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Gareth Atkins, ‘CRASSH The Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture’

2015 January 15

by Gareth Atkins is Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is a member of the CRASSH Bible and Antiquity Project, and is currently working on the reception of saints, religious heroes, and biblical characters in nineteenth-century Britain.

The Holmes stereoscope is a Victorian icon. Designed by the American poet and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94) and deliberately left unpatented, this cheap wooden frame with its two prismatic lenses allowed viewers in the comfort of their homes to imagine themselves into exotic locations and famous events through 3D vision. One of several such designs, the Holmes arrived in the middle of the mid-century photographic boom. Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopes and millions of slides were produced, many of them by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company (1850). The stereoscope and its subject matter nicely encapsulate some of the main aims of The Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture, a major European Research Council-funded project based at the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities in Cambridge (CRASSH) and running from 2012 until 2017. For at a time of unprecedented popular interest in the lands of Plato and Socrates, the pharaohs, Moses, Jesus and Paul, the stereoscope was one among many innovative ways of allowing ordinary men and women to make mental journeys that only a few could afford to in real life. From the 1860s Baptist Sunday School teacher and travel agent Thomas Cook (1808-92) pioneered trips up the Nile and to the Holy Land, but the numbers who took advantage were dwarfed by the millions in Europe and the Anglo-world who devoured illustrated travelogues, Bible atlases, guides to the customs and people of the Middle East, educational collections of its flora, fauna and geology, epic paintings, murals, sculptures, poetry, novels, reports of archaeological digs and replicas of what was dug up, many of them displayed in extravagant reconstructions such as at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Nineteenth-century fascinations continued to shape twentieth- and indeed twenty first-century fashions: Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) was, besides the Bible itself, the bestselling book in America until Gone With the Wind (1936), sparking a succession of lavish film adaptations (1907, 1925, 1959, 2003, 2016…) and helping to pave the way for the current Hollywood vogue for large-scale orientalising Bible flicks, most recently Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott’s controversial forthcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. The set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments is currently being excavated in California’s Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, complete with plaster sphinxes and temple based very obviously on Edward Poynter’s monumental 1867 canvas Israel in Egypt, now in the Guildhall Art Museum, London.

Yet the view through the stereoscope is an apt synecdoche in other ways, too. By looking through two lenses at subtly different perspectives on the same scene, what the user sees is more lifelike, more immediate. And by considering not just the Bible or classical antiquity in isolation, but by exploring the interface between them, we seek to lay bare the ways in which these two key sources of knowledge, imagery and authority related to and competed with one another. If, as nineteenth-century scholars suggested, Homer did not write the Iliad – or even exist – what were the implications for how the Bible, too, was to be read? And if the classical texts through which Victorian public schoolboys, the future rulers of empire, learnt to parse Greek and Latin were at odds with Judaeo-Christian understandings of morality, sexuality and religion, how did this affect their usability? These questions, of course, were not new ones. Ever since Tertullian (‘what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’), the issue of whether and how to divide different sorts and sources of knowledge had preoccupied thinkers. But it is impossible to understand Victorian society without appreciating its mounting intellectual, social and institutional force. As Matthew Arnold argued in a seminal 1869 lecture, the vexed relationship between the inheritances of ‘Hebraism’ and ‘Hellenism’ continued to loom large, but it was all the more unsettling in the nineteenth century because of the ever-growing knowledge of other religions, other cultures, other scriptures, all of which posed challenges to a settled sense of western, or Christian, pre-eminence. For all the force of these concerns, however, the interaction between Bible and Antiquity has long been obscured. Modern disciplinary formation has not only separated them in the academy, but also marginalized both subject areas — which has deeply attenuated comprehension of them and how they shaped and continue to shape western culture.

Visitors to the project’s website will see that the interests of its twelve members (six directors; six postdoctoral fellows) span a wide intellectual range, from the nineteenth-century reception of early modern textual scholarship to national identity, Bible translation, perceptions of the classical body and beyond. While these interests are held together through weekly reading groups on key texts, a good way of looking at how the project has developed collectively is to consider the public events it has given rise to. Over the last two years we have welcomed a succession of eminent scholars as Visiting Fellows, including Tim Larsen (Wheaton College), Michaela Giebelhausen (University of the Arts), Guy Stroumsa (Oxford), and Colin Kidd (St Andrews), to speak at a number of conferences and colloquia. In 2013 we held events on Anthrolopology and Religion in the Nineteenth Century; The Camera and the Critic: Photography, Antiquity, and Nineteenth-Century Scholarship; Visualising the Bible in the Nineteenth Century; and on Ernest Renan’s Work and Influence; and in 2014, Collecting Greece: Text, Image, Object, Knowledge; The Persistence of the Past in Nineteenth-Century Scholarship; Chosen Peoples, Promised Lands: the Bible, Race and Nation in the Long Nineteenth Century. Further events will follow: see our website or our blog for further details of what’s planned for 2014-15. (Attendance is by advance registration, but thanks to the ERC is free.)

  • 6 November 2014:     Fictions of Antiquity: the Biblical and Classical Past of the Nineteenth-Century Novel
  • 4 March 2015:            The Discipline of Theology in the Nineteenth Century
  • 7 May 2015                 Exhibiting Belief: Materiality and Religious Display in the Nineteenth Century
  • 21 May 2015               The Victorians and Classical Form
  • 25-6 June 2015:          Hebrew Melodies: Music and the Bible in Nineteenth-Century Europe (joint event at King’s College, London, with the ERC- funded project ‘Music in London, 1800-1851’)

While the project is set to end in 2017, like its subject it promises to enjoy a significant afterlife, partly through the articles and books it has already begun to generate, but also through a major projected exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, to be held in 2018 or 2019. For the time being the details remain under wraps, but we can reveal at least our working title: Diana or Christ? The Bible and Antiquity in Victorian Culture. The content is yet to be confirmed, but fans of the paintings of the (unjustly?) underappreciated history, Bible, and genre painter Edwin Longsden Long (1829-91) will notice the reference to his dramatic 1881 Diana or Christ?, now at the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.

A final way of looking at the project is to consider some case studies. While seminars and reading groups have provided the project with much of its intellectual impetus, it has also been exciting to discern how the themes emerging from it were worked out in everyday life. The production of scriptural quilts, for instance, provides intriguing evidence of the popular adaptation and combination of biblical themes with social commentary and satire, the quilts themselves becoming evidence of the literally interwoven lives of their creators. If some of the lavishly illustrated Sunday School prize books that continue to crop up in second-hand bookshops demonstrate acquiescence in an unchanging set of conservative religious norms, many also show a subtle if unspoken engagement with new discoveries in scriptural criticism, archaeology and local culture. Or take this window, in the parish church just around the corner from where I live. At first glance it is an entirely unremarkable relic of Victorian imperialism. It memorializes one Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, of the 14th King’s Own Hussars, who died in Bangalore in 1876. At second glance too it is highly conventional: what could be more predictable than choosing Joshua, David and Gideon – three biblical soldiers – to remember a modern-day comrade? Yet even the slightest familiarity with their exploits might give us pause for thought. Revenge killings, massacres, concubines – hardly the behaviour expected of an officer and a gentleman! For the squaddies who gave their shillings for the window, of course, the thought might never have crossed their minds. But this otherwise conventional piece of medievalizing stained glass serves nevertheless to underline how what the Bible, and Antiquity, and both together, could be at once deeply familiar and morally unsettling, even in their most everyday uses.

Project members:

Directors: Professor Simon Goldhill (Classics), Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas (History, King’s College, London), Mr Scott Mandelbrote (History), Revd Dr Jeremy Morris (Divinity), Professor Janet Soskice (Divinity), Professor Jim Secord (Darwin Correspondence Project).

Postdoctoral Fellows: Dr Gareth Atkins (History), Dr Shinjini Das (History and Philosophy of Science), Dr Theodor Dunkelgrün (History, Philology), Dr Alison Knight (English Literature), Dr Brian Murray (English Literature), Dr Kate Nichols (History of Art).

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