Iconoclasm and Unintended Consequences

I and others have written here previously about our contemporary iconoclasts, the ones who’ve toppled statues of Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee, Junipero Serra, and other dead white males and, more recently, even set their sights on Shakespeare and mathematics.

Of course, iconoclasm is sometimes lovely, as when, after 1989, we witnessed the pulling down of statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in the old Soviet Union and elsewhere – expressions of freedom that cheered everybody except diehard communists and socialists.

And back in 1776 in New York City, the Sons of Freedom pulled down a statue of King George III (modeled on the one of Marcus Aurelius on Rome’s Capitoline Hill) and smelted the lead to make musket balls – 42,088 of them, according to the New York Times.

* George III toppled

Most often though, iconoclasm is ugly, the result of sectarian hatred. The “bonfire of the vanities” undertaken by Fra Girolamo Savonarola is an example. Savonarola rose to power in 15th-century Florence, a city that was at the heart of the Renaissance in Italy, and, as one source summarizes it, he oversaw the burning of “irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient sculptures, antique and modern paintings, priceless tapestries, and many other valuable works of art” – all judged by him to be near occasions of sin. This was clearly sectarian: a Catholic – with the aid of other Catholics – destroying the iconography of Catholic artisans.

But the Dominican friar’s is hardly the only example of an attack mounted against Catholic art. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, attacks against churches, church art, and the work of Catholic artists spread across Europe, most famously in the “Beeldenstorm” (iconoclastic fury) in the Netherlands. As commentary accompanying the long-running “In Praise of Painting” exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art explains:

In a single year, 1566, Protestant iconoclasts destroyed an estimated ninety percent of art in the Netherlands. It was the beginning of the Dutch revolt against Spanish Catholic Rule. Suddenly, public spaces once full of art were stripped bare. Artists in this new Dutch Republic could no longer rely on church and court commissions.

That’s true, as far as it goes, and although Catholic rule is mentioned, the phrase “public spaces” fails to make clear that much of the ransacked art was inside Catholic churches.

** Beeldenstorm

If you were an apologist for Calvinism, you might argue that the Beeldenstorm was a lot like the action of another group of American Sons (of Liberty): the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. But is a small group protesting taxation by throwing nearly $2-million worth of Chinese green tea into Massachusetts Bay really comparable to mobs destroying priceless and, as with Savonarola’s bonfire, irreplaceable artifacts in Ghent and Delft and Antwerp?

Well, the Tea Party and the Beeldenstorm were both early skirmishes in revolutions. 1566 is the year the Dutch Revolt began, and as would the Americans two centuries later, the Dutch had reasons to effect a separation from its Spanish rulers. However, the Americans did not throw off England’s religion or destroy Anglican churches in Boston or New York. In the Netherlands, though, the Revolt (the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War that ended in 1648) was yet another sectarian conflict, one that pitted Protestants against Catholics and would lead to Roman Catholic churches being gutted and transformed into Protestant houses of worship, to the banning of Masses, and to the obliteration or diminishment of Catholicism’s presence and patrimony throughout the country: a nation 100% Catholic in 1500 became largely Protestant by 1600.

Although Catholics were subordinate in Dutch society, they were mostly tolerated. (The story of the endurance of Dutch Catholics, the splintering of Protestantism, and the fate of Jews in the Netherlands is as complicated as it is fascinating and, in the case of Jews during World War II, tragic.)

Table 1.

After suppression may come renaissance, but decline is also possible. Curiously, after the end of the official suppression of Catholicism in the Netherlands, Catholics again became the largest religious group, although mostly because attrition among Protestants has been staggering. Roman Catholics are now 23.6%, whereas Protestants have dropped to around 18%, followed by Muslims at 5.1% and “other religious” (Hindus, Buddhists, Jews) at 5.6% combined. (See Table 1. above)

Protestants are almost hopelessly divided and diminished: Dutch Reformed, 6.4%; Protestant Church of The Netherlands, 5.6%; and the Calvinists, 2.9%.

But you may have noticed that if you tally those percentages of Catholics, Protestants, and others, you don’t get 100%. Not even close. That’s because 51% of the Dutch are “nones”: unaffiliated and unbelieving.

Of course, if you look at the data in Table 2., you’ll note that the Catholic numbers are deceptive: although there are more professed Dutch Catholics, there aren’t many truly faithful ones. (So much for attendance at Sunday Mass being an obligation.) And though there aren’t many Dutch Reformed anymore, at least those few do go to church.

Table 2.

So, sometimes after iconoclasm comes cataclysm. Churches can be renovated, and statues and alcoves of candles can be reinstalled. That statue of George III, for instance, has been recast by a New York sculptor for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

But with the passing of time, essential connections can be lost. Not necessarily forever, although possibly so. This is the danger of the mere tearing down. In President Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, he spoke of our “mystic chords of memory” that, with war looming, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

That seemed to happen, but we are gravely in danger today of surrendering to the basest demons of history, as the Devil has his day.


*Image: Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green, July 9, 1776, by William Walcutt, 1857 [Lafayette College Art Collection]

**Image: The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566 by Frans Hogenberg [Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany]

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.