There is a word that resonates across Christian history which means ‘destruction of images’ which is iconoclasm. There were two times in history when Christian leaders attempted to destroy every vestiges of picture or representation of religious themes, whether carved or painted. The two main periods of this iconoclasm were the eighth and ninth centuries in the Christian East and the sixteenth century in the protestant West, particularly in Northern Europe In many ways Eastern Iconoclasm is the more interesting, especially in the way that iconography was first rejected and then reinstated in the churches of the Byzantine Empire after 843 AD. This episode, although it is something I personally resonate to, is less relevant to our overall theme than the massive destruction of art and imagery in this country, among others, at the time of Edward VI right up to the English Civil War. Only this morning I walked past empty plinths on Carlisle Cathedral which would once have had statues on them. These were then prised from their place by puritan zealots in the name of a reformed faith in the mid 1500s.
In both East and West the reason given for removing images and statuary was that it was essential to destroy idolatry and the worship of ‘graven images’. The argument as to whether images on church walls could be said to constitute real objects of worship, needless to say, was debated extensively in both parts of Christendom. Clearly there were also deeper issues at stake. In the East the Byzantine Emperors were influenced by the iconoclastic behaviour of the Arab invaders. They had their own cultural reasons for rejecting imagery but to say here more than this would be to lengthen my post too far. As far as protestant Western Europe was concerned, the old medieval symbolisms of Catholic theology seemed to be a distraction from the new protestant emphasis on the Word as the means of approaching God. The ordinary faithful member of congregation had been cut off from the Bible text because of illiteracy and the refusal of the church authorities to tolerate translations of any part of the Bible. One the main spurs of the Reformation was the availability of affordable printed Scriptures in the vulgar tongue. This could now be studied free from the control of the priests and other church authorities. All the pictorial imagery of the churches which had been the ‘Bible of the Poor’, now seemed to be a drastic filtering and censoring of the plain message of the Bible. Art which had communicated the Christian faith to the illiterate church members now came to be seen as the enemy of the protestant faith sweeping across Northern Europe.
The destruction of countless statues, paintings and illuminated manuscripts in the name of the ‘new’ religion represents the greatest acts of cultural vandalism the world has ever seem. But however much we may decry this period of our history, we may be grateful that most of the cathedrals and parish churches of England were spared, a fate not afforded to the equivalent buildings in Scotland. If anyone has ever been to the city of St Andrews in Scotland it is possible to see the fate that might have befallen all our cathedrals. We have to ask the question as to why there was so much hatred of art and sculpture. We have hinted at the way that the written word was a dominating idea in the understanding of what faith. If you had the written text, so the thinking went, you had direct access to the mind and laws of God himself.
The English parish church never plumbed the depths of artistic austerity that we find in protestant Northern Europe. There the pulpit was placed right at the centre and raised up high. This communicated clearly the idea that the preaching of the Word was the most important thing that happened in the church building. Preaching of necessity involved actual words, so this currency of the word became the chief method of communication. Images, symbols and pictures became redundant to the supremacy of verbal communication of saving truth.
There are of course many Christians who agree with the iconoclasts of the past and can say nothing good about imagery and symbolism. The idea that truth can be shared through a picture or image simply means nothing to them Such Christians probably also reject beauty and architecture as relevant to the task of worship. Once again I find in this discussion an awareness of a parting of the ways in what one might call Christian imagination. For me and for many others, both past and present, both external and internal pictures enable a participation in mystery and the aspect of the divine which can never be reduced to words and concepts. To take away such images, of whatever kind, is to impoverish my grasp of religion enormously. Iconoclasm is not just a destruction of images, it is a destruction of faith.
I am one of those people who rejoices in the aesthetic, the symbolic sides of religious faith. I rejoice that the human spirit can use to its enrichment the art of every culture and age to penetrate and to understand better the mysteries of faith which so often transcend words. We all need words (as for this blog post) but let us never be trapped and strangled by them. Artistic images and symbols, mental images, all form part of the means whereby human beings can ascend to the knowledge and contemplation of God himself.