never ceased to evolve.

Picart developed a visual rhetoric that went even further in the same directions. An engraver and master of drawing trained in Paris, Picart had been brought up by his intellectually ambitious teacher, Roger de Piles, to believe that his art could serve the same exalted purposes as painting. He went out into the city and depicted, “from the life,” the synagogues and the ceremonies of the different sorts of Jews whom the authorities allowed to live and worship publicly in Holland. Picart showed readers what the wealthy Sephardic Jews looked like when they greeted the new year and when they buried their dead, and how the poorer Ashkenazic Jews observed Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement.

Knowing that many of the core events of the Jewish religious year—especially the Passover Seder—took place at home, not in the synagogues, he asked Jewish acquaintances to let him attend and watch. After four years of vain pleas, Picart had his way, and his engravings invited readers to follow him inside a Jewish house. One charming illustration shows a Jewish family cleansing their house of hametz (leavened food). The smiling mother, attended by her young daughters, scatters breadcrumbs on a table, and the father cleans the hearth with a feather, while his young son holds a candle (see illustration on page 40). In a second, the adults of the family sit at the laden Passover table, close and affectionate; a black-skinned servant, also at table, reaches for a bottle of cooled wine, and Picart himself attends, hatless and alert, clutching a Haggadah and taking everything in. Religious Ceremonies of the World conveyed the familial warmth of Jewish rituals in Amsterdam as vividly as the baroque formality of public religious ceremonies in Rome. Picart’s engravings endowed the work with all the authority that eyewitness reportage could claim, in an age when Descartes and many others thought travel and personal experience far more instructive than reading.1

Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
‘Searching for the leaven’; from Picart’s engravings of the Passover dinner

In recent years, a number of historians have reminded us that one could be Enlightened without abandoning Christianity (or Judaism).2 Calls for bringing religion up to date by setting it on a modern philological and historical basis and by testing its precepts and practices against the touchstone of reason formed a central part of the Enlightenment project—more central, it seems, than calls for strangling the last king in the bowels of the last priest. Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt have added a distinctive chapter to the story that the historian David Sorkin has recently christened The Religious Enlightenment.

What enabled Picart and Bernard to think and work in so radically innovative a way? The authors note that both men wrote as members of the Huguenot Refuge—the thousands of French Protestants who sought safe havens across Europe after 1685, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and instituted a policy of persecution. Many Huguenots were highly educated and articulate. As Anne Goldgar showed in a classic study of the Republic of Letters, a substantial number became professional experts in the uses of print. They wielded the power of the French-language press, whose products sold across Europe, to avenge their military and political defeat in the realm of public discourse.3 And the Huguenots eventually found allies—or at least partial allies—in the French Catholic world and elsewhere. Gallican Catholic writers exposed the tyranny of the Inquisition, whose writ did not extend to France, whether in Spain and Portugal or in Iberian colonies overseas. They thus gave the Huguenots who denounced the tyranny of Louis XIV another weapon to use against the Church. Even the techniques of compilation that Bernard employed—the assembly of multiple texts and the cutting and pasting of extracts from many others—were central practices in the world of Huguenot polemicists.

Location also mattered. A center of world trade, Holland was a good place for investors (Bernard made a killing, which underpinned his activities as a printer, in South Sea shares before the bubble burst) and an even better one for collectors of books and other media (both Bernard and Picart assembled large libraries, which provided the raw materials for their accounts of Catholicism and the non-European religions—especially those of the Far East). The Dutch allowed a measure of religious freedom that surprised—and sometimes delighted—foreign visitors. More than a century before Picart and Bernard published their work, the great Huguenot scholar Joseph Scaliger told his pupils at Leiden University:

There are more than two hundred Portuguese Jews at Amsterdam, and on Saturdays you can see their womenfolk sitting, very well dressed, before the gates of their houses, not doing anything. They took all the Hebrew books that they could find [from Portugal], and have summoned Rabbis.4

The larger and more exotic Amsterdam Jewish community that Rembrandt knew fascinated him. The rich tapestry of Amsterdam’s religious life was practically waiting for an ethnographer to depict it when Bernard and Picart appeared on cue.

Holland offered inspiration as well as material for study. The Dutch Collegiants—members of a tiny schismatic church whose members conducted their grave and simple services by their own inner light—may well have inspired Bernard with his vision of the simple religion that men had shared at the beginning of history—and that, he hoped, they might restore in a happier future. Intellectual sodalities flourished, as Margaret Jacob has shown before: for example, the Knights of Jubilation, who included Bernard. They met to argue about literature, religion, and much else over convivial glasses of wine and a “huge sirloin.” Some of the Knights developed the radical ideas of earlier seventeenth-century libertines. They speculated that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad had been three great impostors who had fooled humanity, and they developed Spinoza’s pantheism. Bernard—who shaped the list of his publications with great care and pursued his own tastes as he did so—clearly had much in common with the other members of these circles, even if he saw some positive value in religion. Living where they did, Picart and Bernard benefited from an intellectual freedom and stimulation unmatched elsewhere in Europe.

In the end, though, Hunt, Jacob, and Minjhardt emphasize a social fact of a different kind. Neither Bernard nor Picart had any formal higher education. They were producers, not scholars. Bernard, though he came from a clerical family, trained after school as a printer. Picart learned the craft of engraving from the best masters in Paris and Antwerp, but like most artists, he had not attended a university. These artisanal intellectuals, the three historians argue, naturally cast their arguments in a distinctive, unauthoritarian form rather than in one of the master narratives favored by academics.

Bernard and Picart also found it natural to work not as individuals but as members of a team, compiling materials and combining them in the most craftsmanlike possible way. In the light of their accomplishment, the Enlightenment itself takes on a new look, as a program achieved not only by the highly educated deep thinkers in their lonely studies, whom historians have celebrated in the past, but also by workingmen who earned their living in the commercial world. In recent years, Pamela Long, Pamela Smith, Tara Nummedal, Deborah Harkness, and other historians have taught us a great deal about the rise, in early modern Europe, of a distinct and self-conscious culture of the crafts.5 The Book That Changed Europe thus adds a fascinating new chapter to this story.

At times, Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt push their argument—or let it push them—a little farther than seems quite right. Religious Ceremonies of the World—like some of the literature it drew on—was not quite so novel as the authors’ rhetoric sometimes suggests. Historians had been composing histories of religious life and practice since antiquity—at least since the early fourth century, when Eusebius compiled the first great history of the Christian church. Unlike most histories of states, church histories, even in the ancient world, included long passages from primary sources that were quoted in full rather than summarized, and precise references to sources. Through the Middle Ages and after, historians of the church from the Venerable Bede to Cesare Baronio continued to document their assertions in detail. Church history was always both a tightly focused controversial field, in which opponents had to be refuted, and a broad-gauged effort to recreate past styles of religious feeling and practice, in which the flavor of earlier periods had to be conveyed. Rich documentation served both ends

In the sixteenth century, moreover, church historians began to have their works illustrated. Martyrologists like John Foxe deployed vivid, evocative illustrations in order to make their readers virtual witnesses of the heroic sufferings of their protagonists. Antiquarians like Pedro Chacon and Giovanni Battista Casali assembled woodcuts of everything from ancient dining rooms to early Christian liturgical vessels in order to show their readers how Christ and his disciples would have placed themselves at the Last Supper, and what an early Christian mass would have looked and felt like. Travelers to the non-Western world applied these same methods when they observed marriages, funerals, meetings, and debates in Asia and the Americas. In recombining older verbal and visual documents, which they excerpted and modified in countless small, tactically vital ways, Bernard and Picart creatively adapted practices long established in the world of humanistic learning.6

A closer look by the authors at what the German intellectual historian Martin Mulsow has christened The Indecent Republic of Letters—the learned world whose inhabitants were fascinated not by the noble simplicity of ancient statues but by the vivid erotic life of ancient brothels and the blood and energy of pagan sacrifice—would have enriched this enterprise, and would have revealed still more connections between these radical artisans and the radical scholars who tried to cloak their identities with pseudonyms and their dangerous ideas with mythological allusions.7 Above all, one wishes the authors had turned up more information about the reception of Bernard and Picart’s work by readers, reviewers, and commentators. Were most buyers wealthy men who put these volumes on shelves and stands, in elegant rooms with pretty wallpaper, and forgot about them? Or did passionate readers wrestle with these volumes and scrutinize their texts and images? We never quite find out.

It seems highly appropriate that Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt lay so much emphasis on the craft origins and collaborative nature of Religious Ceremonies of the World. Each of them is an eminent historian in her or his own right—the sort of person who might well, in the past, have written a single-author study of Bernard and Picart. But these men and their masterpiece would confront any single scholar—and any normal publisher—with insuperable problems. Ceremonies is a jewel of a thousand facets, each of which reveals a distinctive quality. No one trained in the arid comfort of a single discipline could do justice to all of them. And no ordinary university press book—especially one printed in the standard small format used here—could do justice to the artful composition and dense detail of Picart’s magnificent images.

As in the eighteenth century, collaboration across disciplinary boundaries now makes new enterprises possible. For the last couple of decades, scholars knowledgeable about both the humanities and the digital world—above all the late and much-missed Roy Rosenzweig—have insisted that humanists must learn how to collaborate if they hope to master and use new media. Natural scientists and social scientists have worked in teams for decades. But humanists, for the most part, are still loners: melancholics who feel, if not happiest, at least most at ease when locked in a cell with a vast pile of books.

In old movies, the talented young would win the day against sclerotic opponents by going out to the old barn and putting on a show. Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt hold high positions in the scholarly world, but they too have put on a new kind of show. They turned their study of text and images into an extensive collaborative project—and by doing so they have offered the rest of us a vital lesson. With the support of the Getty Research Institute—and the collaboration of UCLA’s extraordinary special collections—they transformed analytical difficulties into sources of strength. They invited scholars from multiple disciplines and of very different positions—curators and graduate students as well as professors of history and art history—to take part in a yearlong seminar on the book at the Getty. Many of the papers presented there appear, revised, in a splendid complementary volume that they edited, Bernard Picart and the First Global Vision of Religion. This collection is more richly illustrated and more adventurously designed than The Book That Changed Europe. More important, its authors pursue many themes in more detail than the book can, and they sometimes offer fascinatingly different perspectives.

David Brafman, for example, delves into the labyrinthine mass of sources that Bernard and Picart used for the Islamic world and teases out fascinating differences between the author/printer and the artist. Like their near contemporary the historian of philosophy Johann Jakob Brucker, Bernard dismissed believers in the ancient sage Hermes Trismegistos as fanatics. Picart, who owned seminal works from the Hermetic tradition, highlighted the figure of Hermes more than once. Kishwar Rizvi, Marcia Reed, Catherine Clark, Verónica Gutiérrez, and Peter Mancall use comparative methods of their own to illuminate the two men’s use of their textual and visual sources.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, in a particularly elegant essay, penetrates the “vertiginous confusion” induced by Bernard and Picart’s account of India to identify the various pieces that went into their Indian Mosaic, trace their metamorphoses, and clarify the special difficulties that India’s religion (if it had one) posed to them. He notes, at the end, that a contemporary Zoroastrian intellectual was engaged in a wide- ranging comparative study of “what we would term ‘sects’ or ‘religions’” in the Indo-Islamic world. Bernard and Picart, the deprovincializers of European religion, are thus deprovincialized in their turn.

In the final piece, Jacques Revel notes that comparison of religion took many forms in the eighteenth century, and argues sharply that it would be a sort of hagiographical anachronism—to borrow a term from the historian of science Noel Swerdlow—to credit Bernard and Picart with creating a systematic, comparative science of religion. Revel’s lucid, erudite, cautious approach usefully qualifies the more unqualified rhetoric of absolute originality sometimes adopted in The Book That Changed Europe.

Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt also worked with the modern counterparts to their brilliant eighteenth-century artisans, collaborating with technicians to ensure that their readers could experience Picart’s work in a form that does it justice. They and their partners have created a Web page, hosted at UCLA, that offers all the images from Religious Ceremonies of the World, reproduced with a clarity and precision that standard black-and-white illustrations could never attain—and that invites collaborators and users to add comments of their own.8 The analysis of what was in some respects an open text, verbal and visual, has become an open work in its own right.

Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt have done justice to a great work of eighteenth-century humanistic learning. And they have shown us some of the directions in which humanistic scholarship should move in generations to come: not only away from older narratives of intellectual change, but toward new models in which books and digital media, grand accounts and detailed inquiries shed light on one another. Craft and art, image and text, complex messages and digital media still need to be fused by those unafraid to cross borders. The intrepid Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, like Bernard and Picart, have now accomplished this—and it looks as if they had a lot of fun as they did so.

  1. 1

    Picart’s sources and techniques have been well studied not only by Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, but also, in much more detail, by Paola von Wyss-Giacosa in Religionsbilder der frühen Aufklärung: Bernard Picarts Tafeln für die “Ceremonies et Coutumes religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde” (Benteli, 2006).

  2. 2

    See J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 4 vols. to date (Cambridge University Press, 1999–20TK); Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton University Press, 2005); David Ruderman, Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry’s Construction of Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2000) and Connecting the Covenants: Judaism and the Search for Christian Identity in Eighteenth-Century England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Michael Printy, Enlightenment and the Creation of German Catholicism (Cambridge University Press, 2009); and David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton University Press, 2008).

  3. 3

    See Anne Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (Yale University Press, 1995); see also Erich Haase, Einführung in die Literatur des Refuge: Der Beitrag der franzõsischen Protestanten zur Entwicklung analytischer Denkformen am Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1959).

  4. 4

    See Scaligerana, Thuana, Perroniana, Pithoeana et Colomesiana, edited by Pierre Desmaizeaux (Amsterdam: Covens & Mortier, 1740), Vol. II, p. 406.

  5. 5

    See Pamela Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript, edited by Pamela Long, David McGee, and Alan Stahl (MIT Press, 2009); Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2004); Tara Nummedal, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2007); and Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007).

  6. 6

    See Elisabeth Décultot, Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Enquête sur la genèse de l’histoire de l’art (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000).

  7. 7

    See Martin Mulsow, Die unanständige Gelehrtenrepublik: Wissen, Libertinage und Kommunikation in der Frühen Neuzeit (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007; a translation is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press), and “Harpocratism: Gestures of Retreat in Early Modern Germany,” translated by Pamela Selwyn, Common Knowledge, No. 16 (Winter 2010), pp. 110–127. See also the studies on idolatry in early modern thought edited by Jonathan Sheehan in Journal of the History of Ideas, No. 67 (2006).

  8. 8

    The project Web page appears at zoe.ats.ucla.edu/Picart/Picart,%20Ceremonies%20et%20Coutumes.%20Volumes%201%20-%209.html.