A new book shows how a set of 18th-century etchings helped change the way Europe thought about religion
Long before I knew anything at all about Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World, that illustrated blockbuster of the 18th century, I was familiar with many of its engravings, especially those that depicted the interior of a synagogue and a sukkah, respectively. I no longer remember how I first encountered these images—was it through a series of notecards, perhaps?—but I do recall being profoundly struck by their loveliness, by the play of light and shadow on the bimah and the dinner table, and the ways in which they made Jewish life, and those who practiced it way back when, look downright appealing: orderly, handsome, upstanding. I couldn’t wait to make use of these images, to share them with others, and though it took a number of years, eventually I found the right opportunity as well as the right medium. Chairing a synagogue dinner, I had the bright idea of using one of the images as the cover of the invitation. Louis Kahn, as I subsequently discovered, was also smitten by these 18th-century engravings. When it came time, in the early 1960s, to develop a new building, replete with a sukkah, for Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, Kahn took his architectural cues from Picart’s illustration of a dome-shaped booth inhabited by Dutch Jews of the 1730s.
Exerting a powerful hold on the modern imagination, these depictions of traditional Jewish institutions, along with hundreds of others that captured the religious lives of Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, and native Americans, seized hold of the imagination of those Europeans who first encountered them throughout the 1720s and 1730s, as Picart and Bernard’s seven folios saw the light of day, measure by measure. One might even say that these images, together with their accompanying commentary, changed the Western world, or so claim Lynn Hunt, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt in their stunning new work, The Book That Changed Europe, an exhaustive and exhilarating inquiry into the meaning of Picart and Bernard’s massive undertaking. At once an exercise in scholarship and a tribute to its subject, this volume makes clear why Picart and Bernard ought to be household names, as familiar to us as Voltaire and Diderot.
Written, drawn, and assembled in Holland at a time when religious prejudice ruled the roost, Religious Ceremonies of the World brought to bear a more generous and evenhanded perspective on the ways in which ordinary people celebrated their faith. Where their contemporaries were given to portraying and understanding the ritual practices of others as aberrations or, worse still, as monstrosities, Bernard Picart and Jean-Frédéric Bernard, two French Huguenots who sought refuge in Amsterdam, saw them as intriguing curiosities or, better yet, as instances of a common humanity. Where their contemporaries defined the ritual practices of others in relation to their own and found them wanting, Picart and Bernard set them on their own terms and found them fascinating. Bringing to bear their respective talents as a master printmaker and an adventurous publisher, the two men, explain the authors of The Book That Changed Europe, “sought, wherever possible in word and image, to slip out from under the biases found in most accounts of religion and then to search for the universals seen in the religions of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa.”
Bernard’s knowledge of the publishing world, along with his skillful deployment of sources and burnished prose, enlarged his readers’ capacity for wonderment and empathy; his collaborator’s way with a burin and a copperplate secured it. Picart’s 250 engravings were central to the enterprise, advancing and deepening Bernard’s narrative, not just pleasing the eye. Thanks to the engraver’s skillful hands and affinity for the sprightly little detail, the religious lives of others were transformed from the stuff of revulsion into common ground. Consider, for instance, his treatment of the Jews and of Judaism. The hostility, vituperation, and sheer ugliness that typically characterized the visual treatment of the Jews in the early modern era gave way here to something more akin to neighborliness. Glaringly absent were the standard images of the Jews with their outlandishly oversized, hypersexualized features, their private parts exposed to the air as they behave badly. Instead, one encountered Jews who were not only fully and conventionally dressed like their neighbors but who also acquitted themselves well. Like good Dutch burghers, Picart’s Jews sat companionably around the Passover table and went about their religious business with high seriousness. It’s a measure of Picart’s interest in setting the record straight that he made a point of drawing “from life,” as he put it, instead of resorting to the all-too-ample and convenient inventory of stock anti-Jewish representations and rhetoric.
In this instance, as in others within the 3,000 pages of Picart and Bernard’s magisterial work, narrative and visual strategy, word and image, colluded to produce a text that opened its readers’ eyes to the plenitude of religious experience and to the common humanity that encircled it. Ushering in the study of comparative religion, Religious Ceremonies made it possible to think both ethnographically and, in the fullness of time, even ecumenically.
Little wonder, then, that the book was a “runaway success,” a potential antidote to religious controversy and civil unrest. Despite the best efforts of the Catholic Church, which placed Picart and Bernard’s work on its Index of Forbidden Books, it enjoyed a long shelf life. Translated from the French into multiple languages, German and English and Dutch, Religious Ceremonies remained in print for over a century. How many books can lay claim to that signal distinction?
By taking its readers behind the scenes, The Book That Changed Europe helps us to understand what lay behind the enduring impact of its namesake and why it matters in the long run. Intended for a scholarly audience, one completely at home with talk of versos and rectos, the volume that Hunt, Jacobs, and Mijnhardt collaboratively produced deserves a wider readership. Writing in 1731 about Picart and Bernard’s undertaking, a London bookseller sang its many praises, noting that “this work does not contain a dry Narrative of Customs and Ceremonies, but is every where intersper’d with the most agreeable Particulars, which make the whole equally Entertaining and Instructive.” Much the same can be said of this book. Equally entertaining and instructive, it makes us care, and care deeply, about the fate of an earlier publication, underscoring the power of words to effect change and touch the heart.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at The George Washington University.