Translating Christianity

Word, image, sound and object in the circulation of the sacred from the birth of Christ until the present day

Christianity today is a religion of over 3,000 language groups in the world. More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion and it has has been the impulse behind the creation of more dictionaries and grammars of the world's languages than any other force in history. Behind this lies the fact that Christianity is not only a missionary religion but also a translated one without a single, revealed language. Translation is its second nature: 'the Church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark’. Accordingly, the transformation of Christianity into a world faith is the direct result of ‘the triumph of its translatability’. This has been achieved not only at the level of language but also by means of objects (in particular relics), movement (drama and music as well as pilgrimage) and images. Accordingly, this small exhibition has been divided into four thematic sections: mission, language, image and movement.

"Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures" 

Umberto Eco

The physical exhibition, curated by Bethany Hume, was displayed at the Old Palace, York Minster, July 2015.

It was part of the Ecclesiastical History Conference of the same name, which took place at the University of York, 28-30 July 2015.

All images taken within this exhibition are taken by Paul Shields, and made available by the University of York under the creative commons licence, via their digital library website.


From the very beginning the Christian message has been addressed to the world (CMS Atlas, item 1). As Jesus said: 'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Matthew 28: 19). Contrary to common misconception, the real age of mission was not the early Christian era or even the period of European expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but, numerically speaking, the 19th and, in particular, 20th centuries, when the bulk of the relevant material on display at this exhibition was produced. Mass-produced 20th-century editions of the Bible were sent out by such organizations as the British and Foreign Bible Society, who were responsible for these Bibles in Danish (item 2) and Russian (item 3).

It was this period which saw the expansion and consolidation of Christianity as a true world religion. Reports were taken by local missionary societies (item 4) and the number of translations of the Bible available in native languages was a concern (item 5). There was an increase from 10m Christians in Africa in 1900 to 360m a century later. By 2025 this is set to increase to 633m (compared to 640m in Latin America, 460m in Asia and 225m in N. America). Although this increase does little more than track the globe’s overall population increase, (so that, proportionately, Christians today make up slightly less of the world’s population than they did a century ago: 32% versus 35%), their geographical distribution is dramatically different: whereas in 1910 93% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and N. America, in 2010 this has fallen to 63%, and the figures for Europe (where the fall has been from 66.3% to 25.9%) are even more striking. The implications of this shift for Old World Christianity have yet to be fully digested. 


It has long been recognized that religious literature – Bibles, missals, breviaries and prayer books – has been the catalyst as well as financial rationale for the print revolution and, until well into the twentieth century, the mainstay of publishers' back catalogues. The striking range in size and format of the texts on display – from Walton’s folio-sized 17th-century Polyglot Bible (item 10) to the handy, well-thumbed, pocket-sized, 16th-century edition of Myles Coverdale’s translation of the New Testament (item 7) testifies to Christianity’s distinctive versatility as a 'translated’ religion. 

This section also charts the move from the bible available in the Latin vulgate (item 6) to English (item 8), resulting in the King James version (item 9).


Although the very earliest Christians do not appear to have used or needed images to assist them in their devotions, so that much of the so-called 'Christian' iconography in the Roman catacombs was either openly pagan or clearly adapted from pagan prototypes, Christianity rapidly developed a complex and rich iconography of its own. 

As can be seen by the items on display, with the advent of the Reformation, such imagery might be considered as idolatrous and could be defaced (item 14)

Moreover, the most sophisticated missionary order with truly global reach, the Jesuits, took full advantage of the visual dimension to Roman Catholicism when they produced and disseminated the first fully illustrated account of the Gospel story in print (item 15).

However, in the longer term this approach did not remain the sole preserve of the Roman Catholics, as can be seen by both theHieroglyphical Bible used for the instruction of young children (item 12) and the contemporary Manga New Testament (item 11), which has been directed mainly, but not exclusively, at evangelical Protestants.


Christianity was also translated in movement. In the Middle Ages, the ritual year of feasts and their associated processions was the main way in which Christians, most of whom took communion only annually (at Easter), were reminded of their religious identity. After Easter and Christmas, the most important festival shared by all Christian communities, after its advent in the 13th century, was that of Corpus Christi for which the York cycle of mystery plays was originally conceived (item 17)

The close association of relics with Roman Catholicism meant that after the Reformation they became the inevitable target of Protestant polemicists, as can be seen in William Crashawe's spoof The Pope’s exchequer (item 18).

From at least the 4th century AD, movement also took the form of pilgrimage, in order to view the relics and holy places of Christianity: whether it be Jerusalem (item 19), or for Roman Catholics, Rome (item 20) and places which claimed to be in possession of particularly holy relics, such as Christ's seamless robe, which was claimed from the 12th century by the German city of Trier (item 21)