Iconoclasm, Then and Now

Paul Halsall, who notes that 95% of English medieval religious art was destroyed as a result of the Reformation, draws our attention to a blog post about English iconoclasm:

The fear that lay behind much Reformation activity was fear of one of the primal powers of art: the ability of the image to seem as real as a real person, to come to life, and not only become an object of worship in its own right, but perhaps do evil to those who oppose it. This fear of the dangerous, potentially animate qualities of art may be detected in the methods of the destroyers. Defaced images often had their eyes scratched away, as though, by breaking visual contact between image and viewer, the suspect power of the image might be defused. The potent realism and the beguiling presence of the most affecting art of the pre-Reformation period may partly explain the violence of the reaction against it. Destruction can be seen as a kind of back-handed compliment. To deface or smash an image is to acknowledge its power.

 The idealistic Protestants saw their destruction as a means of disproving the power of images and loosening the chains of superstitious belief which they felt had tightened around the minds of the laity. During the most extreme phase of the Reformation, the Puritan moment of the 1640s, the abolition of Christmas and the destruction of Stonehenge were temporarily discussed as ways of furthering the cause. The pagan festival and the pagan stone circle were to be done away with because, just like the images of the Catholic faith, they were part of the dangerous, misleading, ancient superstitious history of the nation, a history that needed to be unwritten.

Halsall shares this image from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), which depicts the reign of Edward VI and gives pride of place to state sponsored “burning of images.” (Clearly, not all images were bad! The woodcuts in the Book of Martyrs were especially effective as propaganda.) 

He also draws attention to this tweet from Laura Sangha:

As you are no doubt aware, iconoclasm – in particular, the tearing down and destruction of statuary – is currently back in fashion. The most recent and prominent example: yesterday, a mob toppled a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and cast it into Bristol Harbour. Who was this man? According to Wikipedia, he lived 1636-1721, and:

supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive to this day.

In Bristol, he founded almshouses in King Street and Colstons Almshouses on St Michael’s Hill, endowed Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school and helped found Colston’s Hospital, a boarding school which opened in 1710 leaving an endowment to be managed by the Society of Merchant Venturers for its upkeep. He gave money to schools in Temple (one of which went on to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School) and other parts of Bristol, and to several churches and the cathedral. He was a strong Tory and high-churchman, and was returned as Member of Parliament (MP) for Bristol in 1710 for just one parliament.

David Hughson writing in 1808 described Colston as “the great benefactor of the city of Bristol, who, in his lifetime, expended more than £70,000 in charitable institutions.”

So you can see why he would merit a statue. However, all this money, by our standards, was tainted, for:

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the west coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves from 1662. Colston rose rapidly on to the board of the company and became deputy governor, the company’s most senior executive position, from 1689 to 1690; his association with the company ended in 1692.

During Colston’s involvement with the Royal African Company, it is estimated that the company transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, of whom 19,000 died on their journey. Due to the conditions on many of the vessels, the extended journeys affected the ship’s crew mortality rates, which were often similar and sometimes greater than those of the slaves. The slaves were sold for cheap labour on tobacco, and, increasingly, sugar plantations, whose planters considered Africans would be more suited to the conditions than British workers, as the climate resembled the climate of their homeland in West Africa. Enslaved Africans were also much less expensive to maintain than indentured servants or paid wage labourers from Britain.

Even though “the proportion of his wealth that came from his involvement in the slave trade and slave-produced sugar is unknown, and can only be the subject of conjecture unless further evidence is unearthed,” the fact that Colston actually sat on the board of the Royal Africa Company is intolerable to our sensibilities. 

Wikipedia.

The statue, constructed in 1895 and listed in 1977, has been controversial for some time. A number of plaques explaining Colston’s role in the slave trade had been considered, with none finding universal favor. I guess there won’t be any need for them now! 

Wikipedia.

There is a certain type of historian who praises this sort of direct action as “carnivalesque” or an example of “charivari,” an expression of the authentic voice of the unheard and a blow against systems of oppression.* It might very well be that, but it’s important to remember that encouraging violence is a dangerous game – once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s rather difficult to control, and it often ends up being applied to “good” things too, as we have recently witnessed. Furthermore, the object of one’s hatred might not always be so hated! Wouldn’t it be nice if more medieval art had survived Protestant iconoclasm?

In general I’m against removing statues. Instead, I am in favor of putting up other statues to current heroes as a riposte, so that a city gets to be full of statues and as a result becomes more interesting. It is good to remember that no one is perfect – and that we should resist the moral self-indulgence of judging the past by our own standards. I will admit, though, that public statues do, on some level, praise the honoree. Maybe some statues really do belong in museums – i.e. in a more “objective” context – or even in storage. Dismantling a statue is not “erasing history,” but erasing the praise. I do not fault residents of the former DDR for removing statues of Marx and Lenin from the public sphere, for instance. 

But if we must do this, then let us follow the instructions of Martin Luther, who wrote that “I have allowed and not forbidden the outward removal of images, so long as this takes place without rioting and uproar and is done by the proper authorities.”

* Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (2000) provides an example of this. Young praises the Boston Tea Party of 1773 for its destructiveness, seeing in it the coming-together of all classes of Americans to tell the British, in no uncertain terms, what they thought about paying taxes they hadn’t consented to. As I read the book, I kept wondering what Young thinks of other such popular expressions of violence against perceived threats, like tarring and feathering, or lynching?

Himmelfahrt

From the Bollandist Facebook page (hat tip: William Campbell):

“ML” writes:

21 May: The Ascension of the Lord. One of the oldest depictions of Jesus’ Ascension is an ivory plaque, produced around 400 in Rome or Milan and now kept in the Bayerische Nationalmuseum, Munich. It is contemporary to the establishment of the Feast of the Ascension and as such a unique testimony to how the theological reflection and artistic imagination regarding this mystery of faith developed. The image combines the Ascension with the Resurrection (with Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the background), but more importantly, it shows to what extent Early Christian art was a product of the Late Antique market: Christ does not ascend to heaven, but is literally given a hand by God. The Christian literati rich enough to command such a plaque would have appreciated this depiction, familiar to them from the image of the goddess Athena lifting up the hero Hercules at his apotheosis, or the coins of the consecration of Constantine, which show him ascend his chariot with his arm stretched out towards a hand from heaven. Was this association of Jesus with the demigods of this world merely an artistic devise, or did the heresy of Arianism, still rampant around 400, play a role as well? 

Jigsaw Puzzles

Are you doing a jigsaw puzzle during your coronavirus lockdown? Perhaps you’ll be interested in this short history of the pastime:

The origins of jigsaw puzzles go back to the 1760s when European mapmakers pasted maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces. The “dissected map” has been a successful educational toy ever since. American children still learn geography by playing with puzzle maps of the United States or the world.

The eighteenth century inventors of jigsaw puzzles would be amazed to see the transformations of the last 230 years. Children’s puzzles have moved from lessons to entertainment, showing diverse subjects like animals, nursery rhymes, and modern tales of superheroes and Disney. But the biggest surprise for the early puzzle makers would be how adults have embraced puzzling over the last century.

Puzzles for adults emerged around 1900, and by 1908 a full-blown craze was in progress in the United States. Contemporary writers depicted the inexorable progression of the puzzle addict: from the skeptic who first ridiculed puzzles as silly and childish, to the perplexed puzzler who ignored meals while chanting “just one more piece;” to the bleary-eyed victor who finally put in the last piece in the wee hours of the morning.

The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening’s work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike children’s puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box; if the title was vague or misleading, the true subject could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place.

Read the whole thing. It reminds me of a delightful article I read in the American Scholar many years ago, which I found just now on JSTOR. It begins:

It is a terrible thing to admit, but I love jigsaw puzzles. It is a terrible thing to admit because I am a professor of English. I work in Texas, in the heartland, where I often get the impression that I am expected to be an ambassador for high culture to Middle America. Granted this authority, I could confess to loving almost anything else without shame. Baseball? A taste I share with philosophers and poets. Bewitched? The subject of Cultural Studies dissertations. Wonder Bread with gravy? My culture’s authentic cuisine. But when I say that I have a taste for jigsaw puzzles, I place myself beyond a social and intellectual pale.

In my crowd, there isn’t a single way in which jigsaw puzzles constitute an acceptable taste. First of all, there’s their status as reproductions. I know academics who would as soon march naked in a Fourth of July parade as own reproductions of art. Worse still, most jigsaw puzzles are not even reproductions of good art. They are reproductions of kitsch. In the 1950s and ‘60s there apparently were people who had a genuine appreciation for fluffy cats with big eyes, groups of sad clowns, rodeo cowboys in action, and blurry photos of the Tetons….

Worse still, doing jigsaw puzzles indicates a complete lack of originality. Your work is literally cut out for you. The puzzle is in a subclass of the kit or model – in fact, the lowest possible stratum of that subclass. Building a model ship from a kit is just barely respectable, because the product at least takes obvious skill and can charm the eye. And as anyone who had built such models knows, their most sophisticated form requires “kit-bashing”: scavenging bits from this kit and that, importing unsupplied materials, redrawing the instructions to suit yourself. You can’t kit-bash a jigsaw puzzle. Much as I might like to put Homer Simpson in the Sistine ceiling, the damn piece just won’t fit.

I enjoin you to read the whole thing if you have JSTOR access (actually, you can register and read 100 articles for free in this time of lockdown). But events have moved on since the article was published. Artist Tim Klein has discovered that puzzles of the same dimensions from the same manufacturer usually use the same die-cut pattern for the pieces, so you actually can do a bit of “kit-bashing.” Check out his Puzzle Montage website. 

“King of the Road.”

“Iron Horse.”

“Waterfall Grille”

UPDATE: More from Ladbible. You can now get a 51300 piece puzzle for $500, a 2000-piece puzzle with no picture, and a 144-piece puzzle of transparent plexiglass. 

St. George at the Met

My friend Chris Berard sends me some images of St. George from the exhibit The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thanks Chris – a great Christmas present!

This one came to the High a few years ago. It shows Maximilian I as St. George.

Albrecht Dürer!

Another one!

Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531)

“South German, possibly 1460-70”

Merry Christmas to all readers of First Floor Tarpley!

Dutch Masters

Enjoyed the “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt” exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum this weekend. My personal favorite: Hendrick Avercamp (Dutch, 1585-1634), Winter Landscape near a Village (1610-15), illustrating a regular occurrence during the Little Ice Age, and a favorite Dutch pastime

I was also pleased to see a banner of the arms of Zeeland flying in the background.

Coptic Martyrs

From the Facebook page of Our Lady of the Mountains of Jasper, Georgia, an interesting icon:

An article on The Stream indicates that this icon was made in 2015 by Serbian artist Nikola Sarić. It references the kidnapping and beheading of 21 Christians in Libya by agents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which had taken place earlier in 2015. Twenty of the men were Egyptian Copts, and one was Ghanaian, whose darker face is shown on the top right; they were in Libya as construction workers in the city of Sirte when ISIL nabbed them.

The executions took place on the Mediterranean beach on February 15, 2015, with ISIL agents dressed in black and their victims in orange jumpsuits, referencing the outfits worn by al-Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Painting, Tomb of Rameses VI. Pinterest.

I like how there is something Egyptian about this icon, both from the way the figures stand and how they are arranged, and yet it is not so stylized that that horrific event isn’t instantly recognizable. I also like how icon-making is a living tradition and for actual martyrs for the faith, not just revered but non-religious figures like Harvey Milk, Steve Biko, or Mother Jones.

Bauhaus

Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany. Wikipedia.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, an influential school of architecture and design that was located first in Weimar, then in Dessau, and finally in Bernau, a suburb of Berlin. It became a byword for the experimentation (or decadence) of the Weimar Republic, and was accordingly shuttered by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933 – which meant that their faculty, some of them quite famous, spread throughout the world, preaching the Bauhaus message of form following function.

Sotheby’s Magazine has a short article on museums hosting centennial exhibitions this year, including at Munich, Rotterdam, Weimar, and Dessau. Click the link to see some interesting images.

I wrote a paper on the Bauhaus in college that I’m proud of, and the only time I was in Berlin I made sure to see the Bauhaus Archive (currently closed for renovation). I certainly enjoyed walking around the White City, a neighborhood of some 4000 Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired buildings in Tel Aviv, built by Jewish architects who migrated to British Palestine after the rise of the Nazis.

Cycloramas

Interesting article on Jstor daily (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

Cycloramas: The Virtual Reality of the 19th Century

Immersive displays brought 19th century spectators to far-off places and distant battles. The way they portrayed history, however, was often inaccurate.

In the fall of 1886, New Yorkers were transported to the Battle of Gettysburg. That is to say, they flocked to a circular structure in downtown Brooklyn. The inside walls of the curious room were covered with a 360-degree painting, on which soldiers charged and cannons fired. As Scientific American described at the time, the floorboards were covered with sod and “real trees, evergreens and others, with shrubbery, portions of fences, and the like are set about, and tufts of grass, wheat, and similar things, lend their aid to fill up the scene.” Skylights illuminated the canvas and props while leaving the spectator area dark, and mannequins were posed alongside the painted scene. So convincing were these dummies that the police got called one evening to stop a robbery and apprehended two fake soldiers.

This immersive installation, known as a cyclorama, was one of several that popped up around the United States and Europe in the nineteenth century. Civil War scenes were popular, but so were Niagara Falls, the Biblical Crucifixion, the Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Battle of Waterloo. They were the virtual reality of their time, combining art, lighting, architecture, and installations to convey viewers to exotic locales or the recent and distant past.

Irish painter Robert Barker is often credited with introducing what he described as a “picture without boundaries” in 1787, debuting his invention with a cylindrical panorama of Edinburgh. Cycloramas arrived in the United States by the end of the 1800s, and took off in the mid-nineteenth century. Because they required a specially-designed circular building, they tended to be long-term exhibitions. “Typically, a cyclorama stayed at one place until the local public lost interest in it and ticket sales dropped,” explains scholar Charles G. Markantes in Military Images. “Once the novelty wore off, some owners went bankrupt and were forced to abandon their paintings. Cycloramas remained viable attractions only where the location itself continued to attract visitors, such as the battlefield of Gettysburg or Atlanta.”

We visited Atlanta’s Cyclorama in 2015, and I’m pleased to say that it will be reopening next month at the Atlanta History Center.

St. George at the UN

Chris Berard.

My friend Chris Berard sends me a photo he took on a recent trip to New York City. This St. George statue is relatively famous: Zurab Tsereteli’s Good Defeats Evil (1990), located north of the entrance to the United Nations’ General Assembly Building. Given the Georgian nationality of the artist and the date of the installation, it would be tempting to see this statue as symbolic of the defeat of Communism, but the “evil” represented here is the Cold War itself – the dragon’s body is made up of pieces of US Pershing and Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles.

It occurs to me that I’ve seen this image before, at the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas. There, it is rendered on a copper shield with cloisonné enamel artwork, by the same artist. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze presented this piece to Pres. Bush, presumably before 2003, when Shevardnadze was ousted from office as a result of the Rose Revolution.

Renaissance

One thing that I like about Renaissance humanists is that they never slavishly copied ancient Rome. They weren’t LARPers – they never wore togas, or revived gladiatorial combat, or made sacrifices to Jupiter, or discerned the will of the gods from the flight patterns of birds. No, they generally cherry-picked what they most admired (the form of the Latin language, fonts to set it in, and certain architectural details are the three that come most easily to mind). Most importantly, what they revived was a principle, that life was no longer to be a vale of tears, with one’s reward coming in the afterlife, but was meant to be lived – not in a hedonistic way, but a self-actualizing one: God gave us talents, and we honor God when we develop those talents. Since pagans didn’t have much of an afterlife to look forward to, their earthly life was all they had, and they were to use it for self-improvement and the gaining of personal glory. (Whether Romans actually lived by this principle is another question, but certain influential fifteenth-century Florentines certainly believed that they did.)

So in many ways the Renaissance was simply a “naissance,” a birth of something new, as people operated on the principle that they could do anything, because no one said they couldn’t. Mathematical perspective, for instance, was not something that the Romans ever invented, but Renaissance artists. (In other ways, of course, the Renaissance was simply a continuation of the Middle Ages, or so I am compelled to state by virtue of my membership in the medievalists’ guild.)

But speaking of art, I do think it’s a shame that art was such a dominant mode of self-expression in the Renaissance. The paintings and sculptures of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and everyone else mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists are usually the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word “Renaissance.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that Renaissance art is wonderful, but one regrets that science was not equally as fashionable among the humanists. (I read something once that claimed that scientific enquiry took a step backward in the Renaissance, overshadowed as it was by all the art and literature.) It would have made the Renaissance even better, say, if more people had taken up Leonardo’s engineering projects. As it stands contemporaries had to wait until 1590 before they could read Galileo’s De Motu (On Motion), part of what was now no longer the Renaissance, but the Scientific Revolution.