Iconoclasm: the destruction of the world’s past

From a young age I have loved historical objects, whenever I entered a museum or a heritage house I enjoyed viewing objects that were my direct link with the world’s past. From the York Gospels at York Minster to the Nefertiti bust at the Pergamon Museum, these items have helped shape my views on the world and brought fascinating stories to life. Which is why it breaks my heart every time I see the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) destroy magnificent historical objects and sites. This destruction is abominable and yet it isn’t new.

Iconoclasm is defined as:

1. The action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practice 2. The rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical; the doctrine of iconoclasts”.

There have been debates on the use of icons as early as the 8th century, with the Byzantine rulers chopping and changing their stance on icons as they would be prohibited by one ruler only to be re-established by another. The destruction of icons can be seen throughout many different societies, however it was a particular weapon of choice for the Huguenot (French Protestant) population of France during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) where they fought against French Catholics. Prior to the Wars starting Suriano (Venetian Ambassador to France) reported the long held view that “the kingdom of France, by universal opinion, was reputed the first kingdom of Christendom”, with the monarchs of France referred to as the ‘Most Christian’.

Yet Protestantism had slowly been finding ground in Catholic France since the early start of the century, with Calvin writing to the Huguenots as early as 1547, encouraging them in their beliefs and commenting “edifying one another and all the poor and ignorant folk in general by your good lives so that, by your example, the wicked shall be put to confusion”. One aspect of Catholic religious practice which the Huguenots were firmly against was the use of idols. As tensions began to erupt across France isolated iconoclastic violence began to become systematic, although it should be noted that this was usually the work of individuals or small groups and the involvement of ministers is debatable. Although these objects (for example statues of the Virgin Mary) function was primarily holy they were also cultural items, as the Catholic religion had been an integral part of everyday life for centuries, making this also a form of cultural violence. Atrocities worse than iconoclasm were committed by both sides during the war, yet this case of iconoclasm shows how it could be a widespread phenomenon.

The Sac de Lyon by the Reformed Calvinists, unknown author (formerly attributed to Pierre Caron). Circa 1565
The Sack of Lyon by Reformed Calvinists (1565) Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

In the last few years it has been reported how ISIS have destroyed historically significant sites, including Nimrud and Palmyra, claiming religious motivations. The damage they have caused is irreversible, and they harm the brave keepers of these sites as the murder of Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities Khaled Asaad shows. The destruction of significantly important places, like the Mar Elian Monastery, is not only ideologically motivated but also financially motivated. ISIS sells historical items to finance their terrorism.

Many people may think history is boring and historical items are worthless, however, they connect us to our past which is how we as a society learn from our mistakes and try to be better moving forward. Hopefully one day iconoclasm can only be a reference in a history book.

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Michele Suriano Report of France 1561 – taken from Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600: An Anthology of Sources by David Englander, Diana Norman, Rosemary O’Day and W.R. Owens.

John Calvin Letter to French Huguenots 1547

The Dynamics of Protestant Militancy: France, 1555-1563 by Philip Benedict










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