Subscribe to Art + Ideas:

Since the Ice Age, humans have been using their imaginations to create objects of great artistry and skill, many of them destined for spiritual or religious functions.  Exploring the stories these objects tell and the shared narratives they reflect helps us to understand the nature of belief and the complex relationship between faith and society.

In this episode, former British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, discusses these ideas, which are the topic of his recent book Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples.

Book cover for Neil MacGregor's Living with the Gods. Features a fragment of a face of a sculpture on a green-gold background.

More to explore:

Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples

Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NEIL MACGREGOR: What is our narrative that gives us our place in a community, beyond the individual life, into the future, with the past, embracing everybody? Can we find one? It is the great challenge.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with former British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, about his recent book Living with the Gods.
Neil MacGregor has served as director of the National Gallery, director of the British Museum, and until recently, chair of the steering committee of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, an ambitious new cultural institution that embraces the presentation of the world’s cultures as both distinct from and interrelated with one another. In 2018, Neil narrated a series for BBC Radio 4, titled “Living with the Gods.” Later the same year, he published a book of the radio broadcasts with Alfred A. Knopf publisher in New York. During his recent visit to the Getty, I spoke with Neil about this book. This episode was recorded at the Getty before a live audience.
MACGREGOR: Thank you. Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: So Neil, you begin your book by saying this. You say, Living with the Gods is about one of the central facts of human existence, that every known society shares a set of beliefs and assumptions, faith and ideology and religion, that goes far beyond the life of the individual and is a central part of a shared identity. Such beliefs have a unique power to define and to divide peoples, and are a driving force in the politics of many parts of the world today.” No doubt, both historical and current events provoked and shape your book. What were they?
MACGREGOR: The real trigger for the book was the fact that in the last thirty, forty years, contrary to all expectations, I think, religion has once again become one of the great political forces, one of the great dynamics of politics. And certainly in Western Europe, I think there’s a great difficulty in understanding why that has happened. And what we wanted to do was, looking at cultures from across the world, to look at the idea of religion not as a set of abstract beliefs, not as theologies, but as a set of stories that embrace a whole community, and give the people in the community their place in the world, their place in time, and their connection to each other.
So the idea was sort of why it is that religion is such a powerful force to create community; and therefore, in the current world, such a powerful force for politics, for aggression, for intolerance, but also for solidarity.
CUNO: And you write in the book that the Lion-man of Ulm, which dates back to some 40,000 years, to the end of the last Ice Age, represents a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature and beyond human experience. What did you mean by that?
MACGREGOR: What you’re looking at is a statue carved out of mammoth tusk. It’s about eighteen inches, two feet high, and it shows the body of a man leaning forward, poised, and the head of a lion. And why I wrote that it’s a great cognitive leap is that it’s about 40,000 years old; it was found in south Germany. It’s the oldest physical evidence we have of our capacity to imagine something that doesn’t exist.
It’s the earliest evidence we have of the brain of Homo sapiens thinking beyond the immediate, beyond the perceptible, beyond the graspable, and giving three-dimensional form to an idea. It’s a very, very powerful and very beautiful object. It’s found at the back of a cave, in what is the greater Danube Valley, near Ulm. These fragments were found in 1939. And then, of course everything stopped because of the war. They’re put together in the sixties.
We’re in the Ice Age. Communities of, maximum, 200 people. So no more than in this room tonight was the whole community. You’re on the edge of subsistence. Maximum life expectancy, about thirty if you’re lucky. And this group—which lives off berries when there are summers there, and the animals when they can kill them, with fire in the cave—makes this extraordinary object.
It’s a society that, as you can see—this is family in the Stone Age wearing animal furs, confronting some unknown menace. And what they’re likely to be confronting is first the mammoth, the biggest animal that they know. These enormous mammoths, which they wouldn’t really be able to kill. But these mammoths would, fortunately, get bogged down in the melting mud of the summers, or they would be killed by other animals. And then they would use the stone tools to take the meat. The biggest animal, the mammoth.
And the other great worry, greatest worry, would be the lion. The fiercest animal, the most violent, the most savage, which would only be kept away, really, by fire at the mouth of the cave. And that’s what makes this image so important. They used the tusk of the biggest animal they know to combine the head of the fiercest and most threatening animal they know, and give it a human form.
It’s clearly an attempt to put the human experience into a much bigger framework. And for Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s at the moment when we start thinking of ourselves as part of a story bigger than ourselves that the religious sentiment starts. That is what the religious sentiment is, to know that we are a part of a much bigger narrative, which we can’t grasp, can’t understand.
The object is beautifully carved. We reckon that it must’ve used about fourteen separate stone tools. The details of the head here, of the lion, show you how carefully observed it is. This lion is listening, ears are cocked. And we reckon that with the tools available, it would’ve taken about 400 hours to make. And I think you can see from the quality of the carving, this is not the first object this person has made.
And that raises a very big question. This marvelous image of an alert Lion-man is a work of art. And somebody was allowed not to play any part in hunting, not to play any part in keeping the community warm, to make this object. Why would you invest so much in an object which neither clothes nor feeds nor heats, for a society that has no margin in its subsistence?
Anthropologists, deep historians, argue very strongly that that’s because a key element in the survival of any group is a story. A story, a narrative, that allows the community to think about itself as an entity that goes on through time. Every winter, the group that made this would know that some of the community would not be there next year. But the community will be, but the people will change. They know that their life is governed by forces they can’t control. So this object is part of a story about the human condition.
It’s also very remarkable to look at. Mammoth ivory is very rough in its surface. But it’s been worn smooth. And analysis in the laboratory, microphotography, suggests that the only way this could’ve happened is if this object had been handled thousands and thousands of times, worn smooth by the hands of the community, over generations. That’s a very extraordinary phenomenon. We’re looking at a story that is shared by everybody.
And on the muzzle of the lion here are elements of an organic liquid, which they think may be blood. There’s a narrative; is there a ritual? We don’t know. It’s shared. But it does take us right to the heart of the great statement, I think, by Joan Didion. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is the first evidence, I think, of that kind of story. And what we’re arguing in the book is that that kind of story, the religious story, beyond the single life in time, beyond the group, that is the most powerful element in keeping the group together and allowing it to survive, the stories that allow us to live.
And we have no evidence of any society that doesn’t have such a story, that places it in the wider world of time and space. We need them. And that’s why religion is so central.
CUNO: Now, you said that it was found in 1939. And one of the terrible ironies of it was that it was framed in the context of perhaps some justification for a Nationalist Socialist identity.
MACGREGOR: Yes. It’s one of the very fascinating things. This cave in the area around Ulm had already been shown to have many very early artifacts, very early sculptures, known to be older than most of the others. For the Nazis, this was thought to be the area where could demonstrate that this is where the Aryan race really began, and began making great things.
And so the Nazi hierarchy put a lot of money into the academic research and excavations in this area, in order to find the objects. And the two archaeologists who are responsible for finding the Lion-man in 1939 are both very committed party members. Everything stops once they’ve found it. And for obvious reasons, there’s a certain embarrassment after the war, about developing all this and picking them up. But it is one of the fascinating ironies of the whole narrative, that that is why we would up with this extraordinary document, which is really a document for the whole of humanity.
CUNO: So now we go from the Ice Age to Fire and State, the second chapter in the book, which begins by exploring the role of Vesta, the Roman virgin goddess of fire, whose only temple lay in the heart of the Roman Forum.
MACGREGOR: Yes. The world of the Lion-Man is a world that is possible only because of fire. When Homo sapiens leaves Africa, moves out, of course, the only thing that allows it to live in the Ice Age in Europe is fire. And whatever story the Lion-man may be about, it can only have been told around a fire. Without fire, no society. It is the center of all communities.
And so it’s not accidental that for the Romans, fire is the emblem not just of the hearth, but of the whole state. Right in the middle of the Forum in Rome, in the heart of the city, is the temple of Vesta, the prime goddess of Rome. You all know that Vesta is the goddess of fire. She’s also, without doubt, the most boring goddess in the whole of the Roman pantheon.
The other goddesses—Juno, Minerva, whatever—either go to war or they go and pick up shepherd boys or have an affair with an animal, whatever. Swans, anything that passes. Vesta just stays at home. Never leaves the hearth. She stays at home by the hearth, she keeps the fire burning, she keeps the house going, she keeps the state alive. And it’s an extraordinary phenomenon that from the beginning, the flame of Vesta comes to represent the survival of the Roman state.
It’s a brilliant idea, I think, that a society, a community, the law of a community, the story of a community, is so fragile that it needs to be constantly tended. It gives warmth, it gives food, it enables life; but it’s constantly in danger. It can destroy, but we need to keep it alive. It’s a perfect model, a perfect symbol, if you like, of the divine. It’s all-powerful and can only survive if we tend it. And so the tending of the flame is central to the survival of the state. It becomes the symbol.
And as you know, the people charged with looking after it are the Vestal virgins. Eight women, usually from noble families, who were chosen just before puberty. And you serve for about forty years. And during that time, your only job is to ensure that the flame of the temple of Vesta never goes out. Here’s a coin from around the year 200 A.D.
CUNO: If there is only a need for one flame and that flame is in the temple in Rome, why would there be the interest in duplicating the image of it and distributing it throughout the empire, for example. Does this have any kind of power other than just decoration on the coin?
MACGREGOR: It does. It reminds you that this is what the state depends on, and that the stakes are very high. We all know what happens when the state collapses; you have civil war. And Rome has had this many times. So keeping the flame, keeping the state together, is critical. And the Vestal virgins, as you know, they are virgin. If the flame goes out, it’s assumed that one of them is no longer chaste, and they’re buried alive.
You might wonder why you would, therefore, embark on this career. Two things. Firstly, it’s hugely prestigious. You get the best tickets to the theaters, all the rest of it. Very helpful for the rest of the family. And when you emerge, you have a lovely rest of life.
The other thing is that if you are challenged, you prove that you are virgin by going to the Tiber with a sieve and carrying the water, in the sieve, through the streets. And that will show you are chaste and it’s all fine. High-risk job, but enormously prestigious.
But more important, it is the only public role in Rome open to women. All the political roles are male. This is the only one open to women, so it’s very sought after. And it’s why, on the other side of this coin— Normally on a Roman coin, you’d expect to find on the other side, of course, the emperor. But on the other side of this coin, you find the empress. She is the mother of the nation, Vesta Mater. The virgin mother. A very common phenomenon in many religions, the virgin mother will be the ultimate protector.
But the queen, the empress, can be the guardian of the flame. She also can keep the state going. And this, I think, is one of the really interesting things. This becomes almost a feminist image. Later rulers in Europe—later queens, particularly—are mesmerized by the Vestal virgin model. So Elizabeth of England, who is the virgin queen, protecting the nation, holding it together, has herself painted carrying a sieve, as the Vestal virgin.
Marie Antoinette, of course, sadly not virgin for these particular iconographic purposes, is shown here tending the flame of the nation. These are very, very powerful resonances. And I think it’s because that symbol of the flame as divine, all-powerful, and weak and dependent, is such a wonderfully ambivalent one. In France particularly, it continues. After the First World War, when a memorial is needed [for] what the nation has sacrificed, under the Arc de Triomphe, they light, in 1921 the flame. Not the flame of the unknown soldier, as in many other countries, but la flamme de la nation. The nation has survived.
The flame lit in 1921 has never been extinguished. Every night at six-thirty—if you’re in Paris, it’s well worth going—there is the scene of the ravivage de la flame, the revival, the tending of the flame, and school children and veterans turn up together to keep the flame of the nation alive. This went on even through the German occupation of the Second World War. It was such a powerful symbol that they allowed it to continue. And the first public act of President Macron was to go to the flame of the nation and keep the flame burning. I don’t know what you feel about this; I think it’s an extraordinary image of the fragility of a political structure and of its strength, that it needs attention, and it is absolutely central for us all to survive.
CUNO: Yeah, it needs to be tended to on a regular basis, as well. It’s something you can’t take for granted…
MACGREGOR: Exactly.
CUNO: …otherwise it will go out. Yeah. Now, tell us about this Felmingham hoard, which is a group of objects buried in Norfolk England, around 260 of the common era, and excavated in 1840. It introduces a chapter to your book titled The Blessing of Many Gods.
MACGREGOR: Yes. The Romans had a very clear connection between the gods and the political life. Just as Vesta is the symbol of the story of Rome which survives, and the temple of Vesta goes on long after Rome has become Christian. So that you could add other gods as the empire expanded.
And I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, and one that I don’t know your views on, about the advantages of having many gods, a polytheism, rather than just one. I don’t know about you, but I was certainly brought up to think that there had been a great evolution from polytheism, many gods, to one god; and that as we all grew wiser, cleverer, more thoughtful, we abandoned the many gods to move to the one—the “one true God,” of course—and that that was progression. And we rather despised polytheism as infantile.
The Romans had a very different view. And what you’re looking at is a cooking pot that was used in Norfolk, in England, somewhere around 320, somewhere in the fourth century. And it was buried. It was found in the 1830s. And what was in it was a whole series of gods. A collection of gods all in the same cooking pot. We don’t know why they were buried. Possibly because there was a dedication of a new temple, possibly because of a raid, we don’t know.
But what is really fascinating as you look at these gods, it shows you, the little statues, how the Romans operated with their gods and the people they conquered. In the middle, you see the head of Jupiter. All these are just a couple of inches high. You know, they all fit into one cooking pot. And there would probably have been a wooden body on which the bronze heads sat.
Head of Jupiter, absolutely straightforward, god of thunder. On the left, Minerva, with her helmet. Perfectly standard gods you would find anywhere in the Roman Empire. And on the right, the little dancing figure here. Again, a household god of a sort you would find just as easily in Pompeii or Alexandria. But what is fascinating is that below the Roman god of thunder, Jupiter, is this wheel. And this wheel is the symbol of the British god of thunder, Taranis, the British and the Welsh god of thunder. You have two gods of thunder, and they’re both together and they’re both in the same pot.
And these little brass birds are of a kind you find across the whole of Europe in the second and third century, as accompanying some kind of religious rituals, but not Roman ones. The Roman gods and the gods of the conquered barbarians are together. And we have altars that are dedicated to both Jupiter and Tanaris.
What the Romans do when you conquer a province like England is, you adopt their gods and revere their gods. They can enter the pantheon. Jupiter and Juno are a very hospitable lot. There’s lots of room for new people on the Capitoline in Rome. They know they’re the real McCoy, but there’s space for the newcomers. This is, of course, something that no monotheism can manage. The Romans are brilliant at it. Isis, the Egyptian god, has a temple in Rome, and the Romans add another god to the pantheon. You can never have too many gods.
And as your understanding of the world, your contact with the world grows, your gods grow. And they’re all worthy of veneration. So here you have a coin showing the symbol of the great god Baal, whom you all know from the Old Testament. The hostile one, the one that the Israelites so dislike. Baal’s symbol is a great rock. When the Romans conquer Palestine, they bring the symbol of Baal to Rome; but not just as a trophy, in order to build in Rome, a temple to the god of the conquered people.
Just as the conquered people become citizens, the gods of the conquered become fellow gods. I think politically, this is really fascinating. It was something that the European colonial empires could never do. It was impossible for the Spaniards in South America to revere the gods of the people they conquered, just as it was for the British and the French in Africa, India, wherever.
This model of adoption of a pantheon that’s got many gods suggests firstly, with a humility, that you never understand the full measure of the divine; but that also, you can really honor the traditions of the people who are your new citizens. And to go back to that early European images of the difficulty of incorporating new citizens, new stories, the Romans had it made.
In many ways, Hinduism still has this great possibility. There’s no limit to the number of gods that can be revered. New ones are added. I think there’s a great bit for us to ponder in this. In a world of growing religious intolerance, where we’ve all been brought up, I think, to revere the monotheisms, what a polytheism allows is, I think, something not negligible when you’re trying to bring different communities into living together, which is clearly what we’re struggling to do.
CUNO: Now, you introduced Durga to us in this image. In the next chapter she features prominently.
MACGREGOR: Yes. This figure here, as you see, this terrifying woman with many hands holding weapons, murdering a lion, is the goddess Durga. The narrative is again a rather pleasingly feminist one. The gods, who were mostly male, had unwisely agreed that one man would be able to do things, would not be able to be killed by any man. So they create Durga to destroy an evil man. She’s the woman who can destroy evil in a way that the male gods can’t.
She’s particularly worshiped in Bengal, northeast India. And she visits every year in early autumn, when the Ganges monsoon floods melting the snows behind, the river is very full. The Ganges, on whom everyone depends. And it’s a cyclical feast. Durga leaves her home in the Himalayas, comes down into the plain, goes out of the Bay of Bengal, and then returns to the Himalayas. The cycle of the seasons of snow, melting, and return. And it’s the huge, huge festival in Calcutta and the region around.
And every year you need to make an image of Durga to come to your town, your community. The iconography is absolutely standard. She comes with the lion and she overcomes and destroys evil. In this case, in the personification of the green man. This statue has to be made every year. It’s a statue made out of straw and earth, and then painted. And it is not made in a temple. Durga is not a goddess who comes to the temples; she comes to the street. Durga is the goddess of a whole community. It’s the ultimate story of a whole community finding a way of articulating a narrative of itself.
Durkheim, the great French sociologist, argued that what a religion is doing is creating an idea, an ideal of society, and revering that. That that’s what it’s all about; we revere the ideal of a society we would like to live in. The making of the Durga statue goes a long way to give a reality to that. Straw and earth. And the whole community must contribute.
So into the statute of Durga, in the clay, come clay earth from every part of the village, every corner of the village, every part of the district you live in. They all have to be brought together and mixed up and put there. There needs to be some earth from the banks of the Ganges, because she is the goddess connected with the Ganges, which gives life, the divine river. There needs to be earth from dust from the house of a prostitute, the outcast. And that dust has to be gathered by the priest. So the divine and the outcast combine to bring the earth that goes into the making of the statue, which is then painted. And only when the whole community is present can the goddess inhabit it. It’s a marvelous bit, I think, of theological, social cohesion.
What you’re looking at is a whole community physically present in the statue. Then for a few days, the goddess comes. Everybody puts on their best clothes, they repaint the houses, they have feasts, give each other sweets. And for three or four days, offerings are put in front of the statue. The statue is revered. Every suburb, every district in the big towns compete. You all have your own Durga. And you bring to the statue every year, your new concerns.
So you may bring something about a strike in the Tata Motor factory, about a cyclone, Harry Potter, whatever. Whatever it is you want to bring. What is remarkable about this is that the whole community is there. It’s made in the streets every year anew. And at the end, because gods and goddesses are busy people, she’s got other things to do, she leaves and this is, therefore, again empty. And so you take it, all of you, to the Ganges and the whole thing, nothing more now than clay and straw and paint, floats away. And it is a very powerful image and a very powerful symbol.
In the British Museum, we invited people from Bengal to come to make, in the Great Court, the Durga. And the huge Bengali population of London came to watch it being made. And then at the end, the big question was, how do we get it to the Ganges? But luckily, Hinduism, like all great religions, is not bound by mere reality. And for these purposes, any nearby piece of water can become the Ganges. So she was carried to the Ganges at Putney Bridge and deposited.
CUNO: Yeah. It must be a symbol of rebirth. It happens every year. But what’s powerful about it is that it’s not that of an individual but of a society, because everyone has to participate in it every year.
MACGREGOR: Exactly. And this, of course, I think is why the festivals are such important parts of all religions. Because what the festival does is do the same thing every year, but in a different way and with different people. And every one of us remembers, whether it’s the Christmas or the Chanukah or whatever, of our childhood. And you know that this has gone on, it’s changed. The people we did it with as children are dead. It’ll go on; we’ll be dead. The festival reminds you of your place in time, in a way that no political festival has ever been able to do.
And that, of course, is why this is such a powerful bond for a society. And I think—I don’t know whether you agree with this—as societies feel under attack by globalization, unsettled by immigration, modernization, this idea of an enduring community through time has a huge power to give people that sense of cohesion and loyalty, and a narrative of ourselves that is worth fighting for and worth dying for. And I don’t know whether the same [is] true in the United States, but in Europe I think most people are genuinely baffled at the idea that you can be willing to die for a belief, a theological belief, as they have seen it. I think if one presents that in terms of a narrative of a community through time, that willingness to sacrifice to it becomes much more comprehensible.
CUNO: So in your next chapter, which deals with the protectoresses, you have it— you have a female figure who plays a very different role, one that isn’t reborn every year or isn’t created by the community, the one that is eternal.
MACGREGOR: Yes, it’s part of the same question. One of the things that we found fascinating when we were planning this book at the British Museum, looking across the cultures of the world present in the museum, was how recurrent these themes are. The need for an image that will embrace everybody and is at once particular, is local, and universal. And Durga was the obvious model from the Indian world. But for the Christian world, we became very fascinated by images of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Many of you will know this much better than I. It is an extraordinary image. As you know, a miraculous image will come through in a moment. But it is also an image that has come to be not just a theological idea, but an idea of Mexico, an idea of identity for a people oppressed, dislocated, invaded, humiliated. And this image is one of the ways in which they have tried to find their position in this world, profoundly altered in the sixteenth century and still today.
And you all know it’s, of course, central to Mexican identity wherever Mexicans are. This is actually from a mural painting in Los Angeles. And just to remind you of the narrative, in the 1530s—so ten years, roughly, after the destruction of Mexican society—a young indigenous Mexican boy is walking in the hillside, and he’s approached by a woman who is clearly also an indigenous Mexican. And she speaks to him in Nahuatl, and she tells him that she is Mary, Mother of God, and wants him to build a church for her.
He goes to tell the archbishop; archbishop says, “Nonsense. Can’t be true. A, she’s not an indigenous Mexican lady. And if she were gong to be speaking to you, she would not be speaking in Nahuatl, but either in Spanish or Latin,” I think is broadly the drift of the conversation. She then appears again, and this time with the miracle that on the 4th of December, she makes roses, flowers to bloom. And he gathers them up in his apron, and that persuades the archbishop that this is a real apparition, and as Juan Diego, as he’s called, as Juan Diego pours out the flowers, on his apron appears the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
And this miraculous image, come directly from heaven, in, of course, the iconography of sixteenth century Spain, a virgin standing on the crescent moon, but with indigenous coloring and indigenous features. She is the first non-European image of the European Catholic Church. The cult becomes very quickly established, as you know. The cathedral on the left, soon having to be extended by the basilica you can see on the right. But what I find interesting about this is that this, in the narrative as told by the Church now, it is a narrative that the people wanted this and the clergy were reticent, and the people insisted.
And she has been, in many ways, a creation of the people. She is seen as the protector of the poor, indigenous and European, and she’s seen above all as the protector of all of Mexico, and a protector against the powerful. And this, I think, is very fascinating. Normally in religions, and certainly in the way we’re told about them, religion is seen often as a power of oppression, as in Russia. The church is the state; the state is the church. And you use the power, or the state uses the religion, as a way of controlling and oppressing the people.
Here, this image is seen as a way where the people themselves can find protection against the powerful. And nowhere more striking, I think, than this kind of image of protests in California by Mexican farmworkers in the late 1960s, where right at the front, ahead of the Mexican and the US flags, not a union— trade union image, but the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe protecting the weak. It is a remarkable image because she is the story of Mexico. She is the protector against the strong, and she protects them in all kinds of ways. And when you go to Guadalupe, you take away a souvenir, a memory, to be protected by her.
And the one I most love—we have a great selection of these in the British Museum, perfectly hideous replicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe—but this little girl’s straw hat with the image. And where you would expect ave Maria or ora pro nobis, what you see is simbolo de Mexicanidad. The narrative of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the narrative of the nation. And it’s survived the Mexican revolutions, it’s survived all the political turmoils, to continue like that.
People need, they want, and they create the narrative that they require to find a story in which they can all have a part, and where they will be protected in the bigger world that they can’t control. And a dazzling example of that, I think, happened in the last twenty years in Paris. At the edge of the Pont de l’Alma, just beside the metro station in Paris, is this replica of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. As you know, the Statue of Liberty was given by the people of France to the people of America. This, it was decided by the New York Times, that in 1989, for the 200th anniversary of the revolution, the replica of the flame would be given back to the people of Paris. And it was put up by the Pont de l’Alma.
Well, you don’t need me to tell you that Franco-American friendship is a flickering commodity. And it stood quietly beside the Seine, nobody paying very much attention to it, until the night when in the tunnel below, Princess Diana was killed. And almost immediately, the public appropriated this monument to Franco-American friendship as a shrine of Diana. It is an extraordinary phenomenon. Every day if you go to this monument, you will see what you can see here, photographs, flowers, poems, letters, prayers, thank yous, effectively ex votos. Every evening, the authorities take them away. The next day, they come back. It is really worth going to see. And it is the perfect demonstration, I think, of the need people have to believe that there is a force, someone from a higher realm, somebody out of their world but concerned with them—because of the work she did with AIDS victims, victims of mines, whatever. It is the most extraordinary phenomenon of the protector, the need to have the protector, whether it’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, Princess Diana—
There’s no doubt at all in the Middle Ages, this would now have become a cathedral. She would’ve been canonized and this would be a place of pilgrimage. It effectively is. That’s tells us something very important, I think, about how powerful these narratives are. And it’s not about a theology; it’s about social security, security and cohesion in the group. It’s about looking for this ideal again, in a world where nobody can offer it politically. And even the religions find it hard to construct a narrative that can embrace the whole of our society, as this one could.
And it is the big problem, certain, for Europe at the moment, beginning 40,000 years ago. What is our narrative that gives us our place in a community, beyond the individual life, into the future, with the past, embracing everybody? Can we find one? It is the great challenge.
CUNO: Yeah. I wanted to close with the very last chapter in the book, Living With Each Other.
MACGREGOR: As I said, the crisis in Europe is a very profound one. And one of the many disturbing elements of it is, of course, the response to immigrants. And as war in the Middle East, war in North Africa, climate change, economic depravation, political oppression drives people to leave Africa for Europe, a Europe in which they’re not wanted— Thousands, hundreds of thousands, have tried to reach Lampedusa, that little island, in small boats. In Europe, they are not wanted. And they’re not wanted, their dislike is articulated, in terms of religion.
What happens in Lampedusa, you know as well as I. We know regular, hundreds, thousands of people drowning and arriving not wanted. How do we respond to that? It is, I think the challenge for everyone of us. Certainly, in Europe, but I think worldwide. What is our narrative that allows us to make these people part of our story?
The local carpenter in Lampedusa was very exercised by this. Lampedusa is a tiny island. Hundreds of thousands of people coming to [inaudible]. He couldn’t give them anything in the way of food, clothing, whatever. But he did decide he could give them something, a symbol of hope. And so he gathered the wreckage from ships that had foundered bringing the refugees, usually with several hundred being drowned and some surviving. And out of the wreckage of the ships, he made a series of small crosses, about two feet high. It has the mark of the wreckage, the old wood, the old ships, the old ships that foundered, turning them into a symbol of hope. He felt that was the only thing he could give them. And I think it’s not accidental that the only symbol he could find was a religious one, one part of a narrative that from suffering, comes new birth. And he hoped that it would be seen not as a Christian symbol, but as a symbol of welcome, and above all, that from disaster can come new life.
And this is now in the British Museum. For Refugee Week every year, it goes to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. And this little cross sits as a symbol—again, made by this humble carpenter in Lampedusa—of a narrative that will allow us to embrace the people who want to be part of our society. Because that is, I think, quite clearly, in Europe at least, the greatest challenge that we now face.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, Neil, thank you as always. Thank you for bringing to life these great stories. You have an ability to bring the objects to life with eloquence, to bring the stories that objects hold to everyone. So we’re grateful to you to come tonight for this, and congratulations on the book, Living with the Gods.
MACGREGOR: Thank you. [applause]
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
NEIL MACGREGOR: What is our narrative that gives us our place in a community, beyond the individual...

Music Credits

Logo for Art Plus Ideas podcast
This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
See all posts in this series »