Jean-Frédéric Bernard and Bernard Picart began publishing their cutting edge collaboration, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Nations of the Known World, in the early 1720s, at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Europe experienced a huge transformation of religious thought, moving from a world of heterodoxy versus orthodoxy to a landscape in which many voices contributed to religious dialogue. Picart and Bernard’s groundbreaking Religious Ceremonies of the World became a best seller, and it established the new genre of the comparative study of religion. The project was the product of the partnership of two men whose ideas and skill sets complemented each other. They brought together a passion for religious syncretism, a talent for engraving, an operation for publishing, and a social and intellectual setting for disseminating their message.
The Burns Library owns a rare English translation and edition of the seven-volume set, printed between 1731 and 1739 in London. Still in their original bindings, these oversized volumes are printed on beautiful paper bound together with more than one hundred splendid copper plate engravings that were printed separately. Like every edition of this visionary work, the title page does not name Bernard as author, only declaring that the illustrations were “designed by the famous Picart.”
This 1731 edition is one of the earliest English translations. Later editions include further edits and English captions for many of the illustrations, as opposed to the original French captions found in this edition. From 1733 to 1739, all English translations included fewer engravings than the French and 1731 editions. Between these years the English refused to print the “dissertation” introduction to Volume One, which included the most explicit explanation of Bernard’s Enlightenment philosophy. The encyclopedic format of Religious Ceremonies contributed to the revolutionary nature of the book. Its structure allowed readers to look up religious traditions about which they were curious and gain an objective perspective on that religion.
Bernard and Picart were both French Protestants (Huguenots) who moved to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution in France. The Dutch Republic proved an excellent location to test new controversial ideas because it was one of very few places in Europe with no national censorship. In addition, rapid urbanization throughout the 1600s had made the Dutch Republic a perfect market for the book trade. Amsterdam was at the heart of the worlds of publishing, Enlightenment thought, and religious toleration. Thus Bernard and Picart were ideally located to effectively execute the project of Religious Ceremonies.
It is nearly impossible to attach a simple label to the religious convictions of Bernard and Picart. However, from their personal libraries, their associations, and the information they present in their great work, we can deduce that both men approached all religious doctrines with a scientific skepticism and an underlying belief in the universality and equality of all religions. Bernard and Picart struck a careful balance between radical heretical beliefs and the decorum required for their families, Huguenot communities, and business relationships. Understanding Bernard’s and Picart’s personal philosophies reveals a complex dual purpose of Religious Ceremonies of the World. First, the seven-volume set was meant to prove that all religions were essentially the same, all based on the same impulses that proceed naturally from human nature. Second, revealing the underlying similarities in all world religions was meant to demonstrate that all religions had been corrupted and led away from the truly divine.
With the important exception of the images of Jewish rituals, Picart had never seen most of his subjects—not unlike his readers. He sought to do the most thorough research possible, but almost all of his images were based on secondary sources. Although he made every effort to depict his subjects accurately, Picart also editorialized in many of the images, changing and omitting details that may have been perceived as barbaric or extremely foreign. Picart isolated the religions of the world, removing their historical context to allow readers to see them without preconceived prejudices. Many of the book’s illustrations would leave lasting impressions on European readers, many of whom had never before seen images of the kinds of people who were depicted. Seeing images of so-called “idolatrous” people constructed from such a syncretic perspective would have left readers with a representation of people who were less foreign than the readers may have thought previously. Most importantly, by removing any semblance of specificity about when and who was being depicted, Picart undid any representation of conquered peoples as victims, granting them a kind of equality and human dignity previously reserved for the familiar belief systems of the “civilized” world.
Religious Ceremonies of the World grabbed the attention of readers across Europe in a way that no study of religion had done before. What made Religious Ceremonies so influential and revolutionary was the nature of the book as a reference comprised primarily of images. Bernard and Picart’s project became “the book that changed Europe,” as some historians have described it, precisely because it was first and foremost a visual source. The text of the seven-volume work reveals essentially no new information; it is simply a synthesis of the best contemporary primary sources from around the world. Picart’s detailed images, however, shared new information with European readers, communicating something that words alone could not. Picart’s illustrations became the most influential images about religions of the world available to a European audience. Thus the symbolism of syncretism that he carefully wove into his illustrations transformed the consciousness of European readers, helping to usher them into an age of Enlightenment.
The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Nations of the Known World is available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room. Contact the Burns Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. For those of you who are not able to visit Burns to look at these volumes, the first three volumes in this set are available online to Boston College community members through the Gale Cengage database Eighteenth Century Collections Online. In addition, the UCLA Digital Library Program has put the French, English, Dutch and German editions of this work online for all.
- Alexina Delvecchio, A & S, Class of 2014
Lynn Hunt, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt. The Book that Changed Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Margaret C. Jacob. “Bernard Picart and the Turn to Modernity.” De Achttiende Eeuw 37 (2005): 1-16.
UCLA Digital Library Program. “The Origins of Comparative Religion: Bernard and Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743).” http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/picart/index.html
This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts from this exhibit!