Broken Images

The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660

by John Phillips
University of California Press, 228, 32 plates pp., $10.00

The population of images in medieval England was doubtless more numerous than the scanty population of living human beings. Figured in windows, sculptured in statuary, carved and painted in countless scenes, the images were the close companions of medieval man. From them he learned what he knew of history and the Scriptures. With them he furnished his memory, setting his memory images on memory places. As he looked around his world, in which all the main buildings were ecclesiastical, he saw those innumerable figures of sacred history or of allegory, designed through their striking character to impress on his memory the teachings of the Church.

During a period beginning with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1535 and ending with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, this vast population of images was almost totally destroyed. The destruction raged in phases, sometimes more and sometimes less intense, and with some periods of attempted rescue and restoration, but the net result was that we of these later ages have never seen English medieval art as it was in its original setting, only broken remains of it, scraps of shattered glass, statues with their heads chipped off. We know about the iconoclasm as a historical fact, though we hardly realize how it happened nor can we visualize the actual scenes of destruction. Still less do we realize what it meant internally, the breaking of the images within, the doing away of an ancient psychology of the imagination which had been taken for granted for centuries.

If we think about this phenomenon of the breaking of the images our reactions may depend on religious affiliations, lament for the Catholic past destroyed by Protestant Reformation, or approval of Protestant break with a superstitious past. Much more common than either of these attitudes today is probably the aesthetic reaction, the sense of dismay at the destruction of irreplaceable art treasures. The author of the book under review takes none of these lines. He does not take sides over the religious question nor is he interested in the images as works of art. What Phillips attempts to do is to give a fairly factual account of the destruction and its phases, and to relate both the use of religious images and their destruction to changing attitudes toward psychologies of the imagination in their relation to theological issues.

In medieval theory, as laid down in particular by Thomas Aquinas, man’s nature is so constituted that he cannot remember intellectual or spiritual concepts save through material images. To make him grasp an abstraction such as the vice of avarice, one must show him an image of a miser, perhaps holding a bag of money, an avaricious man. To indicate to him an abstraction such as the virtue of charity, one must show him an attractive human figure, a woman, exemplifying or exercising this virtue.

These are very simple examples of the principle of teaching man about the intelligibilia through the sensibilia which is at the root…

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