Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Kevin L. Cope


Divinity, Zigler Museum


Antiquity, eternity, and expectation often intersect in outof- the-way environments. In rural southwest Louisiana, an unlikely venue in which to encounter the Ancient of Days, the Zigler Museum, a pair of exhibition halls housed in an incongruous, somewhat less than Cajun colonial-style building, displays its collection of eighteenth-century paintings beneath an optimistic sign reading "The Age of Reason:' The symmetrically arranged portraits gaze on an imagined focal point near the center of the room while scattered landscape paintings open windows on a mild English pastoral world far away from rice fields and crawfish ponds. Imported memories of a British culture unknown to the first French and Spanish settlers blend with unreconstructed colonial optimism as assorted heroes of the Enlightenment seem to look from hypothetical pasts toward imagined futures and on into eternity. Incongruities multiply as the Zigler visitor ambles into the second of two wings, there to find wildlife dioramas that would have been the envy of Elias Ashmole, Sir Hans Sloane, and all the other collectors who led us into the age of museums. Creatures recalling those in Oliver Goldsmith's rendering of primeval Georgia in The Deserted Village stroll about with artful ease as an Edenic rendering of ancient Louisiana interacts with a neo-Augustan hope for a system of

nature. The museum as a whole depicts Enlightened "virtuosi" looking at that very mixture of exotic and pastoral-of ancient, modern, and futuristic- that more than a few Enlightenment prodigies sought to discover. A suggestion of "intelligent design'' and "creationism'' hovers in the archival air as the Hobbesian state of nature, the peaceable kingdom, and modern empirical science coalesce courtesy of creative curatorship. Despite the potential grandeur of this scene, these stuffed and painted figures play out their taxidermic tableau in an obscure corner of America, as if they had lost their way while en route to the Royal Society or to a zoological exhibition at Ranelagh Gardens or perhaps to one of Philippe de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon entertainments or one of Robert Barker's panoramas. Despite the abundance of snakes in the region, this upgraded, rationalized, and modernized miniature paradise could never facilitate a fall of man that would be appropriate to this lowland region. No apples grow in the climate to which this primordial garden, along with its Augustan inhabitants, has been unexpectedly transported.