What a previous iconoclastic period reveals about the present one

From The Economist:


They struck
 at night, but many people must have seen them. First a group of young men stretched ropes across Cheapside, an east-west thoroughfare in the City of London, to block traffic. Then they attacked one of the largest, most famous images in Britain.

Cheapside Cross was a stone monument to Eleanor of Castile, queen consort of Edward I, which had stood in the capital since the 1290s. It was a tiered structure, rather like the candle-powered Erzgebirge pyramids that some put on their Christmas tables. It contained statues of God, Mary, a dove representing the Holy Ghost and other things offensive to contemporary eyes.

The iconoclasts probably could not reach the crucifix on top of the monument, which was as much as ten metres from the ground. They tried toppling lower statues by yanking on ropes, but failed. So they plucked the infant Christ from Mary’s lap, defaced her and smashed the arms off other images. Then they vanished. A reward was offered for information on the attackers, but there were no takers.

That attack took place in June 1581. It was just one of many on images in Britain between the 1530s and the 1640s. Indeed, it was only one of those on Cheapside Cross. The monument was assaulted again in 1601—when Mary lost her child for a second time and was stabbed in the breast—and was finally demolished in 1643, on the orders of the Parliamentary Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry. Change a few details, though, and it could have been in 2021.

Britain is in the midst of an image controversy, centred on the many public statues erected by the Victorians. In June 2020 a crowd inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement used ropes to pull a 125-year-old statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader and local benefactor, from its plinth and dumped it into Bristol harbour. Other statues were sprayed with paint. Local governments hurriedly removed some objects before crowds could get to them. A statue of Thomas Picton, a particularly violent governor of colonial Trinidad, was boxed up in Cardiff City Hall; Robert Milligan, a slave owner, was hauled out of West India Quay in east London on a flatbed lorry.

Local authorities and other organisations have launched inquiries into statues, monuments, murals and street names. Some of these have already begun to report. An impressively detailed one for the Welsh government found 13 items commemorating slave traders, as well as 56 memorials to people who owned plantations or benefited directly from slave labour, 120 to people who opposed the abolition of slavery and still others to colonialists. Officials have not yet decided what to do about many of them. Other investigations, including one commissioned by the mayor of London, continue.

The reaction to this assault on historical images has been just as fervent. Vigilantes, most of them polite, have formed protective cordons around statues, including those of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Baden-Powell. Newspapers and politicians rail against vandals both unofficial and official. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2021, Boris Johnson condemned “know-nothing cancel-culture iconoclasm”. His government has written to museums, threatening to cut their funding if they remove images.

Large differences exist between the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries and today’s rows. The earlier iconoclasts had different motivations and different ideas about how images worked on the mind. They were far more destructive than modern iconoclasts. Medieval churches were filled with murals and painted statues of saints, almost all of which have been destroyed. Not one English parish church retains all its pre-Reformation stained glass; St Mary’s Church in Fairford, in the Cotswolds, comes closest.

But there are similarities between the iconoclastic waves, too, which ought to discomfort conservatives. Those who oppose removing or destroying images today often argue that people should learn about history, not try to eradicate it. They mean that historical figures should be studied in the round and placed in the context of their times, rather than judged solely by modern criteria. But iconoclasm also has a history, which in Britain is long and largely triumphant: the hammers tend to prevail.

Although Renaissance iconoclasts sometimes erased political symbols, most of their targets were religious. They were following divine law, as they interpreted it. British Protestants argued that the words of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” began a separate commandment—the second—which specifically proscribed idolatry. They also cited examples from the Old Testament of believers destroying images. Moses burned the golden calf and ground it into powder. A statue of Dagon, a Philistine god, was magically destroyed when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in its temple, losing its head and its hands.

The reformers believed that images were actively dangerous. Objects were thought to interact with the people who gazed upon them, including by staring back. To look at an image was almost to embrace it or consume it. As Margaret Aston, the leading historian of English iconoclasm, pointed out, medieval churchgoers usually experienced the Eucharist only by looking at it. They believed it had a powerful effect on them nonetheless. Iconoclasts believed that images worked on people through their eyes, tugging them back into idolatry. Those images had to go.

. . . .

This is far removed from the modern understanding of images. Those who argue for the removal of statues today claim not that images are harmful in themselves, but that their presence in public places signals institutional reluctance to root out racism and other enormities. Students at Oriel College in Oxford who want a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be taken down from its perch above the High Street argue that it “can be symbolically communicative of a subtler and insipid prejudice in Oriel and the university”.

Modern iconoclasts are also far more restrained than their predecessors. Topple the Racists, a website that lists images and memorials deemed offensive (some of which have already been removed) contains 151 items. In 1643, during the English civil war, the zealous iconoclast William Dowsing eradicated at least 120 images in Jesus College, Cambridge in a single day. Attacks were often violent. In 1559 a congregation in Perth, in Scotland, smashed a tabernacle above the altar by flinging stones at it during the service.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG is generally opposed to any action that impairs the understanding of history, regardless of whether it offends the sensibilities of some of those who weren’t alive when that history was made.

4 thoughts on “What a previous iconoclastic period reveals about the present one”

  1. The last two paragraphs of the article (at least of that which was snipped) are pure disingenuous garbage. One only has to read or hear the statements of the modern iconoclasts. “Words are violence! Statues are violence!”

    • I think the ideas those paras attribute to the activists are beyond the intellectual capacity of the activists. Those ideas imply some thought. From what I see the BLM folks just repeat whatever they are told.

      • The same is true of the bulk of the foot soldiers of any mass movement.
        Leaders set the tone, followers echo.
        Movements without followers go nowhere. So do most movements *with* followers. You can’t go just by the followers. The question is what’s the mettle of the leadership? Do they stack up to MLK or fail to match Huey Long?

        Remember these?
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing
        Not very enduring.

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