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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

  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).

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