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Delving into a once-taboo literary work

UCLA and Getty institute host a seminar on an 18th century description of religious customs, which was once banned by the Vatican.

December 08, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

In the 18th century world of religious literature, there was a special place reserved for a collection of engravings and treatises called "Ceremonies and Religious Customs of All the Peoples of the World": It was on the "Index Librorum Prohibitorum"-- the Vatican's list of prohibited books.

The Vatican was outraged by the work's frank and intimate tour of the world's religious landscape at a time when Roman Catholics and Protestants were at loggerheads and Jews were prohibited from practicing their faith in public in parts of Europe. The collection also was an instant success, selling out all 3,000 copies printed.

"You might ask, 'Only 3,000 sold?' " said UCLA historian Margaret C. Jacob, an authority on the "Ceremonies." "But trust me. In 1740, that would have made the New York Times' bestseller list."

The work appeared in nine volumes and was a forerunner of the modern encyclopedia, offering hundreds of entries on religious traditions worldwide.

Particularly galling to Vatican authorities was the message embedded within its 3,500 pages and 250 engravings: Religious intolerance was a disgrace to mankind and would eventually lead to the downfall of Europe. To drive that point home, its first volume offered one of the most sympathetic portraits of Jewry available at the time.

Who developed the controversial work that was 20 years in the making? Engraver Bernard Picart and bookseller Jean Frederic Bernard, French Protestant refugees without formal education who fled to Amsterdam, then the hub of Europe's publishing industry, and a haven for free-thinking authors, printers and engravers.

"Ceremonies" was the focus this week of a joint seminar at UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where scholars and graduate students were mining its volumes for clues to the origins of the Age of Enlightenment, the period marked by scientific inquiry and the questioning of religious concepts of man, God and law.

Southern California is the ideal location for such an endeavor. With copies at the Getty institute, the Huntington Library in San Marino, the William Andrews Clark Memorial and the Charles E. Young Research libraries at UCLA, this is the only region in the world where originals of every major edition and translation of the seminal work can be found, researchers say.

The Picart Project seminar concludes today, with discussions focusing on identifying the resource materials -- mostly travel accounts left by early explorers -- Picart and Bernard used to produce one of the first comprehensive surveys of comparative religion, and one of the first works to use footnotes to cite sources.

Scanning Picart's detailed engravings of Roman Catholic rites of Mass in Volume 1, David Brafman, curator of rare books at the Getty institute, said, "What you see in 'Ceremonies' is the first objective analysis in Europe of religions across cultures.

"Its objective and relativistic approach to religious rituals was incredibly radical for its time," he continued. "The way it confronts a history of alienation between Islam and the Christian West is an extraordinarily brave gesture. Its relevance for us today should be taken seriously."

Wijnand Mijnhardt, professor of cultural history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, agreed. In a keynote address delivered Thursday, he said that Picart and Bernard "were convinced that comparing was the key to the understanding of different cultures and religions."

Jacob said the work's introduction "was singled out by the Roman Catholic Church when it denounced the books as blasphemous because it spelled out how all the religions of the world were rooted in human anxiety and fear, and in trying to discover some higher power from which to seek protection and win favors."

The books' themes are conveyed in Picart's images: windows into unfamiliar spiritual practices underlining man's conception of himself and his place in the universe. The pages are filled with depictions of whirling dervishes; Hindu deities with four arms, wings on their heads and elephant trunks for noses; bacchanalian processions of hedonists strumming lyres and toting bags of wine; Native American women tossing shorn locks of hair over the graves of deceased husbands.

As UCLA graduate student Veronica A. Gutierrez noted, instead of presenting the reader with the then-popular images of Hernando Cortez's massacre of Mexico's Aztecs in 1519, Picart offers a peaceful pre-conquest scene of ritual sacrifice to the deity Quetzalcoatl.

"Ceremonies" tells how the world's religions share basic virtues with ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle. Throughout the text, the word "God" is capitalized, but so is "Gods."

Picart and Bernard were especially sympathetic to Islam.

"In their day, Muhammad was dismissed as a liar and polygamist," Jacob said. "But at one point in 'Ceremonies,' the authors say the best way to appreciate Islam is to learn Arabic and address the Koran in its original language."

To hear her tell it, scholars have only begun to harvest the bounty found in "Ceremonies." During the last year, Getty researchers have been creating digitized copies of all four editions -- French, German, Dutch and English -- so that scholars everywhere can have access to them.

By late 2008, three of the editions are to be available free of charge online via the UCLA library.

Lynn Hunt, a UCLA history professor who is writing a book about "Ceremonies" with Jacob, summarized the significance of the work: "This will open up to anyone who is interested in the history of the world's religions the European understanding of just about every place in the known world in the first half of the 18th century."


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