Decapitating the Angels

sacred art and the currents of iconoclasm




In the spring of 1650, in the aftermath of the siege of the city of Kilkenny in the Irish midlands, Oliver Cromwell's soldiers charged around St Canice's Cathedral like bulls in a china shop. They defaced effigies on tombs, and turned windows into cascades of rainbow crystals with the help of axes and muskets. Two years later the same puritans inflicted a similar fate on St Nicholas's Church in Galway, where, in the south transept, two stone angels still bear witness - as much as they can in their headless state - to the wrecking.


Founded in the early 13th-century by the Anglo-Normans, and incorporating a 9th-century round tower, St Canice's Cathedral dominates the city of Kilkenny. Cromwell and his men vented their puritan zeal on its interior and stabled their horses in its sacred aisles.


Cromwell's puritans were not the first iconoclasts in Ireland. In October 1578 the Protestant bishop of Cork, Matthew Shehan, publicly burned an image of St Dominic at the city's high cross, much to the open despair of the local people. Nor did the image-breakers at this time confine themselves to Ireland. Iconoclasm was widespread in Europe after the Reformation. Sacred art was closely identified with the Catholic faith and became a target for hardline Protestants. Zurich, Copenhagen, Augsburg and other cities tinkled with the sound of broken glass. In the Low Countries what was called the Beeldenstorm, 'statue storm', occurred in 1566. Antwerp Cathedral was ransacked, and one witness described it as 'hell, with more than 10,000 torches burning, and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works'.


Protestant wreckers set to work on the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp on 20 August, 1566. This print by the contemporary artist Frans Hogenberg conveys a little of the eye-witness description of an exiled English Catholic named Nicolas Sander: 'They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars … the Blessed Sacrament of the altar ... they trod under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it.'


This puritan spirit reared up again in Cromwell's time. In England, centuries-old stained-glass windows in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were annihilated in minutes. There are records of how the iconoclasts went about their work. Theirs was no drunken orgy of violence but sober and calculated acts of nihilism. Take the example of the prominent puritan Richard Culmer. In 1643 he entered Canterbury Cathedral with a sixty-foot ladder, climbed up holding a long pole and then proceeded to batter down a window containing images of God, Christ, a crucifix, the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, and the twelve apostles. He also, for good measure, 'rattled down proud Becket's glassy bones' in the same window.

The destruction of sacred art or any art remains shocking, and the motive behind it seems to go beyond wanting to get rid of the symbols of an enemy regime, whether it be a Catholic pietà or a statue of Gaddafi during the revolt in Libya. Erasing the memory of the enemy might be a sound policy - what the Romans called damnatio memoriae - but the instinct to eradicate images may have a deeper psychic cause. Moses destroying the golden calf perhaps provides a starting point; behind it lies the idea that what is divine, and therefore ineffable, intangible, uncontainable, cannot be rendered into something that can be seen, touched and worshipped.

This Jewish tradition of not creating a 'graven image' of God (formalised in the second Commandment: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth') has always sat as an uneasy reminder to pictorially-minded Christian artists, as well as casting its shadow on the strong Islamic tradition of non-representational art. (Indeed, Islam has invited the most recent headlines about iconoclasm. About six months before 9/11, the Taliban set about destroying ancient, rock-cut images of the Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan. Taliban soldiers fired at the statues with anti-aircraft guns, then, frustrated by their lack of progress, resorted to lowering men down by rope onto the faces of the statues where they could plant explosives. Christians also have a record of destroying inimical art: under the rule of Constantine I, the Great, in the early fourth century, the Christians' domination of the empire allowed them to become art destroyers as much as creators: smashing or defacing pagan images was carried out to neutralise the demonic power believed to reside in them.)

Yet despite the second Commandment, the first Christian artists - such as those working in the catacombs of Rome - did not shrink from creating pictorial scenes from the Bible, including depictions of Christ (for example as a Greco-Roman-style Good Shepherd). Along with this representational art, the early Christians also developed a grammar of visual symbols, including the cross, the fish, and the Chi-Rho. But by about three centuries after Jesus' crucifixion, the role and the very nature of sacred art was being scrutinised. A landmark decision was made at the Synod of Elvira in 305, when images in churches were outlawed 'in case that which is worshipped and venerated be depicted on the walls'.

In time, Christians made a distinction between an eidolon (idol), which was not to be worshipped, and an eikon (icon) or image, which could be venerated but not worshipped. Needless to say, the distinction was not always obvious to lay people. This tension between image and idol came to a climax in the eighth century with the Byzantine iconoclasm crisis. In 726 Emperor Leo III, citing the second Commandment, commanded all icons to be destroyed. When soldiers targeted the famous image of Christ over the gate of the palace at Constantinople, a riot broke out. It was the first of many outbreaks of violence over iconoclasm in the Byzantine empire: for more than a century iconoclasts and icon supporters (iconodules) battled over sacred art in a dispute that was fuelled by state and church politics, and which sometimes led to civil war.


A Byzantine iconoclast paints over an icon in this illustration from the Chludov Psalter, a 9th-century Byzantine manuscript. By a clever juxtaposition of images in his design, the artist has pointedly compared the act of iconoclasm to the act of crucifying Christ.


The iconoclasts initially gained the upper hand, but the iconodules eventually won the war, using the example of the Incarnation, the sacralisation of flesh by the divine, as a central argument in favour of honouring materiality. Two important figures in leading the pro-icon intellectual charge were St. John of Damascus (655-750) and St. Theodore the Studite (759-826). John's influential On the Divine Images defended the veneration of icons, arguing, for example, that there was nothing wrong with images acting as reminders of the divine, in the same way that nature reminds us of God through the sun's rays, a river or a fountain. John summed up his position with the words: 'I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter.'



St John of Damascus was a Syrian monk whose 'Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images' were instrumental in stemming the tide of iconoclasm.


Theodore the Studite also argued that the material aspect of the icon was merely a portal to the divine, not a thing to be worshipped or venerated in itself: 'The mind does not remain with the materials, because it does not trust in them: that is the error of the idolators. Through the materials, rather, the mind ascends toward the prototypes: this is the faith of the orthodox.' Yet despite the intellectual victories John and Theodore achieved, it was not until 842 that Empress Theodora finally settled the dispute for good and officially restored the veneration of icons.

Although Christians in the West did not have to endure the iconoclastic violence endured by their Byzantine cousins, the debate about sacred art and its function came to the fore in the writings and attitudes of two great 12th-century churchmen, Abbot Suger of St-Denis Monastery in Paris and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The two men embodied different values and perspectives on the manifestation of the divine. Suger favoured art: he believed light symbolized the divine, and that the beauty of God's truth is expressed by stained glass windows as well as by light-reflecting precious metals such as gold and silver. In this he was referring back to the Neo-Platonic ideal that beautiful objects could lead a person towards contemplation of archetypal Beauty, and thus to a mystical awareness of God. He was also echoing Theodore's idea of the mind the ascending 'toward the prototypes'.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the foremost Cistercian monk of his day, on the other hand, rejected the lavish use of gemstones and gold in churches ('What is gold doing in such a holy place?'). He wished to return to a simpler life: Cistercian churches were grand but spare, devoid of stained glass and excessive ornamentation, which, Bernard believed, distracted the worshipper from God. He hated, for example, carved pillars and capitals, which he referred to as 'deformed beauty'. There was the story, approvingly told, of Bernard walking with fellow monks beside Lake Geneva for the day. In the evening, at Lausanne, oblivious of the glorious scenery, he asked his companions whether they had seen anything of interest during the journey.

Beyond their undoubted idiosyncracies, Suger and Bernard seem to mirror the two approaches to ultimate reality that the Christian mystics termed the 'negative' or 'apophatic' way, and the 'affirmative' or 'kataphatic' way. Meister Eckhart, for example, would represent the first, with his references to ultimate truth as the 'void' and 'the desert'; St Francis of Assisi, seeing in God's creation ('Brother Sun' et al) a ladder to the divine, would represent the affirmative way.

Suger and Bernard can be seen as part of the parlour game that divides the world into Platonists and Aristotelians, those who distrust material creation and those who celebrate it; and we might add, playfully, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Blake and Wordsworth, Beckett and Joyce, Malevich and Matisse. Problems arise when the two ways, negative and affirmative, are seen as mutually exclusive, when polarisation leads to an excessive affirmation of the material (evidenced, perhaps, in the trinket tables at Lourdes or even the witness of 'nodding statues'?) or an excessive vitriol towards or rejection of sacred images. These two opposite approaches to art and reality do not have to war against each other Heracliteanly. All of us can house an inner Suger and a Bernard of Clairvaux without conflict. The Byzantine church with its cave-like interior glittering with gold icons, candles and chandeliers is merely a different sort of beauty to the Baptist chapel, with its large, clear windows allowing light to reveal the bare walls and unadorned oak stalls and pulpit. There is the beauty of James Joyce's baroque verbal effusions and Samuel Beckett's spare, carefully pruned prose. Beauty can charm us both through artifice and through its absence. One approach is not better than the other, just different.


The Byzantine décor of the 11th-century St Michael's Monastery in Kiev (top) embodies an aesthetic glorying in intricate patterns, sumptuous colours and light-reflecting surfaces. It is an aesthetic that Abbot Suger of St-Denis would have delighted in and which encapsulates the creation-celebrating affirmative way of the Christian mystics. By contrast, Mt Enon Baptist Church in Georgia, USA, shows a completely different sort of beauty, more in tune with the Cistercian distrust of 'distracting' ornamentation and with the negative or apophatic way of the mystics.



It's my guess that the puritans wielding axes in Kilkenny at some point in their lives delighted in sacred images, but became increasingly giddy with the zeitgeist's biblical zeal, and became increasingly headstrong and defiant with guilt. After their first fateful smashings, how could they look at the reproachful gaze of saints in the windows of St Canice's Cathedral without snuffing out their witness; or, in the case of St Nicholas's Church in Galway, how could they look at the accusing eyes of angels without blinding them forever?


On First Seeing the Book of Kells




I join the shuffling stop-start queue

As edgy as a mourner filing past

A waxy body in an open box,

I know I'll only have a minute

Or so, my eyes are two hair-triggers

I'm nearly there, nearly there,

Bang -

As if I've just been shoved on stage

Adjusting to the sepia audience -

I see the gospel squiggle into life

With oblongs, circles branded on

As frames to trap the golden bees

So quick they fly invisibly

But leave an afterglow in ribbons

Of countless plaited flights;

I'm looking at a dream

Cut out from someone's sleep and pressed

On vellum like a transfer;

Or a swathe of skin assaulted by

A mad tattooist, or a blueprint

Of creation by the Demiurge,

The planets spinning in his eyes

His paintbrush touching things to life

In ochre, green and orpiment,

Lamp-black and lapis lazuli;

Or a brain that's whirring inside out

Its ganglia revealed, lit up

In every synapse, curling fibre,

As by the electrics of a migraine

Or vision of Elijah's chariot.

Above it all St John looks down

A melancholy alchemist

In a lab of bubbling cylinders

Who yet again has failed to find

The lapis philosophorum.

The less I stare the more I see,

Letters begin to stir and creep -

Where is the Word? And what's this world

In which a peacock-headed 'n'

Resists the tendrils of a vine,

An 'i' pretends to be a harpist

Plucking an elongated 'c'

Or longship raised up on its end?

I raise my head to see the whole

And slightly blur my focus,

The letters seem to link together

There's someone nudging me to move,

Let it come, let it come,

Another thirty seconds, please,

And yes, it's there, pristine and freed




pio erat