|A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.
Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Chori Ecclesiae Cathodralis S. Pauli, 1658
• Idolatry: Icons and Iconoclasm
|Idolatry: Icons and Iconoclasm
The Church of England was torn asunder over disputes concerning polity, the meaning of the Eucharist, and liturgy. Another important issue of tension was the role of images in worship. The Protestant Reformation spurred a revival of iconoclasm, or the destruction of images as idolatrous. In eighth-century Byzantium, the use of images in worship had been condemned by Emperor Leo III (who reigned 717-741), who in turn was condemned by Pope Gregory III (who reigned 731-741) as a heretic. The Second Council of Nicea (787) settled the iconoclastic controversy by establishing a distinction between worship (latria – due to God alone) and veneration (dulia – offered to saints and images). Subsequently, the use of images in both the Eastern and Western churches continued unabated until the Protestant Reformation, when a rejection of tradition in favor of Scriptural literalism resulted in the rejection of the veneration of images as idolatry on the grounds that it was a clear violation of the second Commandment: "Thou shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:4-6).
The conflict over idolatry, which began on the Continent with Luther and Calvin's polemics against Rome, eventually crossed the Channel into England with Henry VIII's break with Rome. Protestant sympathizers translated and published iconoclastic works such as John Ryckes' Image of Love (1525) and John Calvin's sermons. Opponents published their own counterarguments; Thomas More, for example, refuted Ryckes' Image of Love in his Dialogue Concerning Tyndale (1529). The main argument of the defenders was that images were "laymen's books" enabling the illiterate peasantry to acquire knowledge of the Christian faith and grow spiritually. Images of Christ and the saints, the argument went, were not objects of worship, but didactic aids. As Protestant ideas spread and took hold, however, the tensions over the use of images, and whether such use constituted idolatry, became more intense. Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer preached against them. Nicholas Ridley attacked idolatry in A Treatise on the Worship of Images.
Following the accession of Edward VI, royal injunctions ordered the removal of all images from English churches in 1548. Iconoclasm reached a fevered pitch during Edward's reign, resulting in the defacement of baptismal fonts, the destruction of stained glass windows, the whitewashing of pictorial depictions on walls, the painting over, or actual removal of, mounted crosses depicting the crucifixion of Jesus known as roods. During the reign of Catholic Mary I, many images were restored and the Edwardian injunctions repealed. However, in subsequent reigns, iconoclastic activity returned, although it was more sporadic, and the re-established and moderated injunctions for the removal of images were not always uniformly enforced, revealing the ambivalence of the populace. Nevertheless, the destruction of images, as a subject of theological debate as well as an activity, remained an on-and-off issue from Edward's reign to the Glorious Revolution as the English sought to construct a Protestant identity.
The impact of iconoclastic sentiment (and royal policies) on the religious life of the English
Conflict over images would be sparked by the changing policies of crown. Under Elizabeth, one
The controversy, over the years, gave rise to a plethora of theological tracts, some supporting and others opposing the use of images in worship. One example of the latter is the Puritan divine William Perkins' A Warning Against the Idolatrie of the Last Times. In this influential tract, Perkins argues that monuments (as on tombs) are not idols, but that when images are used to represent God or when what is proper to God is ascribed to creatures or things, idolatry is committed. But Perkins goes further in arguing that misconceptions of God, mental images, pose a danger of idolatry and so the mind must be purged of these as well.
The controversies over the use of images in worship erupted again in the late seventeenth
Carlos R. Piar
California State University, Long Beach
Suggestions for further reading:
Aston, Margaret. England's Iconoclasts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Eire, Carlos M.N. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Phillips, John. The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1973.
Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety: 1550-1640. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
To what extent was iconoclasm a result of a cultural shift in communicative media, i.e. the invention of movable type, facilitating the production, availability, and affordability of books?
Iconoclasm failed in the eighth century but succeeded (in some measure) in Protestant countries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What factors do you think may have contributed to this relative success?
What may have been the political repercussions of iconoclasm? Did the destruction of sacred images have anything to do with the erosion of the image of the monarch, leading perhaps to the execution of King Charles I?
|© 2004 Folger Institute|