Art historian Neil MacGregor explains the enduring power of religion and belief

by Andrew Anthony / 28 December, 2018
Religious narratives, depicted in paintings such as Diziani’s nativity scene (1718), contribute to a sense of community through the ages. Photo/Getty Images

Religious narratives, depicted in paintings such as Diziani’s nativity scene (1718), contribute to a sense of community through the ages. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Neil MacGregor role of religion

Having surveyed human society through its objects, celebrated art historian Neil MacGregor explores the enduring power of belief and ritual in a timely new work. 

When I meet Neil MacGregor, the celebrated art historian and museum director, at his publishers in central London, he’s trailing a carry-on suitcase. Impeccably turned out in sports jacket and tie, MacGregor does a lot of travelling. An earlier attempt to meet him failed because he was in Nigeria, and today he’s just back from France, before heading off to Germany. But there’s one country he rather sheepishly admits he’s not travelled to: New Zealand.

“I long to go,” he says wistfully. “Te Papa is obviously one of the museums one has to see. It rearticulated the idea of a museum in New Zealand. It had a clear purpose to enable the citizens to think about their place in the world and what that meant, what it had been, what it should be.”

MacGregor knows a thing or two about museums. He successfully ran the National Gallery in London and then, with even greater plaudits, the British Museum, which he revived with a series of stunning exhibitions, before going on to become the director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

But more than a curator or an administrator, MacGregor is perhaps best known for his books and accompanying radio programmes. A History of the World in 100 Objects was a 100-part Radio 4 series of 15-minute presentations by MacGregor, delivered in one of those precise upper-middle-class lowland accents that sound much more English than Scottish.

Tracing civilisations through surviving artefacts, it was a mesmerising programme, evocative and educational, featuring countless awe-filled moments of radio.

The book that came out of it went on to become an acclaimed bestseller. Now his latest book, Living with the Gods, has been released in New Zealand. Also the product of a Radio 4 series, it is an equally impressive feat of scholarship and intellectual insight.

As with 100 Objects, Living with the Gods seeks to explore human society through a number of artefacts. But the focus here is on “looking at political notions of a community and religious notions of a community, and how the two mesh”.

“Religion,” he says, “is not about explaining things. It’s about giving meaning to things.” How we do this is through story-telling, which “is almost a precondition of being human”.

“There’s that wonderful Joan Didion phrase, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’”

Neil MacGregor. Photo/Getty Images

Neil MacGregor. Photo/Getty Images

Constructing a narrative

MacGregor is a brilliant storyteller about the stories that artworks tell. The book opens with a fascinating account of a statue, carved from the ivory of a mammoth’s tusk some 40,000 years ago in southern Germany. Named the Lion Man, because it depicts a human body with a lion’s face, it’s an astonishing work of craftsmanship that is estimated to have taken at least 400 hours to produce.

At the time of the statue’s creation, Europe was only beginning to emerge from the last great ice age, and temperatures were far colder than they are today. So, given the harsh climate, the need for food and the threat of predators, why would someone spend so long creating a figurative sculpture?

“The best hypothesis,” writes MacGregor, “is that the people of the Lion Man made a great work of art, constructed a narrative linking the natural and supernatural worlds, and enacted that narrative ceremonially with a wider community.”

Although he says he has no spiritual beliefs, he is an Anglican Christian for communal and ritualistic reasons. MacGregor thinks religious rituals perform a neglected role in social cohesion. For all its achievements, the Enlightenment, he believes, neglected something vital in the human condition when it separated science from belief, and the state from religion.

“I think it failed completely to address the role of the practices of religion in holding a community together,” he says, in a tone of moral gravity that perhaps explains why he was nicknamed St Neil at the British Museum.

But MacGregor possesses a genuine reverence for the power of myths, which he believes contain essential poetic truths about life in its largest sense. He feels that we have become too focused on individual fulfilment and are losing sight of not just communal but transcendental concerns.

“The thing that’s missing, I think, in our current political narrative is the notion of time,” he says. “You know, the community across the centuries – that’s what all religious narratives are about. That’s why festivals are so important.”

The Lion Man. Photo/Oleg Kuchar

Origins of Christmas

There’s a lovely essay in the book on how Christmas came into being. As many people know, the idea that it marks Jesus Christ’s birth has no scriptural authority, let alone historical evidence, to support it.

Most historians believe that it grew out of the Roman celebration of the god Saturn, the Saturnalia – a time of drunkenness and singing – that took place from December 17-23.

Throughout most of its history, Christmas was never a major religious event in the way that Easter was. But it grew in significance in the 19th century when New Yorkers, in an anti-British gesture, went back to their Dutch roots, took the old Dutch tradition of St Nicholas day – when presents were given to children – and moved it to the 25th.

It spread across America and the English-speaking world after Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of divinity, wrote the poem that begins, “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house …”

Charles Dickens’ Scrooge added the idea that Christmas should be a time of social harmony and generosity. The Christmas tree was popularised by Queen Victoria, and Coca-Cola gave Santa a red coat and a white beard. So it’s a multinational invention and, MacGregor would say, all the better for it.

Hindus celebrate spring in the Festival of Colours. Photo/Getty Images

Hindus celebrate spring in the Festival of Colours. Photo/Getty Images

Value of festivals

What matters about religious festivals is not their religiosity but their ability to make us think on a larger scale than ourselves.

As MacGregor writes: “In festival time, our ordinary lives, our everyday schedules, our plans for the future – all these are put to one side. In their place, for a few short, intense hours or days, we think about – and indeed come to feel – much larger patterns of life which contain us, but which also stretch far beyond us.

“And because each festival is a re-enactment of all its predecessors, we come to a powerful appreciation that life, both communitarian and cosmic, is not a lonely, one-act story with a beginning and an end, but a grand dramatic cycle, whose end – if it has one – lies beyond our own lifetime.”

But society doesn’t stand still and, therefore, re-enactments are also adaptations. It’s typical of MacGregor’s erudition that he cites the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. “Religion, in Durkheim’s great phrase, is an idea of society in which we all recognise ourselves and venerate that.”

This very process, he suggests, is what is going on in New Zealand with the renaming of Anglicised places with their original Māori names, and the growing popularity and importance of Māori rituals such as the haka.

“This is what’s so impressive about the Māori development in New Zealand,” he says. “It’s an idea of society in which all can see themselves.”

Living with the Gods doesn’t include any artefacts from New Zealand. Perhaps the closest it comes to these shores is Vanuatu and the Pacific Islands. He examines how the nature of the environment has historically occupied an almost godly place in the lives of these communities. Its significance is encoded in the language, which constantly calls upon the speaker to locate himself within the landscape.

The Parthenon, completed in 438BC, was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. Photo/Getty Images

MacGregor feels that it’s a reverence that we need to rediscover in an age of ecological despoliation.

“The idea of the sacredness of the entire environment that you know is, I think, a very powerful one, and it may be the hope for the future.”

The son of two doctors, MacGregor was born in Glasgow. He learnt German and French as a boy and took a degree in modern languages at Oxford. After a brief stint studying philosophy in Paris, and despite a fascination with religious art, he decided to become a lawyer. He practised for several years in Edinburgh, but, aged 27, gave it all up to study art history.

At the Courtauld Institute, he was taught by Anita Brookner – later to become a distinguished novelist – and he fell under the sway of Anthony Blunt, the great art historian who was later exposed as a former Soviet spy. “He was a very wonderful teacher, a very brilliant scholar,” says MacGregor.

The respect was mutual. Blunt called him “the most brilliant student I ever had”.

The discovery that Blunt was a central figure in the so-called Cambridge Five spy ring (also including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby Donald Maclean and John Cairncross) came as a big shock to MacGregor. As he once said on radio: “I was very distressed that the person I knew as generous and loyal had also been a person who’d clearly been guilty of a very serious breach of trust.”

The only way he could reconcile the news that Blunt was a spy was seeing him as two separate people, someone who had compartmentalised his life into distinct and disconnected sections.

The Kaaba, in the Great Mosque of Mecca, is Islam’s most sacred monument. Photo/Getty Images

The Kaaba, in the Great Mosque of Mecca, is Islam’s most sacred monument. Photo/Getty Images

Monumental job

MacGregor himself seems to be far too busy to have another life beyond his work and constant travelling. He has never married or had children and, although he never discusses his private life, is known to be gay.

As the founding director of the Humboldt Forum, he is overseeing the creation of a new museum that is supposed to define Germany’s historic and artistic relationship with the world. It is to be housed in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, in the centre of Germany’s capital, and is due to open next year.

It’s a monumental job, especially for a foreigner, let alone one who also writes major works, presents classic radio shows and is on the academic committee of the Louvre, in Paris.

But MacGregor wears it all lightly, retaining an impish sense of humour and an infectious joy in art and history.

In that role, he’s liaised with Angela Merkel, whom he clearly rates as someone with an inclusive vision of Europe. Given all those responsibilities, I ask him if he’s ready to undertake another book on the scale of Living with the Gods.

“I don’t know,” he says, looking rather queasily at my copy of the book. Then he rallies and gives some thought to the question.

“The making of a workable narrative is the biggest political question we have. It’s also a philosophical one and a religious one, and that scenario I might return to. The challenge for all of us is to make and develop a narrative together that can expand, embrace and keep moving forward.”

I don’t know if such a project is possible on a global scale, but if you were looking to appoint someone to oversee it, then I wouldn’t look beyond the man with the quiet voice that carries a timeless authority.

This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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