Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at The Tate in London

This show will not open at the Tate Britain until October 2, but the BBC and The Guardian have already started to cover it:

Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm will be the first exhibition exploring the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day. Iconoclasmdescribes the deliberate destruction of icons, symbols or monuments for religious, political or aesthetic motives. The exhibition will examine the movements and causes which have led to assaults on art through objects, paintings, sculpture and archival material from 2 October.
Highlights include Thomas Johnson’s Interior of Canterbury Cathedral 1657– the only painting documenting Puritan iconoclasm in England – exhibited for the first time alongside stained glass removed from the windows of the cathedral. Edward Burne-Jones’ Sibylla Delphica 1898 and Allen Jones’ Chair 1969, damaged by suffragettes and feminists will be on display, as well as evidence of statues destroyed in Ireland during the 20th century. The show will consider artists such as Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono and Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have used destruction as a creative force.
Religious iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries will be explored with statues of Christ decapitated during the Dissolution, smashed stained glass from Rievaulx Abbey, fragments of the great rood screen at Winchester Cathedral and a book of hours from British Library, defaced by state-sanctioned religious reformers. These will be accompanied by vivid accounts of the destructive actions of Puritan iconoclasts.

As The Guardian story notes,

"It obviously is a difficult subject," said the director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis. "The decision was to treat it seriously rather than shy away from it, to try and explore it properly so that people understood its history more fully."

Curtis, whose idea it was, said it was something Tate Britain ought to do because the museum's collection "covers nearly 500 years but not quite". In fact, the show starts in the 1540s, with Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, which led to the state-sanctioned destruction of so much art. The events were particular to Britain and changed our visual history forever, said Curtis.

Getting examples of 500-year-old destroyed art is clearly difficult, and one of the star exhibits will be a statue of Jesus that remained hidden for centuries.

Statue of the Dead Christ (1500-1520), which belongs in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Mercers [which is "the Premier Livery Company of the City of London"] in London's Square Mile, was discovered buried beneath the chapel floor in 1954 during the post war clearup. As a result of Protestant attacks it is missing a crown of thorns, arms and lower legs but is otherwise in remarkable condition, the theory being that someone concealed it to protect it from further damage.

It is a powerful statue, with Jesus graphically portrayed with rigor mortis-stiffened limbs, mouth open and carved blood oozing from wounds – it was that power that the Protestant reformers found so dangerous. The Mercers' loan is the first to any exhibition since it was discovered.

This site, focused on the life and times of Margery Kempe, quotes a long description of an iconclastic attack on a parish church in Norfolk:

In the chancel, as it is called, we took up twenty brazen superstitious inscriptions, Ora pro nobis &c.; broke twelve apostles, carved in wood, an cherubims and a lamb with a cross, and took up four superstitious inscriptions in brass, in the north chancel, Jesu filii Dei miserere mei, &c. broke in pieces the rails, and broke down twenty-two popish pictures of angels and saints. We did deface the font and a cross on the font; and took up the brass inscription there, with Cujus animae propitietus Deus, and "pray for the soul," &c. in English. We took up thirteen superstitious brasses. Ordered Moses with his rod and Aaron with his mitre, to be taken down. Ordered eighteen angels off the roof, and cherubims to be taken down and nineteen pictures in the window. The organ I brake and we brake seven popish pictures in the chancel window, - one of Christ, another of St. Andrew, another of St. James, &c. We ordered the steps [before the altar] to be leveled by the parson of the town; and brake the popish inscription, My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. I gave orders to break the carved work, which I have seen done. There were six superstitious pictures, one crucifix, and the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms, and Christ lying in a manger, and the three kings coming to Christ with presents, and three bishops with their mitres and crosier staffs, and eighteen Jesuses written in capital letters, which we gave orders to do out. A picture of St. George, and many others which I remember not, with divers pictures in the windows, which we could not reach, neither would they help us to raise ladders; so we left a warrant with the constable to do it in fourteen days. We brake down a pot of holy water, St. Andrew with his cross, and St. Catherine with her wheel; and we took down the cover of the font, and the four evangelists, and a triangle for the Trinity, a superstitious picture of St. Peter and his keys, an eagle, and a lion with wings. In Bacon's aisle was a friar with a shaven crown, praying to God in these words, Miserere mei Deus, - which we brake down. We brake a holy water font in the chancel. We rent to pieces a hood and surplices. In the chancel was Peter pictured in the windows, with his heels upwards, and John the Baptist, and twenty more superstitious pictures, which we brake: and IHS the Jesuit's badge in the chancel window. In Bacon's aisle, twelve superstition of angels and crosses and a holy water font, and brasses with superstitious inscriptions. And in the cross alley we took up brazen figures and inscriptions, Ora pro nobis. We brake down a cross on the steeple, and three stone crosses in the chancel, and a stone cross in the porch. Quoted by M. Aston, England's Iconoclasts. Vol. 1 Laws Against Images, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1988: 78-9. (Journal of William Dowsing, p. 244)

More about Puritan iconoclasm here. Illustration from Wikipedia: Woodcut image from the 1563 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, depicting iconoclasm. In the top part of the image "papists" are packing away their "paltry," while the church is purged of idols. Bottom parts depict clerics receiving the Bible from Queen Elizabeth I, and a communion table.

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