We have been here before, at least in England and other parts of Christendom. It has been estimated that upto ninety percent of the artwork of medieval England was destroyed at the Reformation. The “Reformers” regarded statues as idols and broke and burnt them. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, along with the medieval Abbey, one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe, was destroyed. There was only one way to regard such statues – idolatry – and if you failed to agree, then you too were marked for destruction. Depressing as it is, we seem to be here again.
The original Christian iconoclasts were led by Emperor Leo III (717-741) who banned the use of images and had many destroyed. John of Damascus led the argument against the iconclasts, and at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787, the Empress Ireme secured a victory against iconoclasm. One of the proximate causes of the crisis was the fact that the new religion of Islam took a very hard line indeed on images, and there had been those in the Church who thought that by taking the same view, they could stem the rise of Islam. They were wrong. So were those who thought that Nicaea 787 had solved the problem.
There seems to be, in our fallen nature, an almost Caliban-like instinct to destroy images our ourselves – perhaps some cannot bear to look into the mirror, like Shakespeare’s Caliban. There will, of course, always be those whose attempt to regulate thought includes governance over what might and might not be displayed in public, whether it is the ankles of a woman or the statue of someone of whom they disapprove.
In democratic countries there is a legal process by which statues can be erected, and there is one by which they can be removed, which is why comparisons with what happened in the former Communist bloc and Iraq are wide of the mark. It may be that there are those who think mob rule preferable to the tedium of democratic process, but it may be unwise to pay them Danegeld.
Historically, destroying representations of people has tended to be accompanied by harming real people. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and every human life is sacred. Orthodox Christianity has tended to eschew iconoclasm for good reasons. now is not the time to change. As a reminder of the past, I include not a statue, but a poem:
A Lament for Our Lady’s Shrine at Walsingham
In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.
Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.
Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.
Bitter was it, O to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.
Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.
Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that Holy Land.
Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.
Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.
Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.
Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway —
Walsingham, O farewell!