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For two millennia the relationship between classical antiquity and Christianity has both vexed and inspired thinkers. In nineteenth-century Britain that relationship intensified in new ways. Scholarly discoveries had unsettling implications for how both the Bible and classical texts were understood, while Christian morality and the ideal of a ‘classical education’ at once flourished and were questioned as guides to behaviour and morals. Travel and technology brought faraway places closer than ever before, but encounters with the lands of Plato and Socrates, the pharaohs, Moses and Jesus brought home the strangeness of places and people hitherto assumed to feel familiar. The tensions thus generated were felt not just among academics but also in British culture more broadly. For the past was also a popular pursuit. It drew huge crowds to exhibition halls and museums, and it provided rich material for reproductions, plays, novels, paintings, murals, sculptures and poetry.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is a superb place to explore the Bible and antiquity and the collisions and connections between them in the nineteenth century. Itself a monument in stone to the Victorian obsession with Greek and Roman culture, and to the acquisitive Europhile Grand Tourism of its founder, the Seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745-1816), its collections are testament to the continuing purchase of these pasts in a self-consciously modern age. Moreover, the sheer range of items in the Fitzwilliam is such that we encounter objects representing all sides and aspects to Victorian culture — from the kitsch, factory-produced ceramics discussed later in this exhibition, through to Edward Burne-Jones’ elegant decorative roundels for a grand piano, based on the story of Orpheus.


Orpheus Across the Flames: design for the decoration of a grand piano
Orpheus Across the Flames: design for the decoration of a grand piano
(1879 - 1880)  Burne-Jones, Edward
Object no. 717



M.R. James (1862-1936), who was the museum’s director at the close of the nineteenth century, also worked at the very seam of this interface between the study of the Bible and the study of antiquity. A scholar of early Christian and medieval manuscripts, James went on to edit a collection of the earliest and most significant non-canonical texts of the Christian tradition – The Apocryphal New Testament, published in 1924. And with his work on the ‘apocryphal’ books of the Bible, he was in turn able to shed light on the late-antique cultures of the Mediterranean. On a more popular level, James’s famous collection of ghost stories (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904) contains cautionary tales for over-eager manuscript hunters: a type that many Victorian readers would have recognized! 


Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton

Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton
(1909) Strang, William
Object no. 691


Some items in the museum’s collection remind us how biblical and classical imagery could challenge as well as reinforce familiar ideas in this period. Right at the beginning of the century, for instance, William Blake’s terrifying Death on a Pale Horse (c. 1800) was painted against a European backdrop of revolutionary bloodshed and warfare. Blake’s freewheeling mystical religiosity made him deeply hostile to conventional Christianity. The violent apocalypse he imagines here — with grim satisfaction? — is a vision not just of spiritual upheaval, but also of political cataclysm.


Death on a Pale Horse
(c.1800) Blake, William
Object no. 765

Another of Blake’s pieces carried by the museum shows a scene from the narrative of Christ’s crucifixion, The Soldiers Casting Lots for the Garments (1800). In this painting we can see only the back of the cross, such that Jesus’s body is hidden both from the viewer and from the soldiers in the foreground, who are competing for what is left of Jesus’s worldly goods. And indeed, caught up in their gambling, these men ignore the scene behind them, even as the event of Jesus’s death seems to be effecting a change in the sky and clouds above him. Between the striking light emanating from the cross, and the steely glimmer of the soldiers’ Roman armour, Blake’s painting thus depicts two very different kinds of power or authority. Here, in important ways, the biblical is cast in radical contrast with the imperial. The Bible and antiquity clash in this interaction. 

The Soldiers Casting Lots for the Garments
(1800) Blake, William
Object no. PD.30-1949


This tension between the spiritual and the worldly, as well as a sense of the cavernous distance between them, is also something conveyed in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s extremely detailed ink drawing of Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee (1858). This work is inspired by the story narrated in Luke 7:36-50, where ‘a woman of the city, who was a sinner’, learns that Jesus is sitting and eating at the house of a Pharisee. Upon entering the house, the woman anoints Jesus’s feet with costly perfume, while covering them in kisses and wiping them with her hair. In this piece, Rossetti has imagined an earlier stage in the story, namely the point of the sinful woman’s conversion out from worldly concerns into a radical love and desire for Christ, who appears, a dazzling icon, in the top right-hand corner of the drawing. Standing outside the Pharisee’s house, Mary is attended by a gaggle of feast-goers, all adorned with crowns of flowers. Pulling herself up and out of this group, however, she has her eyes fixed on Jesus, while her hands work to unpick her own garland crown from her head.


Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee
(1858) Rosetti, Dante Gabriel
Object no. 2151


A final figure we might mention here is the Jewish artist Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) – a member of the same pre-Raphaelite circle as Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Solomon’s fascination with male beauty combined biblical themes with classical aesthetics, producing androgynously beautiful and often highly sexualized figures, such as this watercolour of the boy David.


Solomon, Simeon
Object no. 1199


As we use the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum to study this interface between the biblical and classical, we shall not only point to items on display in the galleries, but will also exhibit objects usually held in the stores. Indeed, some of these pieces are photographed here for the first time. In what follows, we shall continue our examination of these themes via two interlinked strands: ‘abroad’, and ‘at home’. The first section explores nineteenth-century encounters with the Bible and Antiquity in situ, and the products of that engagement. The second investigates how the Bible and antiquity were displayed in the home, and in the process seeks to populate an imagined Victorian mantelpiece.




This online exhibition is a collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum and ‘The Bible and Antiquity in Nineteenth-Century Culture’ Research Project (hosted by CRASSH, University of Cambridge). The research for the exhibition was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 295463.

Tuesday, 9 May, 2017