There are currently numerous initiatives around the globe to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In Estonia, as we report this week, visitors are being invited to desecrate an image of Our Blessed Lady. At the National Museum of Estonia, a virtual image of Our Lady of Graces appears on a screen in a glass box. If visitors kick a marked spot on the plinth supporting the box, the image shatters into pieces and is replaced by the word “Reformation”. The screen then refreshes.
The museum’s Facebook page says the exhibit is an “artistic representation of the theme of iconoclasm”. Several authorities, both religious and political, have expressed their disapproval for what they see as a disregard for the feelings of religious people.
It is true that the smashing of images was an integral part of the Reformation, and iconoclasm – the destruction of statues, paintings, holy objects and stained glass – was common across much of Protestant Europe. It is estimated that in England, during the reign of Edward VI, at least half of the artistic patrimony of the country was destroyed. The horror of this vandalism is best appreciated by a contemplation of the few lucky survivors, such as the stained glass in King’s College, Cambridge.
In so far as the exhibition in Estonia reminds us of the mindless brutality of iconoclasm, it is perhaps doing us a service, though one must strongly deplore the implied disrespect to the Blessed Virgin. But it is best to ask what we can learn from the iconoclasm of the past and, indeed, the iconoclasm of the present.
First, the reformers claimed to promote the Word at the expense of the image, which they saw as replacing the Word, as it often must have done in an age of illiteracy. Our answer must be that we certainly do not disparage the Word, but we value the image too at the service of the Word, as an illustration. Any lavishly illustrated children’s Bible makes the same point.
A second imperative must be, in opposition to the iconoclasts, to do our best to preserve the patrimony of the past. This is something that the Catholic Church does well, as anyone who has visited a cathedral museum can testify. The wealth of metalwork, glasswork, needlework, painting and sculpture on display is impressive. Every diocese needs a cathedral museum, for beauty is one of the many paths that leads to God.
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