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. 


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! 


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?