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When Europe also destroyed its images

01/07/2001
A timely exhibition in Strasbourg sheds light on the mentality of the
Taliban iconoclasts by presenting one of Christianity's own artdestroying centuries
strasbourg. The West seethed with outrage at the Taliban's
theologically and politically motivated destruction of the ancient
image of the Buddha in Afghanistan last March, conveniently
forgetting its own shameful history. The Musee de l'?uvre Notre-Dame
in Strasbourg has assembled more than 200 objects, mainly from the
Holy Roman Empire, for a timely reminder of our own destructive
tendencies in an exhibition, "Iconoclasm: the life and death of the
medieval image" that illustrates the destruction of religious images
that took place during the Protestant Reformation, between 1520 and
1620. Paintings, sculpture, engravings, stained glass windows,
tapestries, liturgical vestments are on show.
"Our aim has been to present pieces that were either very beautiful or
very extraordinary," said Cecile Dupeux, a curator in the museum and
curator of this exhibition.
The exhibition aims to show that iconoclasm was not a single,
undifferentiated phenomenon, but expressed different degrees of
disapproval, condemnation and destruction of religious images.
Thus, to give examples of the opulence that was strongly disapproved
of, the luxurious ecclesiastical treasures are on display. Hung to full
effect on the red walls, is, for example, the cope belonging to Bishop
Aymon de Montfaucon (1500) in gold brocaded silk.
The Reformers also objected to what they considered superstitious
and trivial.
Evidence of this is the statue (1500) of Christ standing on the clouds,
his right hand raised in a gesture of benediction, which was caused to
move up and down at Easter and on Ascension Day. Another example
is a Crucifix (1515) with arms articulated so that it could fit into the
coffin.
Other images were deemed straightforwardly sacrilegious, such as
the altarpiece in which Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg had
himself portrayed as St Martin, in the company of his concubine and
St Ursula. A 15th-century miniature depicts a Dominican nun
receiving a blood-stained Christ in her arms, and an early 16thcentury statuette of the Infant Jesus was used by nuns as a doll.

Lest it appear that the Catholic Church was indiscriminately


iconophilic, the exhibition takes care to balance the Protestant
condemnation with works which the Catholic authorities censured.
There is, in this connection, the "Three-headed Trinity" (1500), a kind
of four-eyed monster, and the "Opening Virgin" from the Chapelle
Saint-Michel (1360), a statue which opens from neck to foot to reveal
on either side two funereal angels complete with cross-shaped haloes.
Both these effigies were condemned, the first by the Bishop of
Florence and the second by Jean Gerson, Rector of the Sorbonne.
Along a well lighted corridor painted white, in stark contrast to the
previous rooms, glass cases exhibit texts by the fathers of the
Reformation.
Here we see the writings of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, the
first theorist of the iconoclastic measures formulated in Wittenberg in
1522; Ludwig Hatzer's description of Reformation and its iconoclasm
as the expression of divine will; Zwingli's call for the destruction of all
idols.
At the same time we are shown a satirical Catholic pamphlet (152527) that provides another view of the iconoclasm, seeing it as
sacrilege. Wood engravings depict figures in the process of ransacking
a church, destroying the altar, the pulpit and the statuary with an axe.
In support of this image, the exhibition includes the sculptures from
the Charterhouse in Berne, discovered in 1986, all bearing traces of
similar acts of destruction: the Archangel Michael has been
completely hacked to pieces; the damage inflicted on the imposing
head of a bishop (1510-20) was probably caused by the plinth bearing
his statue falling into the pit.
Another monument that fell victim to the iconoclasm is the tomb of
Prior Henri de Severy in Romainmotier (Lausanne), which was
smashed into more than a thousand fragments. It has been
reconstructed for this exhibition, with the missing parts represented
by drawings in white on a transparent screen. Traces of sharp
implements can be seen on the faces of the angels, the saints and
Christ.
It seems that the eyes of figures in religious paintings were the
favourite target of the iconoclasts. In the "Mass of St Gregory" (1491)
by Seewald, the paint at eye level has been carefully scratched out.
One slightly less radical Protestant solution was to change the identity
of the characters, for example on the statue of the Virgin on top of the
Hotel de Ville in Basel was transformed into the personification of
Justice by the addition of a weighing scales in her left hand and the
imposing St Christopher was made into Goliath by the addition of
weapons and a helmet on his head.

Daphne Bezard
u "Iconoclasme: vie et mort de l'image medievale", Musee d l'?uvre
Notre-Dame, 3 place du Chateau, 67000 Strasbourg, %+33 03 88 52
50 00 (until 26 August)
Iconoclasm
Issue: 116
Record Number: 12787
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