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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 of medieval didactic art. To make man fear and avoid the sins which lead to hell, one shows him hateful images of sins and the great doom paintings or sculptures of the Last Judgment with their countless figures of the damned. Or to lead him toward paradise, one shows the glorious vision of the life of the blessed in heaven, the reward of virtue. The imagination is allowed to form material images, images from the world of sense, because it is only through such images that man can be taught, and made to remember, the higher intelligible truths.

This theory of the imagination as a lower power of the soul which is also the gateway to higher understanding underlies the whole panoply of didactic images by which medieval man was surrounded from the cradle to the grave. In practice, it was buttressed by the principles of the classical art of memory, that we remember better through images, and the more strikingly beautiful or horrible such images are the better we remember them. The appeal to memory was fundamental. The visual images were so constructed as to be memorable, and when reflected in memory they became the striking memory images.

This is, of course, and extreme simplification of the vast medieval effort to teach the whole scheme of theology and ethics through visual images of the actors in the scriptural story, of saints, of allegorical figures, and so on. Though the teaching through images was adapted for the unlearned, the schemes of images being the “laymen’s books,” yet the images which the layman saw around him rested on a universally held psychology, the “faculty psychology” according to which the imaginative faculty was a stage in the process of learning. And it rested on theology, the theology of the Incarnation through which the material world was sanctified as a gateway to the divine.

When the abuses in the medieval Church system were attacked at the Reformation, the return to the Scriptures as to the book from which religious truth is to be learned discredited the laymen’s books of images and revealed the glaring discrepancy between some scriptural teaching about images and the practice of the Church. “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image; thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship them.” The stern Hebraic injunction was a warning against idolatry, and it was precisely the charge of idolatry, that it encouraged the worship of images, which was one of the main charges brought against the Church by the reformers.

When does an image become an idol, the debased object of a basically heathen worship, rather than the allowed “sensible” or material reflection of the intelligible world, or the allowed “reminder” of spiritual truth? Can there be an inner idolatry, an imagination perverted by false use of imagery preventing the understanding of the Word, the written word of Scripture or the spoken word of the preacher, through which alone spiritual truths are conveyed? For the ardent reformer the Word took the place of the Image as the channel of religious instruction, and the multitudinous images of the Church of Rome became the mark of an idolatrous religion which must be destroyed.

This extreme position was not arrived at immediately in England, and it is the merit of Phillips’s book that he tells the story of the phases of the attack on images while at the same time keeping in view the phases of the development of the theory underlying it. The break with Rome under Henry VIII brought with it a vast confiscation of Church property and initiated the great destruction process, much of which was obviously at this stage mere greed, the appropriation of the immensely valuable precious metals and stones which adorned the relics in the shrines, the theft of vestments, plate, and other wealth accumulated through the centuries.

Yet the Henrician type of reform did not exclude images as such, nor did the systematic smashing of images gather much momentum in his reign. In the Henrician type of reform, a distinction was drawn between the idolatrous worship of images and a legitimate use of images as “laymen’s books” to remind of heavenly things. This distinction clearly recognizes the mnemonic character of the images, while warning against idolatrous abuse of them. In fact, efforts were made to classify existing images according to whether they were superstitiously worshipped, or “abused,” or merely taken as “signs of remembrance,” in which case they were to be regarded as “unabused” and therefore harmless. This distinction between the harmless memory image and the idolatrously worshipped image was influential but proved difficult to apply in practice, and the extremists under Edward VI went in for the total destruction of images in England. Images were now seen as the visible signs of Antichrist and became the object of the fanatical hatred of the devout reformer.

Among the many significant and valuable quotations chosen by Phillips to illustrate the argument is one from Cranmer stating his belief that it was Antichrist, otherwise the Bishop of Rome, who introduced idolatry; first it was pretended that the images were to be used as remembrance, then they were worshipped. Here is the recognition of the memory principle behind images, while the danger of idolatrous corruption of images now leads to their total condemnation.

One curious result of the destruction of images was that mechanisms by which miraculous images were worked were revealed. A crucifix at the Abbey of Boxley in Kent had long been revered for its miraculous power of movement; the image would move its head, scowl with its eyes, reject or receive the prayers of pilgrims. When pulled down it was revealed that the venerated Rood of Grace contained “certain engines of old wire,” the manipulation of which caused the movements. The rood was brought to London and a sermon preached against it at Paul’s Cross in 1538. When the preacher waxed warm and “the Word, began to work in the hearts of his hearers,” the image was thrown to the crowd who tore it into a thousand fragments with great clamor.

Perhaps it was such discoveries as this made during the work of destruction that caused Latimer to call images “juggling deceits.” Yet the old monks may have thought that they were doing a pious kind of mechanical magic, infusing the statues of their gods with life as described in the Hermetic writings. This aspect of the history of magic and mechanics has not yet received attention. There may well have been a revival of it at the Counter Reformation when the cult of miraculous images was stressed as a way of drawing the people back to the Church.

An argument against indiscriminate iconoclasm was that destruction of religious images might lead to civil upheaval and an attack on legitimate authority. It was pointed out that the nobility set forth their lineage and the remembrance of their notable deeds in images. Still more important, what of the royal authority, proclaimed in the royal arms? What of the royal seal, with Saint George on one side and the king’s image on the other? One bishop argued that, just as the Church provides religious instruction for the illiterate by means of images, so the state and the nobility impress on men’s minds their authority through seals and blazonry. This was indeed an important and a dangerous matter. Protector Somerset grouped images into three kinds. First, the king’s arms and ensigns which are honorable “and worshipped after the decent order and invention of human laws and ceremonies”; second, idolatrous images which are sacrificed to superstitiously; third, images of a commemorative nature which are used only as a “remembrance.”

Somerset found it impossible to maintain the “superstitious” or “commemorative” distinction and finally recommended the destruction of all religious images, but the king’s arms and the ensigns of civil authority grew in importance. While the religious images suffered persecution and destruction the royal image gained enormously in prestige. This process of increased emphasis on the royal image was a Renaissance phenomenon which also took place in Catholic countries, for example in France, but when the rising royal image was contrasted with the desolation of the religious images, as in the England of the Tudor reformation, the transfer of power from the one to the other was evident. It became a familiar sight to see in the denuded churches the royal arms occupying the dominant position on the rood screen formerly accorded to the crucifix.

The Tudor reform of the Church being an “imperial” reform undertaken by the monarch, sacred imperial imagery proliferated around the Tudors, and particularly around Queen Elizabeth I, hailed as “Astraea,” the Just Virgin of a renewed imperial golden age. The involved, yet logically coherent, imagery built up around the queen in portraits, pageantry, poetry throughout the Elizabethan age has been the subject of special study. Phillips brings some discussion and description of the Elizabeth cult into his book to contrast and compare with the theme of iconoclasm, recapitulating what has been said about the cult of Elizabeth and adding points which he has arrived at through his own studies.

The cult of Elizabeth was a flexible symbol capable perhaps of being comprehended in many ways—for a church that needed an image of strength amidst the conflicts of the Elizabethan settlement; for a government unsure of its support; for a people accustomed to the externalisation of their devotions. The cult of the royal image was created in order to buttress public order at a time when the religious image had proved disruptive of that same order. Discovery of what constituted an abused image had never really been explored or clarified. The government’s fear of disorder and unauthorised innovation deterred it from undertaking an investigation of this question, or from making a firm policy towards iconoclasts.

Thus the problem of when an image was for “remembrance” only, not superstitiously worshipped, was left open under Elizabeth, like so many other difficult questions. Sporadic iconoclasm continued and the churches were left in a ruined state but the queen herself kept a crucifix in the royal chapel, and her private attitude to such problems was ambiguous and made some of her subjects uneasy. However by a royal order of 1561 she returned to the Edwardian policy of ordering the painting of scriptural texts on the bare whitewashed walls of the now imageless churches. Presumably through the advance of printing and the spreading of printed Bibles, her subjects were now supposed to be able to read such texts, and to memorize them.

Instead of the vanished and banished images, the “laymen’s books,” the literate layman can now, presumably, read and memorize a written text. Queen Elizabeth seems to have felt that the texts helped to give color to the now bare interiors, for she wrote that the writing up of the Ten Commandments in a church was “not only for edification, but also to give some comely ornament and demonstration, that the same is a place of religion and prayer.” An extreme reformer might not have approved this lingering aesthetic motive in the queen’s order. And if we think in terms of memory of this church, from which the broken images have been carted away, its bare walls decorated only with written sentences, we have a strong factual and visual impression of the startling change from a memory populated with images stored in it “for remembrance,” to the new Ramist type of memory which memorized pages in a printed book.

The Tudor cult of the image of the monarch in a context of iconoclasm brings to mind, as Phillips points out, the iconoclastic movement in the Byzantine Empire, when, in AD 725, the Emperor Leo moved against images and began a policy of destroying them within the empire. The motive appears to have been fears of superstitious abuse of images, perhaps related to possible influence of dualist heresies on the emperor (though this is not certain). At any rate, religious images were banned by an emperor who regarded himself as a religious reformer. As in the Tudor reformation, the image of the emperor gained in potency and power against the background of the breaking of religious images. Tudor theologians were aware of this Byzantine parallel to their own situation. Bishop John Jewel compared the Tudor monarchs to the Byzantine emperors in their policy of iconoclasm as a protest against idolatry.

It is thus not accidental that some of the cult images of Queen Elizabeth I look like icons. Their stiffness and strangeness are not entirely due to the inadequacy of Elizabethan artists but may actually reflect an archaic type of emperor worship reviving in a situation which bore some superficial resemblance to the situation in Byzantium in the eighth and ninth centuries AD.

The last and most severe and most systematically destructive outbreak of iconoclasm in England was inspired by the zeal of the Puritan Parliamentarians in the seventeenth century. Now there were no reservations about royal images. The living royal image, Charles I, was beheaded; and statues of kings fared no better at the hands of the new iconoclasts than did the religious images which now had to bear the brunt of a new campaign against them. Records of scenes at Canterbury in 1642 have been preserved. When the commissioners arrived to carry out the destruction they found so many images that it seemed to them that the cathedral had been built “for no other end, but to be a stable for idols.” The images were cast down and broken wholesale. There was much stained glass still surviving which had escaped earlier destruction. The height of the building did not deter the chief commissioner who climbed a great ladder and battered down vast windows, crucifixes, pictures. He pulled down with ropes a large stone image over the south gate, and congratulated himself that, as Christ had driven the merchants from the Temple, so he ejected from churches the idols which had defiled the worship of God.

Though we may shudder at the thought of that day’s work in Canterbury, such scenes were not mere vandalism. Phillips suggests that the breaking of the images “was an expression of a highly developed order of daring philosophical violence within the setting of profound social and political change.” The thought even occurs to compare the breaking of the images with Francis Bacon’s aim of removing the inner “idols,” or preconceived ideas, from the philosophic imagination to make way for new conceptions.

Iconoclasm is a phenomenon which has to be taken seriously, its psychological roots examined, its historical meaning assessed. So far as I know, the attempt made by Phillips in this book to tell the story of iconoclasm in England in relation to the theory underlying the use of religious images and the theory of their destruction is a pioneer effort. It is therefore an important book on an important and strangely neglected subject. There is more in it than the points which I have selected for use in this essay; for example, an interesting chapter on Lollards and images. The illustrations are well chosen and add to the impression made by the book. There are some imperfections and confusions and some omissions. Not much is said about differing attitudes to images among different Protestant theologians. The theory of iconoclasm in its Byzantine phase is insufficiently analyzed, and there is no mention of the iconoclastic outbursts in France and in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, which ought certainly to be compared, both in theory and practice, with the English movement. Now that this subject has been opened up, we may expect that it will attract increasing attention.

Though Phillips is not concerned with poetic imagery, his book should be of importance to students of Elizabethan literature. It is strangely significant that the theory of the imagination and of the use of images which Spenser expounds in The Faerie Queene is based on the old faculty psychology. His poem unrolls a most complex system of images of virtue and vice in a context of chivalry and of the royal image of Elizabeth which, in many forms, dominates the poem. In one of its many aspects The Faerie Queene might be said to bring out into the world in terms of the monarch and her knights the theory of teaching and impressing on memory through images of a code of conduct, of approaching the intelligibilia through the sensibilia. And this had also been the theory of the imagination underlying the old broken images of the laymen’s books.

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