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Iconoclasm III

April 21, 2024

This is the bad penny of heresies – it just keeps turning up. When we last saw it was in the 8th century and predominantly in the eastern part of the Church. This week we are going to fast forward to the 16th century when one heretic started what would become one of the largest most damaging heresies up until the heresy of modernism. That 16th century heretic was none other than the former Catholic and Augustinian priest, Martin Luther. When Martin Luther founded the Lutheran church, one of the heresies that quickly attached itself to his heresy, was the heresy of Iconoclasm. After he first separated from the Catholic Church, Luther and the various people associated with him began to lash out at anything resembling the Catholic Faith, and this included images and pictures. One of his close associates in Wittenberg becomes the leader of the iconoclastic movement within Martin Luther’s new church and he quickly sets about destroying images, stained glass windows and statuary, stripping and destroying churches, monasteries and convents through force and violence. While Luther himself later went on to express opposition primarily to images of God, forbidding those, he was not so against images of saints and angels. But the problem was that a door had been opened that he refused to shut immediately and one of the great lacks of his church became evident – there was no central authority to hold a consistent line of teaching and when necessary, refrain of punish those who cross that line.

What happens in the century immediately following doesn’t require much imagination to figure out. Every place where the protestant revolution entered, whether it be in the original form of Luther or those who soon broke from him – Calvin or Zwingli – the consequences where devastating. Churches were absolutely gutted and/or destroyed completely. Convents, monasteries, and even private homes were ransacked. Stained glass windows were broken into shards, statues and paintings were destroyed, painted over or decapitated. The high altars and side altars of churches were chopped apart with axes and hammers and broken into pieces that were often then used to start a bonfire to burn other pieces of Christian art.

If you opposed this, it could mean not only imprisonment, but also death. The loss is primarily theological as the persistent misunderstanding of the second commandment is ingrained more deeply into Lutheran teaching and flows from there into each of those denominations which broke from it – basically all of your protestant and “bible” churches. It even infected our own Church later on. This is why many churches are so plain and empty. There is also the destruction of priceless artwork and treasures that were never recovered and lost forever. One can only imagine the desolation of the religious but also societal understanding of art and its place in the world and how many people’s ability to grow in their faith was directly kneecapped by this. Keeping in mind that in those centuries, many people could not read, so the art in churches helped illustrate their faith and then they were able to understand it better. Alas, this was taken from them and they were told it was for their own good. On that sorrowful note, we will conclude this week’s article with the promise of at least one more installment on the recurrence of Iconoclasm, not too far distant from our own times.

God love you,

Fr. Anthony

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