Those who Follow: Religious Diversity in Oxford
Exhibition, 16 Nov – 20 March 2018
Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies
Asked to recall or imagine a sacred space, most of us would probably resort to the grandeur of medieval architecture. Whether Winchester Cathedral, the Great Mosque of Damascus or the Dome of the Rock, monumentality immediately springs to mind. Perhaps rationally, one tends to associate the divine and its immeasurable power, with architectural achievements which appear almost unthinkable or implausible to the naked eye. There is no doubt that the Hagia Sophia of modern-day Istanbul would have seemed miraculous to the average medieval or early modern viewer, standing as one of the largest buildings in the world for almost a thousand years. The immensity of such religious architectural achievement has no doubt contributed to the formation of notions about the power of the divine.
Today, we live in very different times however, and a space of religious worship has not occupied the title of “tallest” or “largest building” in the world for hundreds of years. Instead, the monumentality of modern construction is often to be found in either the see-through, phallic glass towers of our financial districts, or in the thousand-bedroom (1,150 to be precise) “Palace Complex” of Turkey’s despotic head of state, Erdoğan. It is no coincidence that Erdoğan chose the word, ‘Külliye’ a Turkish word meaning “complex” and typically referring to a religious complex centered around a mosque: a mosque is, indeed, located within the compound. But even when the monumentality of religiosity is adopted, adapted or appropriated, the so-called “secular” reigns supreme in contemporary architectural grandeur.
Religious practice, conversely, materialises in a multitude of mundane spaces, molded through complex but tedious processes of town planning, petty local politics, accidents of regional demography and the often-limited resources of religious communities themselves.
In a city like Oxford, it is easy to forget this fact. One is easily blinded to it by spaces such as St Mary’s Church or Christ Church Cathedral. Not to mention, the multitude of medieval and early modern college chapels scattered around the city, which provide a detailed study into various stages of the Church of England’s complex relationship with the “beauty of holiness”.
Consequently, there is perhaps no better place to see an exhibition like Those Who Follow: Religious Diversity in Oxford. Curated by Dominic Dalglash and Stefanie Lenk, through the Leverhulme-funded research project Empires of Faith, Arturo Soto’s photographs present even the most seasoned Oxford-dweller with an intentional unfamiliarity, which seeks to challenge this seemingly natural association of religious practice with material monumentality. There are no college chapels, no dreaming spires, and no gothic clock towers to be found here.
Rather, the images before us, organised in diptychs – one inside and one outside each religious space – offer the visitor a snapshot of refreshing ordinariness. Sacred spaces are comfortably embraced by car parks, decaying cement patios, car-repair workshops and semi-detached housing (with which they sometimes merge). The sacred sits quietly, patiently, and unobtrusively amid the profane.
The buildings presented here, regardless of whether they are occupied by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Jews, or various denominations and sub groups within each, offer little to none of the architectural formality that we might expect: a mosque occupies a former warehouse, an orthodox church a former farmhouse. Some buildings are almost unrecognisably religious, like the Oxford Buddhist Vihara on Abingdon Road. The limits of the over-constructed modern environment constrain the appearance of others, such as the David Slager Jewish Student Centre situated above a Pizza Hut on George Street.
These buildings tell countless stories. They tell of the development of religious diversity in Oxford, where most non-Anglican buildings date to the last century or two. They tell of the inter-relationships between religious groups, like the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas which was formerly an Anglican space. But they also ask humbler, more personal questions – who put the fairy lights in the second floor of the Oxford Central Mosque? What was the last concert at the Christian Life Centre? Is that a family photograph in the background of the shrine of the Buddhist Vihara?
The curators and photographer demand that we revisit our commonplace imaginary of religious devotion. They urge us to re-encounter the reality of religious spaces as fundamentally modern, situated and historicised spaces. Constrained as these spaces are by their short traditions, surrounding businesses, or small local communities, they emerge nothing like the frozen remnants of medieval architecture that one might see in Damascus, Winchester, or Jerusalem. Instead, the spaces of religious diversity in Oxford emerge ever more real, becoming and alive.
This is a fantastic achievement, and a must-see in Oxford this winter.
Mirela Ivanova  is studying for a DPhil in Byzantine History at Balliol College, Oxford.