Iconoclasm: The Death Of History

Featured StringIconoclasm & the Reformation

What’s all this then?

The word “Iconoclasm” was coined originally to describe two specific periods of history. This “war on icons” (images of divinities), the First and Second Iconoclasms, took place between 726–787CE and then again between 814–842CE, in the early Christian Byzantine Empire which covered much of modern-day Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria.

Emperor Leo III put in place a ban on religious images (paintings of God, Jesus, Mary, the various saints), and supporters of this ban and state authorities went out and destroyed art and statues of depictions of religious things like the Virgin or the Crucifixion, and persecuted people who supported the worship of images of Jesus and Mary.

Meanwhile in the Western Church, the religious authorities considered it fine to worship images of Jesus and so on, although at this point it was technically still part of the same church.

Some of this might sound kind of familiar to you. Especially the parts about religious icons being destroyed, but even the name itself probably rings a bell.

The word “Iconoclasm” has come to mean this kind of activity–destroying religious symbols, usually within the same culture as the destroyer (but not always). You might have heard the word “iconoclast”, however, because while that originally just meant someone who supported the destruction of icons, it now also means people with contempt for the established norms and beliefs of their time.

The Ten Commandments, which have an application across all three Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) faiths, specifically forbid making and worshipping “graven images” (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8). This has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but one which keeps repeating is the idea that making an image of God or associated people is blasphemy and that venerating (worshipping or focussing worshipful attention on) them is against this particular commandment.

Historically the return to iconoclastic behaviour seems to take place during times of upheaval. When the Byzantine Empire began condemning the worship of icons, the Islamic world was expanding and experiencing a great deal of military success. In fact, it would eventually be an Islamic empire (the Ottomans) which toppled the Byzantine some 700 or so years later.

Seal, Islamic, Artist unknown

According to Arnold J. Toynbee it’s possible that the pre-existing prohibition on making holy images in Islam may have inspired similar thoughts in the Byzantines.

The Modern Iconoclasms

In the early 16th Century, Martin Luther, profoundly fed up with what he viewed as blasphemous corruption in the Catholic Church (that’s the Western Church mentioned above, with around five hundred years of additional evolution), smacked 95 theses, effectively a very long complaint letter, against a door and called it a day. Meanwhile, Garofalo was painting this.

He then refused to take any of it back (despite being well within the Holy Roman Empire), got hoofed out of the Catholic Church (excommunicated) and responded by starting his own church, which apparently no one else excommunicated previously had thought to do or had the brass balls to actually go through with.

The concentration of wealth and corruption in the Catholic Church may have been the catalyst for this new sect, but it quickly began to establish its own identity through several other differences, one of which was the dissemination of the bible texts in the language of the local populations (“vulgar” tongue), and rejecting the glamorous, gaudy interiors of their predecessors’ churches as distracting from the important sermon given by their (less-powerful and less-distant) priests.

Page border with six separate strips with scenes from the Genesis, Hans Holbein the Younger, (1529-1531)

Of course, in the heat of a new ideal and faced with considerable resistance and counterattacks from the established Church, it was inevitable that the zealous new converts were going to go over-the-top. And go they did: the word “Beeldenstorm” effectively means the same thing as “iconoclasm”, and neatly describes the fervour with which early-mid 16th Century Protestants took down the offending images, leaving blank walls behind.

While rejecting religious imagery, the various forms of Protestant churches accepted the human need for decoration in the home, and a new artistic tradition developed–one of landscape and still life art, portraits of places, people, and things which–which was to flourish into what’s still thought of as the most brilliant blossoming of Dutch artistic genius in the nation’s history. Drawing inspiration not from emblem books, as the artists of the Renaissance frequently did or from inner images of faith, but from the world around the artist, became a trend in art not only in the Netherlands but across Europe, in waves.

The response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant criticisms of gaudy, distracting art was to ramp up production of art and to perhaps, just a little, dial down the ostentation.


The instinct to destroy symbols of the old order, regardless of their value or how old the order, continues in new movements to this day. The swathe of destruction left behind is often immeasurable: we still don’t know how many thousands of priceless items from China’s long and unparalleled artistic and cultural history were completely destroyed by the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution of the 20th Century; most people are painfully aware of the destruction of “degenerate art” of artists like Picasso and Dali by the Third Reich. During the 90s, Bosnian mosques and museums were deliberately targeted.

Even more recently, the movement calling itself the Islamic State (despite not receiving exactly widespread support from the rest of the world’s many and varied Muslims) has catastrophically and irreversibly destroyed vast sites of heritage and history in Palmyra and Nimrud.

The home of the ArtString museums isn’t free of this either. Historically, Britain hasn’t exactly been any more immune to this destructive urge than anywhere else. It could be said that iconoclasm, horrifying though it is from the historians’ perspective and frustrating as it is for lovers of art, is a natural part of the cycle of societies as they swing endlessly between asceticism and excess, between liberality and conservatism.

In each case, the destruction of the old, like the incineration of a standing forest, has eventually led to the creation of new and fascinating focuses of art, much as the Protestant Beeldenstorm did. We may have to wait a while to see what arises from the rubble left by ISIS/ISIL, but the will to create, to decorate, and to admire is too strong to be suppressed forever.

If you enjoyed this string you may also like: Jesus Through Time (to witness the drop-off in religious imagery after the Reformation), Display It Like You Stole It (for other forms of cultural destruction).

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