The Return of the Image-Breakers

June 24, 2020

Catholic history knows them as the iconoclasts–the image-breakers. And at various points of history they have reared up in riotous defiance of the Church and have smashed and broken their way through the sacred arts.

In 726 the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian published an edict declaring sacred images to be idols and ordered them destroyed, sending swarms of enforcing soldiers across the Empire and causing riots among the people. Orthodoxy was restored after a while, but again in 814 a new wave of iconoclasm broke out.

Then the mania died down again and there was relative peace, until a new bout of iconoclastic fury broke out after the Reformation in many parts of Europe. In the Beeldenstorm or “statue storm” that gripped the Low Countries in 1566, a merchant in Antwerp saw “all the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed, being done after such order and by so few folks that it is to be marvelled at.” At Ypres witnesses testified that the iconoclasts were not single-minded religious fanatics but were largely drunken looters who were robbing and stealing from private homes as well.

Since then, it seems, this madness has not tended to fade away completely but has been recurring with some frequency through the centuries — in the French Revolution of 1789, in the rise of the American Know-Nothings in the 1850s, and again in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

While the earlier iconoclasts claimed some divine support for what they were doing — however misguided — the most modern iconoclasts, having expelled God from the picture entirely, had their contempt for the created order descend even further into an erasure of  history itself.

A Russian critic once observed that “Bolsheviks topple czar monuments, Stalin erases old Bolsheviks, Khrushchev tears down Stalin, Brezhnev tears down Khrushchev….No difference. This is classic old Moscow technique: either worship or destroy.”

And George Orwell observed in his 1984:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Much of the same ideological underpinnings are now at work in cities and suburban areas around the world — a sort of Bolshevik Beeldenstorm aimed not only against the icons of the Church but all of history itself.

This, we know, shall pass as every similar episode of madness eventually has–and orthodoxy will triumph again.

But not necessarily without pain, without lasting damage, and without a profound miscarriage of justice by elected officials. In the case of Ypres, the magistrates of the town who helplessly watched the madness unfold were later forced to defend their inaction before the Habsburg government. During the American Know-Nothing riots of the mid-1850s, Bishop Martin John Spalding of Louisville, KY wrote in a letter to Bishop Kenrick:

“We have just passed through a reign of terror surpassed only by the Philadelphia riots. Nearly one hundred poor Irish have been butchered or burned and some twenty houses have been consumed in the flames. The City authorities, all Knownothings, looked calmly on and they are now endeavouring to lay the blame on the Catholics.”

In some cases, when the authorities failed them Irish and other Catholics banded together together to defend churches against the Know-Nothings. When a fire was started in the church of St. Peter and Paul in Brooklyn, the building was only saved by the police and the local militia driving off the mob.

And lest we be too despondent about the horrors of the news, lest we see the devil have his due and we give up hope, it is worth recalling what Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria said about the Know-Nothing era some twenty years later:

“It was not the American people who were seeking to make war on the Church, but merely a party of religious fanatics and unprincipled demagogues who as little represented the American people as did the mobs whom they incited to bloodshed and incendiarism. Their whole conduct was un-American and opposed to all the principles and traditions of our free institutions”.

So closely do the events of these historic periods mesh with our own, so perfectly do today’s rioters play out this hackneyed role trod by so many violent mobs before them, that we would be forgiven for wondering if those behind today’s lawlessness are truly as “progressive” as they claim.