Advent, at least in the western part of Christendom, begins in early December and starts the run-up to the world’s most celebrated religious festival. But as anyone who has visited a shopping mall in China at this time of year knows, Christmas is also the world’s favourite shopping festival for atheists just as much as the faithful.
In the preceding months, manufacturers and workshops around the world work at full capacity to fill the seasonal demand for gold jewellery. But historically, the relationship between gold and religion has been very different from the modern mass market.
The adherents of most world religions have always been happy to decorate their places of worship with gold and gilding, but their attitudes to the use of gold for manufactured objects are clearly differentiated.
For Christianity, the period from late Middle Ages to the Baroque saw some of the most remarkable artefacts being created for use in important ceremonies and often as an indicator of ecclesiastical rank. These include most notably elaborate reliquaries, embellished with enamel, pearls and precious stones, to hold various items ranging from bones of the beatified to “fragments of the true cross”.
The Bimaran Casket and Base © The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
Other ceremonial items such as altar crosses, chalices and ampullae (for holding holy oil) have also given goldsmiths an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Islam, by contrast, has tended to restrict the use of gold to purely decorative uses and, most importantly, coinage. Above all, it eschews the use of gold and other precious metals for utensils and male (though decidedly not for female) adornment, while the representation of the human or even animal form in Islamic art is strictly taboo. The same can definitely not be claimed for the two great religions of the Asian continent – Buddhism and Hinduism – where images of the Buddha and the panoply of Hindu gods are ubiquitous.
This brings us to the item which is featured in this issue’s Curator’s Corner – the Bimaran Reliquary, one of the great treasures of the British Museum, which holds the record for the earliest depiction of the Buddha in human form. It was discovered in around 1835 by one of Britain’s most extraordinary archaeologists, Charles Masson.
He discovered the cylindrical golden casket, set with garnets, inside an inscribed stone vessel made of steatite (soapstone), which is also now in the Museum. The circular base of the casket has a beautiful lotus flower design.
Bell-shaped Stupa 2 in Bimaran.
In spite of the images of the Buddha on the casket, this is not a purely Buddhist item. The Buddha (facing the viewer in the centre of the image) is surrounded by two Hindu gods: on his left is Indra (god of war, thunderbolts and rain), and on his right, is the creator god, Brahma. The same threesome is repeated on the opposite side, with two unidentified individuals in between.
Masson unearthed these priceless objects together with some accompanying gold coins (which allowed the casket to be dated to the first century), plus hundreds of gold beads and other items from the bell-shaped Stupa 2 in Bimaran, located close to the modern village of Daruntah, some 100 km east of Kabul. Masson provided a drawing of the Stupa, which is one of several in the area that he explored.
An inscribed stone vessel made of steatite (soapstone).
Scarcely less interesting than the casket itself is the life of its discoverer. Born in London in 1800 (real name James Lewis), he enlisted in the East India Company’s Bengal Artillery regiment in 1822, but deserted in 1827 and subsequently took the name of Charles Masson. After five years travelling in north-west India and neighbouring regions, he was employed by the Company again (without it being aware of his true identity) as an archaeologist. During the next five years, he collected an estimated 60,000 coins and excavated some 50 sites in Afghanistan. When his true identity was realised in 1835, he was co-opted to work for the British in Kabul in return for a pardon. After some further extraordinary episodes, Masson returned to London in 1841 and worked until his death in 1853 on his drawings and a three-volume account of his adventures and discoveries in Afghanistan. Today, the British Museum’s collection catalogue lists more than 9,300 items discovered by Masson.
Today the British Museum’s collection catalogue lists more than 9,300 items discovered by Masson
We would love your feedback on the items featured in the Wonders of Gold exhibition or on any ideas you may have on items to include. Whether it’s a gold artefact, a significant historical event or influential person who helped shape the gold market – we want to hear from you.
You can get in touch with Stewart Murray, the Curator of Wonders of Gold, at curator@LBMA.org.uk.