Reformation iconoclasm  

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This page Reformation iconoclasm is a part of the protestantism series.  Illustration: The image breakers, c.1566 –1568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder
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This page Reformation iconoclasm is a part of the protestantism series.
Illustration: The image breakers, c.15661568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
The Reformation and art, Reformation, iconoclasm

Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue's prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images of God. As a result, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorised iconoclastic riots. However, in most cases images were removed in an orderly manner by civil authorities in the newly reformed cities and territories of Europe.

Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Zürich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), and Scotland (1559). The Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands and Belgium and parts of Northern France) were hit by a large wave of Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566. This is called the "Beeldenstorm" and included such acts as the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte; and the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere. The "Beeldenstorm" marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic church. See Flanders for more on its history.

During the English Civil War, Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:

Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.'

The keen puritan William Dowsing was commissioned and salaried by the government to tour the towns and villages of East Anglia destroying images in churches. His detailed record of his trail of destruction through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire survives:

We brake [sic] down about a hundred superstitious pictures; and seven fryers [sic] hugging a nun; and the picture of God, and Christ; and divers others very superstitious. And 200 had been broke down afore I came. We took away 2 popish inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing cross on the top of the church. (Haverhill, Suffolk, January 6, 1644)

Protestant Christianity, however, was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther, initially hostile, came round to the view that Christians should be free to use religious images as long as they did not worship them in the place of God. Calvin, Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more conservative, would have all the arts to be the servants of the Gospel.

“I am not of the opinion” said Luther, “that through the Gospel all the arts should be banished and driven away, as some zealots want to make us believe; but I wish to see them all, especially music, in the service of Him Who gave and created them.” Again he says: “I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. … But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God’s will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear, of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?”



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