An exhibition so powerful it makes you cry - Living with Gods, British Museum, review

Living with Gods
These Zoroastrian tiles are among the objects featured Credit: British Museum

When was the last time you cried in an exhibition? I can tell you when I did. It was last Thursday afternoon, inside Living with Gods, a new exhibition of around 160 objects at the British Museum, which complements Neil MacGregor’s ongoing Radio 4 series about the history of religious belief.

A model church Credit: British Museum

In front of me were artworks and artefacts related to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. One of them was MacGregor’s final acquisition as the British Museum’s director: the so-called Lampedusa Cross, a wonky timber construction, mottled with damaged paint, made by a carpenter on the island south of Sicily from the pieces of a boat wrecked off its coast in 2013, when more than 300 Somali and Eritrean lives were lost.

What got me, though, were two shirts, suspended in mid-air. Once worn by Syrian children who drowned at sea, they had been dipped in plaster by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj.

The actual shirts. From the bodies of kids washed up on the beaches of Lesbos. Now ghostly, pitiful memorials to tiny souls whose names are lost, with matter-of-fact inscriptions, in Arabic and Greek: “Unknown Girl 3 months”; “Unknown Boy 6 months”. Devastating.

Part of an improvised prayer wheel Credit: British Museum

Kourbaj’s “Lost” shirts are among the most recent objects in the exhibition. The oldest, by contrast, is very, very old: 40,000 years old, to be exact. It is an Ice Age sculpture known as the Lion Man, whittled from an ivory mammoth tusk, and discovered, in fragments, in a cave in Germany on the eve of the Second World War.

Around 30cm tall, it depicts a curious hybrid creature – half-human, half-lion – with such detailed anatomical description, especially around its alert pricked ears, that it cannot be a man wearing a mask. We don’t know exactly what ritual purpose it served, in the darkness of the remote past. But it speaks of something fundamental to humanity: the need we have, collectively, to interrogate the natural world, to tell stories about it, and, ultimately, to find our place within the cosmos. It also once brought people together, as all religions do. So, it reminds us that we are social animals.

The head of the 40,000 year-old Lion Man scultpure Credit: Oleg Kuchar

Spot-lit at the end of a dark passageway, evoking the cave in which our ancestors encountered him, the Lion Man is an appropriate starting point for an exhibition which informs us that 4,000 religions still exist today. Isn’t that statistic extraordinary? A century ago, apparently, the tally was even higher: around 10,000. As a thought-provoking wall text puts it, maybe we should consider ourselves “homo religiosus”, not homo sapiens. This, then, is a show with a point of view.

Living with Gods is one of those exhibitions at which the British Museum excels. Its subject is so vast, so amorphous, that you fear it could proceed only by imparting generalities. At times, it does lapse into this, with a few banal, gnomic texts on the walls that say everything and nothing at once. Yet, because it borrows the formula of MacGregor’s successful radio series – foregrounding objects that, crucially, have individually fascinating stories to tell – it holds our attention throughout.

Japanese "avatar fox" Credit: British Museum

Some of these objects are spectacular, and of high aesthetic value. Others are, literally, worthless tat from a street market – but, in this context, no less interesting. There is an ancient Sumerian limestone statue of a female worshipper. And a guardian spirit of the hunt from Siberia, made from wood, fur, and leather, accompanied by his own improbably cute dog. If the hunt wasn’t successful, both would be abandoned in the wilderness. A 19th-century porcelain “avatar fox”, from Japan, represents a spirit messenger. Elsewhere, we find a three-legged Chinese “wonder toad”. A 16th-century French pendant contains a tiny skeleton inside an enamelled coffin decorated with tongues of fire, serving as an exquisite memento mori. And so on.

Coffin pendant memento mori, France c.1500s Credit: British Museum

All this diverse material is arranged according to broad themes, such as “Light”, “Fire”, “Sacred Spaces”, “The Wheel of Life”, and “Prayer”. The unusual design of the exhibition – which employs sheer fabric, like veils onto the afterlife, to divide up the various sections – helps to keep things free-flowing, so that we never feel bogged down. And a coup at the end – ensuring that a spectral shadow of Lion Man, cast onto voile, and elongated like a sculpture by Giacometti, is the final thing we see – suggests that perhaps, after all, we are not as “advanced” as we like to think. Bravo.

Until April 8, 2018. Details: 020 7323 8299