The Ackland Art Museum owns a remarkable pair of works by the eighteenth-century French engraver Bernard Picart: the original drawing of An Inca Wedding and the engraving made from that drawing, which was published in the first edition of Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, published between 1723 and 1743). Dubbed “The Book that Changed Europe” by the historians Lynn Hunt, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, Religious Ceremonies espoused the radical notion that there are commonalities between world religions decades before the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau would argue for similar religious tolerance in his treatise Émile. In the seven-volume publication, Bernard Picart supplied the illustrations while his collaborator Jean Frederic Bernard wrote the text. Together, they endeavored to expose Europeans to the variety of religious and social practices across the globe, with an emphasis on a shared humanity.
The current Focus on the Peck Collection installation Marriage in the Early Modern Imagination (April 23, 2021–July 18, 2021) juxtaposes Picart’s drawing of an imagined Inca wedding ceremony with images of European weddings from the sixteenth century. Another fascinating aspect of Picart’s drawing, however, is the remarkably sympathetic treatment of the Inca and many other non-Western peoples in Picart’s other illustrations for Religious Ceremonies. Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Picart downplayed images of violence when depicting the Inca. Instead, he generally favored images of family devotion and societal structures. The text and the images in the book worked in tandem: Bernard’s essays on foreign cultures stressed the resemblances between Christian devotions and world religions, while Picart’s images of Africans, Asians, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas used symbols common in European art to make the same claim. For instance, Picart made foreign customs palatable and legible to a European audience by setting his scenes among familiar forms of architecture found in European towns. In the Inca Wedding scene, in addition to using a European market square as the backdrop, Picart dressed his figures in tunics, reminiscent of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as a shorthand for a pagan culture. These liberalities with accuracy were meant to foster a sense of identification with the Inca among European readers, but also offered a moment of self-reflection: Bernard’s text, for example, compares the native styles of dress and adornment in the Americas — unusual by European standards — with the common practice of powdered wigs and hair in Europe.
Picart and Bernard’s treatment of non-Christian religions were not uniformly positive, however. The artist and author were both motivated by decidedly anti-Catholic sentiments, a result of their own experiences as Protestant religious refugees, exiled from their predominately Catholic home country of France. Throughout the text and the illustrations, there is an undercurrent of comparison with Catholicism; in particular, Picart highlights the idol worship and reliance on priests among polytheists and Catholics. Lynn Hunt proposes that the outcome of this strategy was twofold: “to undermine Catholicism as no better than pagan idolatry and to elevate pagan or heathen customs as comparable to those of the other monotheistic religions” (Hunt et al. 212).
Given the cultural inaccuracies in An Inca Wedding and Picart’s and Bernard’s personal motivations, what does this image tell us about how Europeans viewed distant cultures and religions? Or is this image simply a polemic against European Catholics? It is tempting to assume the latter, especially when we consider that Picart never travelled outside of Europe and instead relied on a combination of seventeenth-century travel accounts and images by other artists, such as the works of the sixteenth-century Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry and the Dutch artists Coenrat Decker and Jacob van Meurs. On the other hand, we know that Picart was keenly interested in accuracy and a truthful representation of his subjects. For instance, he delayed the publication of his engravings on Jewish rituals until he could attend a Passover Seder in person, nearly four years after the publication of the first set of text on Judaism by Bernard. Moreover, the emphasis on the humanity of all people through Picart’s choice of subject matter — weddings, births and christenings, dances and festivals, and mourning the dead — suggests a sincere interest in promoting a culture of tolerance in Europe.
Specific evidence on the public reception to Picart and Bernard’s work is sparse. The publication record, however, suggests sustained interest in Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World well into the early nineteenth century. Although only 1 of 250 images in the book, An Inca Wedding from the Ackland’s Peck Collection is a rare glimpse into the changing Western attitudes to a globalizing world.
– Sarah Emily Farkas is the 2020–2021 Ackland Graduate Intern and a Ph.D. student in art history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her research interests include issues of gender and religion in early modern Northern Europe.
For more information on Religious Ceremonies and Bernard Picart’s illustrations, see: Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Bernard Picart (French, 1673-1733), An Inca Wedding, 1723, Pen and gray ink, gray wash on paper, sheet: 6 1/16 × 8 3/8 in. (15.4 × 21.3 cm), The Peck Collection, 2017.1.116.