Skip to content

‘Voices for Tolerance’ Opens at Folger

Those looking to rebut the notion of continuous social evolution need look no further than a new exhibit, “Voices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecution,” which opened this week at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The age in question roughly spans 16th and 17th century Europe — a time of religious schism, conflict and general superstition, but also of emerging sensitivity to the idea of peaceful coexistence among diverse groups.

Through myriad manuscripts, engravings and prints, the show traces the vicissitudes endemic in all this upheaval, ranging from the Reformation to the Thirty Years War to the restoration of the English monarchy and the absolutism of the French Sun King, as it plays out against a backdrop of both bloody imagery (thankfully rendered in predominantly cartoonish engravings) and hopeful pleas by contemporaneous intellectuals for tolerance and understanding.

But while Catholic-Protestant rivalry and the treatment of religious minorities is the primary focus, attendees will no doubt be struck by the continuity of religious dynamics across the ages. Indeed, preparations for the show began within a year of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, an event in part triggered by religious extremism, which Folger Director Gail Paster says “to some degree” influenced the decision to explore the subject of intolerance.

In Europe’s response to the Jews — then the continent’s most significant minority — modern viewers will also find some parallels to the present age. There is an eery resemblance to many of the myths of Jewish bloodlust today propagated by some in the Arab world with early modern European depictions, such as one of a “diabolical” Jew, poisoning a water well as a child nailed to a cross looks on.

The European response to the Islamic world is more complicated, suggesting the importance of old-fashioned power politics.

“There is little ambivalence about the Jews,” says Curator Vincent Carey, but Islam, given its association with the propinquitous Ottoman Empire, was both “admired and mistrusted.” Depictions of Muslims from this time, while often presented through a prism of exoticism, retain a fundamentally regal or sympathetic quality.

Despite such parallels, Carey, who grew up in a working-class Catholic family in the Irish hamlet of Portarlington — ironically, founded as a settlement of French Huguenots themselves expelled because of intolerance in their homeland — during the height of the “Troubles” says his aim in creating the exhibit was not to make any judgments or parallels between the past and the present.

“The goal of the exhibit is not to preach to people,” he says, but to let the “documents … speak for themselves.”

That said, the exhibit begins on a high note with a collection of works by “Humanists for Peace,” as Carey has dubbed thinkers such as Erasmus who advocated for Christian unity and an end to war, and by Thomas More, whose “Utopia” imagined a world of religious toleration.

“No matter how bad it is there are always people who stand up and cry out for toleration,” says Carey.

But if there is one lesson “Voices of Tolerance” implicitly imparts, it is that no matter how eloquent the plea for tolerance, the broader cultural and political tendency toward intolerance is often in danger of subsuming those flickering lights. Accordingly, the exhibit’s more hopeful notes seem to fade against a steady drumbeat of violent images of religious persecution accompanied by equally inflammatory texts, many of which Carey describes as bordering on the “pornographic,” with their emphasis on gang rape, unchecked slaughter and the disemboweling of the persecuted.

“Both sides have their massacres,” he says simply.

It is a point, which the soft-spoken, bespectacled Irish intellectual illustrates in his discussion of an Irish-Catholic revolt against English rule in 1641, which left thousands of Ulster Protestants dead.

In the wake of the atrocities, a variety of propaganda often inflating the numbers killed by Catholics popped up to inflame Protestant fury. These images, Carey says, would remain in the Irish Protestant imagination over the centuries, reappearing on banners used by some of the Orange Lodges during the annual Portadown procession in Northern Ireland, a key event in the Protestant marching season commemorating William of Orange’s 1690 Battle of the Boyne victory over the Catholic King James II. Likewise, Irish-Catholic bitterness over the revenge exacted on them by Oliver Cromwell’s forces would continue through to the present day.

The exhibit’s inherent ambiguity is further reflected by the personal contradictions embodied in two of the period’s lightning-rod personalities, Martin Luther and Cromwell.

As Carey points out, Luther, who had early on in his career advocated for “compassion” toward Jews, had by the 1540s when it became evident they would not be converting to the “true” Christian church began spewing the worst sort of anti-Semitic verbiage in some of his writings.

“The language of the texts are reminiscent of the modern Holocaust language,” Carey says. “He wants the Jews expelled, the synagogues leveled.”

Likewise, Cromwell, widely known for his suppression of Catholics in Ireland, had actually granted a modicum of protection to Protestant minorities, some Catholics and Jews in England, Carey says.

Cromwell “advanced the cause of tolerance in England, yet in Ireland he’s the bête noire,” Carey notes.

And just as persecution remains a staple of the quotidian in much of the world, there is no neat conclusion to the show, which explores the nature of such a congenitally human evil.

Accordingly, the final display case, while touching on Spinoza and Locke’s progressive writings, also highlights Louis XIV’s 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which nearly 100 years earlier had taken the more enlightened step of granting religious rights to French Protestants.

“It’s not a progression from darkness to light,” says Carey. “The struggle is ongoing.”

“Voices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecution,” runs through Oct. 30 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol St.