The Early Enlightenment, Religious Toleration, and the Origins of Comparative Religion: Bernard and Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World

In the early 18th century, in the very first decades of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, two men produced a multi-volume work that made readers – in French, English, Dutch and German – see religion in a new way. Bernard Picart (1673-1733) was one of the most prolific and talented engravers of his age. Jean Frederic Bernard (1683-1744) was a French language bookseller and publisher of Huguenot background based in Amsterdam. Together they prepared thousands of pages and hundreds of engravings that sought to capture the ritual and ceremonial life of all the known religions of the world. Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, or simply “Picart” as it was often


subsequently known, broke with all the previous models. It presented religions, even those of the “idolatrous peoples” as even-handedly as possible. It argued for religious toleration by showing the ill effects of fanaticism, wherever it could be found, and by praising those religions, such as Islam, that offered toleration to others. At a time of widespread anti-Semitism, it offered one of the most sympathetic portraits then available of European Jewry.

Despite being the work of two French Protestant refugees who had fled to Holland, the book attempted to accurately depict even Catholic customs, and it gave more favorable and extended attention to Islam than anyone had before. Picart and Bernard devoted so much space to the “idolatrous peoples” of the New World, Asia and Africa because they sought in comparison of the world’s religions fresh evidence for new universalist arguments about the origins and development of religion. They themselves were more interested in what religions had in common – and perhaps even in an heretical religious syncretism – than in how they differed. When Picart and Bernard prepared their big book, the Dutch Republic stood at the heart of the European book trade. The two refugees took full advantage of the opportunities they found in their adopted land, and the Cérémonies in its various editions and translations sold a remarkable 4000 copies. Its translation into English removed some of the more radical comments about religion found in the original French text, though the Dutch one did not, and these translations, along with an abridgment in German, meant that the book and especially Picart's images became the standard means of portraying many of the world's religions until well into the nineteenth century.

No one today is, just as probably no one in the early eighteenth century was, going to read this book all the way through page by page. Eighteenth-century readers had their own way of getting to the choice bits that most interested, entertained, or provoked them (helped in part by tables of contents). Digitization, when combined with optical character recognition (a program that renders the text searchable), now makes it possible for readers today to get the most from this work for their own purposes.

Interest in these volumes has been increasing rapidly in recent years because they offer remarkable evidence of eighteenth-century views of religion and especially of religious toleration. They also helped set the study of comparative religion into motion and not least they provided an influential set of depictions of the many religions of the world. Useful background information and a rich analysis of the images, especially those of South Asia, can be found in Paola von Wyss-Giacosa, Religionsbilder der frühen Aufklärung : Bernard Picarts Tafeln für die "Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde" (Wabern : Benteli, 2006). As Von Wyss-Giacosa explains, Picart did not travel to India himself and had no direct knowledge of its religious costumes, but, living in Amsterdam, he had access to a wide quantity of information. By copying, extracting and adapting diverse sources, including illustrations from Western travel books as well as Indian miniatures, Picart created a visual canon of the European view of India in his time, one that would remain influential for many years afterward. In her book, she builds upon an

analysis of one group of illustrations in the Cérémonies (those of India) to develop a far-reaching discussion about the place, significance and informational value of illustration in the transmission of ideas in the field of historical pictorial ethnography more generally.

A variety of different perspectives on the work can be found in Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, eds., Bernard Picart and the First Global Vision of Religion (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2010).

For more information about Bernard, Picart, and their work see also Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, The Book that Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).