Imagining the Divine: art in religions of Late Antiquity across Eurasia

Conference announcement – registration open

The British Museum & Oxford University’s ‘Empires of Faith’ research project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, is pleased to announce a three-day conference as its concluding event:

‘Imagining the Divine: art in religions of Late Antiquity across Eurasia’

Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles’, Oxford.
Thursday 11th – Saturday 13th January 2018

The conference brings together early career researchers and established scholars of the art and archaeology of Late Antiquity (c.AD 200-800), across cultures and regions reaching from Gupta India to Umayyad Iberia, to discuss how objects can inform our understanding of religions. Major transformations are visible in the production of religious art and in the relationships between people and objects in religious contexts across the ancient world during this period. These shifts in behaviour and formalising of iconographies are visible in art associated with numerous religious traditions including, but not limited to, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, religions of the Roman Empire, and paganism in northern Europe. Studies of these religions and their material culture, however, have been shaped by Eurocentric and post-Reformation Christian frameworks that prioritised Scripture and minimised the capacity of images and objects to hold religious content. Despite recent steps to incorporate objects, much academic discourse, especially in comparative religion, remains stubbornly textual.

During Day One of the conference, speakers will consider how artefacts can shape our understanding of the development of religions in Late Antiquity. Questions surrounding how interactions with other cultures and religions informed those developments are of particular interest. The second day will use an explicitly comparative structure of joint presentations to explore the role of artefacts in themes and phenomena relating to religious life.

In association with an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum curated by the Empires of Faith project, entitled ‘Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions’, this conference seeks to explore the ramifications of placing objects first and foremost in comparative study of religions in Late Antiquity, and to consider the potential for interdisciplinary conversation to reinvigorate the field.

Central questions include, but are not limited to: – How can we understand late antique religion from artefacts? – What factors contributed to the development of religious iconography during Late Antiquity? – What modes of interaction between people of different cultures and faiths are visible in the creation, commissioning, and use of artefacts with religious significance? – How flexible were the meanings conveyed by religious imagery and the uses of objects in sacred contexts? – In what ways can we conduct a comparative exercise, and what are the benefits and challenges of such discussions?

Registration is free but essential as space is limited. Lunch and refreshments are included in registration.

To register, visit:

If you have any questions, please email

For more information about the Empires of Faith project and other events organised by the team over the coming months, please see:

Twitter: @EOFOxford

Conference Programme

Thursday 11th January

16:00 Welcome Prof. Jaś Elsner (Empires of Faith)

Keynote Address Prof. Finbarr Barry Flood (NYU)

Followed by a drinks reception and private view of the Imagining the Divine: Art and the Rise of World Religions exhibition, Ashmolean Museum.

Friday 12th January – Materiality of Religions

9:00 Registration and coffee

9:30 Welcome

Chair: Prof. Greg Woolf (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London)

9:45 Prof. Christoph Uehlinger (University of Zurich)
Material Religion in comparative perspective: how different is BCE from CE?

10:45 Prof. Verity Platt (Cornell University)
Fungible Gods and the Limits of Greco-Roman (Anthropo)morphism

11:45 Break

12:05 Prof. Lars Fogelin (University of Arizona)
Material Practice and Metamorphosis of a Sign: Early Buddhist Stupas and the Origin of Mahayana Buddhism

13:05 Lunch

Chair: Prof. Bryan Ward-Perkins (University of Oxford)

14:05 Prof. Martin Goodman (University of Oxford)
Images in synagogue mosaics in late-Roman Palestine

15:05 Prof. Catherine Karkov (University of Leeds)
Empire and Faith: Religious Encounters on the Franks Casket

16:05 Break

16:30 Prof. Zsuzsanna Gulácsi (University of Northern Arizona)
The sideways images of Eastern Christian gospel-books and Manichaean service-books

17:30 General discussion Chair: Prof. Finbarr Barry Flood

Saturday 13th January – Visual conversations in art and religions of Late Antiquity

9:30 From Kufa to Kells: The Church, the Caliphate, and the Illuminated Word (7th-9th centuries)
Prof. Ben Tilghman (Lawrence University, Wisconsin) and Dr Umberto Bongianino (University of Oxford)
Chaired by Dr Katherine Cross (Empires of Faith)

11:00 Break

11:30 From Sarapis, to Christ, to the Caliph. Faces as a re-appropriation of the past
Dr Ivan Foletti (Marysak University) and Dr Katharina Meinecke (University of Vienna)
Chaired by Dr Nadia Ali (Empires of Faith)

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Sacred symbols on domestic and martial objects
Dr Ine Jacobs (University of Oxford) and Dr Katherine Cross (Empires of Faith, The British Museum & University of Oxford)
Chaired by Robert Bracey (The British Museum, formerly Empires of Faith project)

15:30 Break

16:00 Buddhist and Islamic amulets: forms and functions
Dr Gergely Hidas (The British Museum) and Prof. Emilie Savage-Smith (University of Oxford)
Chaired by Dr Maria Lidova (Empires of Faith)

17:30 Concluding discussion. Chair: Prof. Jaś Elsner (Empires of Faith)

19:00 Conference party. All welcome.

The conference is generously supported by the John Fell Fund; The British Museum; The Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research; Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.
Type: Conference
Series organiser: Rachel Wood
Timing: Thursday 11th - Saturday 13th January 2018
Web Address:
Organising department: Faculty of Theology and Religion


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Editors: Alison Broadby, Richard Parfitt