The Madonna with Protective Cloak, by Michel Erhart or Friedrich Schramm, c. 1480.
Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinishe Kunst, SMB / Antje Voight
By Neil MacGregor
November 2, 2018

What I’m doing in this book is to look at objects that have been connected to many faiths, some long dead, others that today shape the lives of millions. Throughout the book we encountered a wealth of different stories about the world and our place in it, but we have looked less at what individuals believe, and more at what communities do as ways of giving expression to those shared beliefs. And all those practices seem to me to assert essentially the same thing: that we are each part of a narrative much bigger than ourselves, members of a continuing community in which there is a shared companionship of purpose. Practices like these mark identity and strengthen cohesion – which is why societies from the Ice Age onwards have been willing to pour such enormous resources into them. That heightened sense of identity can of course be exclusive and confrontational, as we saw in Ayodhya, Jerusalem, Nagasaki, Paris and Khartoum; but it will also enable societies to survive against enormous odds, as when the Parsis were forced to leave Iran for Gujarat, the Ethiopians resisted Italian invasion, African-American slaves struggled for freedom, or the Siberian Sakha preserved their traditions in the face of Russian encroachment over centuries.

The decline of Christian religious observance in Europe began with the rejection on rationalist grounds of the dogmas of the church and hostility to its political power. It has continued through growing indifference, until for many people it is now little more than a folk memory. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many believed that governments used religion to maintain control of their potentially criminal or rebellious subjects. There appears to be no connection today between levels of secularity of particular states and their levels of criminality – or rebelliousness. But the declining role of institutional religion has, I think, led to a serious loss of community, as the religious participant has given way to the ever more atomized consumer. All the traditions we have looked at affirm that the life of the individual can best be lived in a community, and all of them offer ways of making that affirmation a reality. Jean-Paul Sartre famously observed that ‘Hell is other people.’ The narratives and practices we have looked at in this book argue precisely the contrary: that living properly with other people, living with each other, is the nearest we can get to heaven.

One sculpture, more than any other object that I know, gives physical form to this idea. It comes inevitably from a particular tradition – the Christian – and from a particular time – around 1480. But it embodies the universal phenomenon of a sustaining community of belief. It closes the circle of this book, for it was made in south Germany, in the neighbourhood of Ulm, not many miles from where the Lion Man was found. It shows, slightly smaller than life size, what Germans call a ‘Schutzmantel-Maria’: the Virgin Mary spreading her protective cloak. Beneath its sheltering folds are ten small figures, representatives of a whole society: men and women of different ages and types, all either praying or looking anxiously out. But Mary, who by tradition represents the Church, is serene. Splendid in gold and blue, she gathers the community of the faithful, holds them together and shields them from harm. On a different scale from those she protects, she is the continuing story in which they are mere episodes, an enduring institution which embraces them all, and will outlive them all. She looks steadfastly to the future and strikingly, she – and they – are moving forwards.

Excerpted from LIVING WITH THE GODS by Neil MacGregor. Copyright © 2018 by the Trustees of the British Museum and the BBC. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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