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Picart’s Ceremonies [ITM, 05/08]

As featured in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday May 17th 2008.

I recently transferred my office into the attic of our family home in County Carlow. Looking for a place to park my printer, I espied a suitably chunky book to serve as a table. Blowing the dust off its bland white cover, I read the words, hand-written by a forbear, ‘Picart’s Religious Cérémonies’. I unfurled the slim khaki ribbon that kept the folder intact. Carefully concealed between these pages were approximately 266 black and white engravings, magnificently original, depicting the rituals and beliefs of all known religions in the world about 280 years ago.

These engravings are the work of a French Huguenot, Bernard Picart, one of the most prolific and talented engravers of the 18th century. In 1710, he abandoned his native Paris for Amsterdam. The Dutch City was a safe-haven for Protestants in an age when Europe was insane with religious bigotry. It was also the world capital for publishing and printmaking.

From 1723 until his premature death in 1733, Picart collaborated with another French refugee, Jean-Frédéric Bernard, on the ‘Cérémonies’ project. The two men were united by a common interest in developing toleration of all religions.

Bernard concocted a whopping 3000 pages of text, published in 10 volumes, and illustrated with Picart’s 266 engravings. I have no idea what happened to Bernard’s text. They are quite possibly acting as a table somewhere else in the house. But Picart’s engravings are wonderful. As research, he absorbed every available account of those who had traveled the world. His objectivity is manifest from the extremely sympathetic manner in which every religion is treated, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, the whole lot. These are no caricatures or wild guesses. Everything is disconcertingly real, yet free of negativity, superiority or prejudice. His interpretation of a marriage between Panama Indians is every bit as graceful as his depictions of a Catholic funeral in Portugal or a Lutheran baptism.

Picart’s Cérémonies sold over 3000 copies in 1738 alone, despite its prohibition by the Vatican. That would have been easily enough to make The New York Times best-sellers list today. The book wasn’t just a hit with the public. Historians credit it with laying the foundation for ethnography and anthropology and bringing the concept of religious tolerance to an era now associated with those virtues — the Age of Enlightenment.

© 2008 The Irish Times