Between the Reformation and the beginning of the 18th century, Europe endured two centuries of strife and bloodshed in the name of religion – riots, civil wars, and international conflicts, draconian religious laws, and the persecution and often execution of those viewed as heretics. But another revolution was beginning, and the year 1723 saw the publication of a masterpiece that “marked a major turning point in European attitudes toward religious belief and hence the sacred” (Hunt, Jacob & Mijnhardt, The Book that Changed Europe, p. 1).
The monumental Ceremonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde, was the result of a collaboration between two of Amsterdam’s great minds: Europe’s leading engraver Bernard Picart, who designed the book’s illustrations and whose name appeared on the title page, and Jean Frederic Bernard, the publisher who compiled, edited, and contributed original essays to the contents, but who remained anonymous. Both men were Protestant refugees driven from France by the Counter-Reformation, Bernard a member of a long-established Provencal Huguenot family and Picart a mid-life convert from Paris. As two centuries of religious turmoil upended old assumptions about faith, Amsterdam became a focal point for tolerance and free-thinking, and in this fertile milieu the two men produced one of the world’s greatest religious books.
Born in France in 1680, Jean Frederic Bernard moved to Amsterdam with his family in 1686. He became a full member of the bookseller’s guild in 1711 and though he “possessed a good business acumen, books for him were more than just a business. He became a highly selective publisher with a small catalogue dominated by free-spirited theological inquiry and travel literature” (Hunt p. 94). The trials his family faced in France, and their dangerous journey to Amsterdam, deeply affected the young man, who developed “a lifelong doubt about the value of established religion, and a quest for religion’s underlying essence” (Hunt p. 95). He believed that it was his role as publisher and author to provide readers with “the information necessary to find their way out of the labyrinth of delusions and begin to decide religious matters for themselves” (Hunt p. 106).
After a decade in publishing, Bernard announced in 1720 a grand plan for a religious encyclopaedia. Eventually comprising seven volumes and more than 200 engraved plates, The Religious Ceremonies was a massive undertaking and the culmination of his life-long interest in religion. By presenting the world’s religions as equally deserving of toleration and intellectual understanding, he ultimately made the case that there existed among all peoples a pure “natural religion” distinct from the elaborate and sometimes immoral practices imposed by the priestly castes. To accomplish this he compiled the most up-to-date and accurate sources on all known religions and added his own commentary emphasising similarities and tolerance. While guiding the reader with careful juxtapositions he also maintained an academic distance from the subject, allowing his sources to speak for themselves and the reader to make up his own mind.
Just as influential as the text, Picart’s engravings were small masterpieces, drawn from life wherever possible and otherwise taken respectfully from the most authentic sources. “He insisted on capturing every detail of dress and ceremonial disposition. This level of accuracy was essential to the credibility of comparisons between religious practices that were developed in the text” (Hunt p. 147). At the same time, the engraver “constantly strove to make foreign deities, practices or processions more palatable to European viewers while still remaining true to the sources. He achieved this effect in various ways: “by putting unfamiliar deities on classical pedestals, by excluding the scenes of greatest violence depicted by his predecessors, by promoting a sense of identification with those depicted, and ultimately, by setting up subtle comparisons between Western and non-Western, civilized and savage, or Christian and pagan rituals” (Hunt p. 150).
The first volume of the series, on Judaism, was a model of respectful inquiry. Even in liberal Amsterdam Jews still faced stereotyping and oppression, but Bernard would “treat Judaism as a kind of prototypical religion, comparable to all others, including Christianity”, and his descriptions of Jewish lifestyles and customs captured “the diversity of Jewish demeanor and behavior” (Hunt p. 187). Picart, taking advantage of his connections in the book trade, “worked hard to gain admission to Shepardic ceremonies in Amsterdam, which he then drew from life. In his depictions of Jewish rituals he did everything possible to evoke an affirmative response in the viewer”. The most significant of his engravings was the Passover Seder; as an outsider he spent four years seeking admission to private homes before being allowed to view the ceremony. The resulting engravings are sensitively drawn portraits of a persecuted minority, and are now considered among the best sources for contemporary Dutch Jewish culture.
The other volumes display the same quest for accuracy and understanding while advancing Bernard’s belief that the problems with religion were created by priesthoods. Though other commentators had painted all Chinese adherents as either idolaters or atheists, Bernard took a different route. In a clear analogy with European history he described how the common people had over time been taken in by priests and been made idolaters, but that the literati had seen through the establishment’s manipulation. The accompanying images depict Chinese goddesses who are strikingly similar to the Virgin Mary.
Similarly, the sections on the Americas and Eastern religions both “begin with essays that emphasize commonalities… Analogies with European practices abound. The polygamy found in the Americas, for example, is ‘the polygamy of the ancient Jews’” (Hunt p. 221). And although most of Picart’s sources for the Americas graphically depicted warfare, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, the engraver instead focused on the scenes before and after such events, moments that readers would more easily identify with.
Even in their approach to Catholicism the two men were objective, presenting a detailed, accurate, and generally unbiased account that would stand in fair comparison with other cultures.
Despite its radical perspective and prohibitive cost, Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the World became a publishing phenomenon, selling out in the first edition of 1200 copies and remaining a bestseller for the next century. The English edition of 800 copies was published between 1733 and 1737 with Bernard’s approval, and sold so well that a single-volume edition was published in 1741. While the English translator expurgated some of the most heretical passages, the translation is, unlike many piracies and later editions, true to Bernard and Picart’s vision.
In all its editions the book “had an astonishing afterlife. It helped create the field of the comparative history of religion, and to this day its engravings still appear in museum exhibits as documentation for religious customs” (Hunt p. 19). As a reference book it was unprecedented; “no other work before then had ever attempted, in word and image, such a grand sweep of human religions” (Hunt p. 1). But as a meditation on culture it was revolutionary. “It sowed the radical idea that religions could be compared on equal terms, and therefore that all religions were equally worthy of respect – and criticism. It turned belief in one unique, absolute, and God-given truth into ‘religion’, that is, into individual ceremonies and customs that reflected the truths relative to each people and culture… The earthly, secular sphere where bookmen, like other mortals, plied their trade could no longer so easily be engulfed by religious demands and sacred edicts, potential obstacles blocking critical thinking or tolerant behavior” (Hunt p. 2).
Below the fold, additional images from Bernard and Picart’s Ceremonies and Religious Customs.
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