The Iconoclasts



In Baudolino, Italian novelist Umberto Eco takes readers on a dizzying journey through the world of signs, symbols and syntax, the area encompassed by “semiotics,” Eco’s field of study. Imaginary animals of the land of Prester John engage in furious wars against one another over their presumed aberrant views of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. While wildly imaginative, Eco’s world is not so very different from Sixteenth Century Europe, where the competing views of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed and Anabaptists defined not only the cause beli but the geography of the continent, as well.

It was not merely a war of words, but of armies taking the field. Kings were deposed, and new forms of government in both church and state replaced the institutions that had held sway for a millennium. While the Old Testament is replete with imagery foreshadowing the New, the established church was ill-inclined to sweep away the trappings of ecclesiastical permanence and authority which were represented by the statues and bones of saints, and the majestic cathedrals adorned with gold and silver ornaments. Those who proposed to sweep away all these outward signs were known as “The Iconoclasts,” opponents of icons, or symbols. These symbols included priestly vestments, ornamental chalices, ornate artworks and other “icons,” which the “low church” Protestants found unbiblical and offensive.
Margaret of Parma
Margaret of Parma
While the Old Testament provided many examples of icons and symbols in Israel’s worship, there were also examples of icons being destroyed when they became objects of worship. Israel treated the Ark of the Covenant and its contents with great deference, as the Lord had commanded, but when Israel took it upon itself to use the Ark as a sort of talisman in war, trusting in the Ark rather than the Lord, they met with destruction on the battlefield. Likewise, we see Gideon falling victim to the sin of idol worship when he began to worship the golden ephod that he had fashioned from the earrings of the Ishmaelites. Hezekiah likewise destroyed the serpent which the children of Israel had been told to look toward to escape the affliction of serpents during the exodus, calling it Nehushtan, “a thing of brass,” for the people had come to worship it.

When the fledgling Reformation challenged the necessity or biblical warrant for a continuing priesthood, it was not long before the things of the priesthood came under the same intense scrutiny. They surmised that if the shadows had been replaced by the reality, so ought the symbols to be retired. For example, Zwingli, an accomplished musician, nonetheless banned organs in Zurich’s worship service. The Calvinists of Germany pulled down the statues of saints, and tossed the relics housed by many churches onto the bonfire. So unsettling was this destruction that Luther spoke out against it, and a number of Calvinist leaders themselves began to develop a theology of religious tolerance that permitted those who wished to maintain Roman Catholic worship the right to maintain their churches. In Neustadt, home to John Casimir, the Reformed hero who had given refuge to men such as Olevianus after they were exiled from Heidelberg by the Lutherans, the largest church building was divided into halves, ceding one part to the Roman Catholics and the other to the Reformed.

In 1566, Margaret of Parma found her hold on the Low Countries jeopardized by a wave of iconoclasm that swept through the countryside and into the cities. So-called “hedge preachers” were drawing tens of thousands to listeners outside Amsterdam, with the result a wave of purgings that stripped many of the city’s churches and monasteries of all trappings of Roman Catholicism. The outbreak was so violent that it turned the tide of opinion against the grassroots preachers and, with the Duke of Alva’s troops approaching, they were forced to flee the country. Still, the bell could not be unrung, and soon Margaret would lose her power. One of the most memorable events, the destruction of the icons of the church in Lyon, was the subject of an arresting painting by Antoine Caron. As with most revolutions, these tumults are as often remembered for their excesses as for the principles that inspired reform.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists, 1562
Antoine Caron leaves little doubt of his opinion in his 1562 painting titled “Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists.”
Americans have always been partial to iconoclasm, which strictly speaking, need not be religious in nature. Most Americans remember soldiers pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein when Baghdad fell, but during the Colonial period, there were frequent examples of destruction of images and statues honoring King George III or other symbols of British rule. Older Americans may remember the statues of Stalin toppling to the ground in Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a scene replayed again and again with the fall of Communism. Perhaps, the most memorable case of iconoclasm from that period was the destruction of the Berlin Wall, chipped apart by tens of thousands of exuberant Germans creating, ironically, thousands of new icons, bits of the fallen Wall

Justinian II brought about the first widespread iconoclastic controversy in 695, when he minted coins bearing the supposed likeness of Jesus Christ. The Byzantine Empire would be wracked with enormous conflict and turmoil for generations as competing forces argued whether the deity of Christ could be imaged at all. The Muslim Caliph promptly issued a competing coin that would contain text only. Generally speaking, the iconoclast controversy in Western Christianity settled into a grudging tolerance, with most of the battles today fought within and among the branches of Protestantism. For the most part, Protestants veered sharply away from attempts to image the persons of the Trinity, and opted for plainer forms of worship. Today, of course, the theological reasons for that shunning of imagery is affirmed in more conservative denominations, particularly among Presbyterian and Reformed fellowships. Yet, even in these groups, there are significant departures, witness the “Crystal Cathedral” of Reformed Church in America pastor Robert Schuller, and the advent of Sunday School materials that routinely contain artists’ conceptions of the image of Jesus.

Those who hold most strongly to a ban on attempts to image Christ base their argument on the Second Commandment forbidding the making of graven images “or any likeness” that purports to represent God or Christ. As one travels across Europe and traditionally Protestant areas of America, many church buildings remain that eschew crosses atop their steeples, replacing them with plain steeples, “onion tops” or the occasional rooster. For the “seeker friendly” churches that predominate in much of modern American Evangelicalism, the events of the Iconoclast era are as far removed from their consciousness as the theological debates that spawned them.

thumb_Rooster-SteepleMay we keep our icons,
They asked from the Rhine?
“Ja,” said Herr Luther,
But Zwingli said, “Nein!”

And so on our steeples,
All covered with moss,
We now have a Rooster,
Instead of a cross.