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Iconoclasm[Note 1] is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious".
The term does not generally encompass the specific destruction of images of a ruler after his death or overthrow (damnatio memoriae).
Iconoclasm may be carried out by people of a different religion, but is often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion. Within Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by those who adopt a strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of "graven images or any likeness of anything". The later Church Fathers identified Jews, fundamental iconoclasts, with heresy and saw deviations from orthodox Christianity and opposition to the veneration of images as heresies that were essentially "Jewish in spirit". The degree of iconoclasm among Christian branches greatly varies. Islam, in general, tends to be more iconoclastic than Christianity, with Sunni Islam being more iconoclastic than Shia Islam.
In the Bronze Age, the most significant episode of iconoclasm occurred in Egypt during the Amarna Period, when Akhenaten, based in his new capital of Akhetaten, instituted a significant shift in Egyptian artistic styles alongside a campaign of intolerance towards the traditional gods and a new emphasis on a state monolatristic tradition focused on the god Aten, the Sun disk— many temples and monuments were destroyed as a result:
In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt's traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god.
Public references to Akhenaten were destroyed soon after his death.
For Egypt, the greatest horror was the destruction or abduction of the cult images. In the eyes of the Israelites, the erection of images meant the destruction of divine presence; in the eyes of the Egyptians, this same effect was attained by the destruction of images. In Egypt, iconoclasm was the most terrible religious crime; in Israel, the most terrible religious crime was idolatry. In this respect Osarseph alias Akhenaten, the iconoclast, and the Golden Calf, the paragon of idolatry, correspond to each other inversely, and it is strange that Aaron could so easily avoid the role of the religious criminal. It is more than probable that these traditions evolved under mutual influence. In this respect, Moses and Akhenaten became, after all, closely related.
Although widespread use of Christian iconography only began as Christianity increasingly spread among gentiles after the legalization of Christianity by Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 312 AD), scattered expressions of opposition to the use of images were reported (e.g. Spanish Synod of Elvira). The period after the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527–565) evidently saw a huge increase in the use of images, both in volume and quality, and a gathering aniconic reaction.
In the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, government-led iconoclasm began with Byzantine Emperor Leo III, following what seems to have been a long period of rising opposition to the use or misuse of images. The religious conflict created political and economic divisions in Byzantine society. It was generally supported by the Eastern, poorer, non-Greek peoples of the Empire who had to deal frequently with raids from the new Muslim Empire. On the other hand, the wealthier Greeks of Constantinople, and also the peoples of the Balkan and Italian provinces, strongly opposed iconoclasm.
Within the Byzantine Empire the government had probably been adopting Christian images more frequently. One notable change came in 695, when Justinian II's government added a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of imperial gold coins. The change caused the Caliph Abd al-Malik to stop his earlier adoption of Byzantine coin types. He started a purely Islamic coinage with lettering only. A letter by the Patriarch Germanus written before 726 to two Iconoclast bishops says that "now whole towns and multitudes of people are in considerable agitation over this matter" but there is little written evidence of the debate.
In contrast to the Lutherans who favoured sacred art in their churches and homes, the Reformed (Calvinist) leaders, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue's prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven (sculpted) images of God. As a result, individuals attacked statues and images. However, in most cases, civil authorities removed images in an orderly manner in the newly Reformed Protestant cities and territories of Europe.
Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Basel (in 1529), Zurich (1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), Scotland (1559), Rouen (1560) and Saintes and La Rochelle (1562). Calvinist iconoclasm in Europe "provoked reactive riots by Lutheran mobs" in Germany and "antagonized the neighbouring Eastern Orthodox" in the Baltic region.
The Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Northern France) were disrupted by widespread Calvinist iconoclasm in the summer of 1566. This is called the Beeldenstorm and began with the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte. Hundreds of other attacks included the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere. The Beeldenstorm marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic Church.
The iconoclastic belief caused havoc throughout Europe. In 1523, specifically due to the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, a vast number of his followers viewed themselves as being involved in a spiritual community that in matters of faith should obey neither the visible Church nor lay authorities. According to Peter George Wallace:
"Zwingli's attack on images, at the first debate, triggered iconoclastic incidents in Zurich and the villages under civic jurisdiction that the reformer was unwilling to condone." And due to this action of protest against authority, "Zwingli responded with a carefully reasoned treatise that men could not live in society without laws and constraint."
During the Reformation in England started during the reign of Anglican monarch Henry VIII, and urged on by reformers such as Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, limited official action was taken against religious images in churches in the late 1530s. Henry's young son, Edward VI, came to the throne in 1547 and, under Cranmer's guidance, issued Injunctions for Religious Reforms in the same year and in 1550, an Act of Parliament "for the abolition and putting away of divers books and images". During the English Civil War, Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:
Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.
Protestant Christianity was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther taught the "importance of images as tools for instruction and aids to devotion", stating: "If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?" Lutheran churches retained ornate church interiors with a prominent crucifix, reflecting their high view of the real presence of Christ in Eucharist. As such, "Lutheran worship became a complex ritual choreography set in a richly furnished church interior." For Lutherans, "the Reformation renewed rather than removed the religious image."
In general, Muslim societies have avoided the depiction of living beings (animals and humans) within such sacred spaces as mosques and madrasahs. This opposition to figural representation is based not on the Qur'an, but on traditions contained within the Hadith. The prohibition of figuration has not always extended to the secular sphere, and a robust tradition of figural representation exists within Muslim art. However, Western authors have tended to perceive "a long, culturally determined, and unchanging tradition of violent iconoclastic acts" within Islamic society.
The first act of Muslim iconoclasm dates to the beginning of Islam, in 630, when the various statues of Arabian deities housed in the Kaaba in Mecca were destroyed. There is a tradition that Muhammad spared a fresco of Mary and Jesus. This act was intended to bring an end to the idolatry which, in the Muslim view, characterized Jahiliyya.
The destruction of the idols of Mecca did not, however, determine the treatment of other religious communities living under Muslim rule after the expansion of the caliphate. Most Christians under Muslim rule, for example, continued to produce icons and to decorate their churches as they wished. A major exception to this pattern of tolerance in early Islamic history was the "Edict of Yazīd", issued by the Umayyad caliph Yazid II in 722–723. This edict ordered the destruction of crosses and Christian images within the territory of the caliphate. Researchers have discovered evidence that the order was followed, particularly in present-day Jordan, where archaeological evidence shows the removal of images from the mosaic floors of some, although not all, of the churches that stood at this time. But, Yazīd's iconoclastic policies were not continued by his successors, and Christian communities of the Levant continued to make icons without significant interruption from the sixth century to the ninth.
Certain conquering Muslim armies have used local temples or houses of worship as mosques. An example is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), which was converted into a mosque in 1453. Most icons were desecrated and the rest were covered with plaster. In the 1920s, Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum, and the restoration of the mosaics was undertaken by the American Byzantine Institute beginning in 1932.
More dramatic cases of iconoclasm by Muslims are found in parts of India where Hindu and Buddhist temples were razed and mosques erected in their place. Aurangzeb destroyed the famous Hindu temples at Varanasi and Mathura, and even went as far as Afghanistan to attempt (unsuccessfully) to destroy the Bamyan Buddhas—a task that was later completed by Islamist Taliban.
Certain Muslim denominations continue to pursue iconoclastic agendas. There has been much controversy within Islam over the recent and apparently on-going destruction of historic sites by Saudi Arabian authorities, prompted by the fear they could become the subject of "idolatry".
A recent act of iconoclasm was the 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamyan by the then-Taliban government of Afghanistan. The act generated worldwide protests and was not supported by other Muslim governments and organizations. It was widely perceived in the Western media as a result of the Muslim prohibition against figural decoration. Such an account overlooks "the coexistence between the Buddhas and the Muslim population that marveled at them for over a millennium" before their destruction. The Buddhas had twice in the past been attacked by Nadir Shah and Aurengzeb. According to the art historian F.B. Flood, analysis of the Taliban's statements regarding the Buddhas suggest that their destruction was motivated more by political than by theological concerns. Taliban spokespeople have given many different explanations of the motives for the destruction.
During the Tuareg rebellion of 2012, the radical Islamist militia Ansar Dine destroyed various Sufi shrines from the 15th and 16th centuries in the city of Timbuktu, Mali. In 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a former member of Ansar Dine, to nine years in prison for this destruction of cultural world heritage. This was the first time that the ICC convicted a person for such a crime.
The short-lived Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carried out iconoclastic attacks such as the destruction of Shia mosques and shrines. Notable incidents include blowing up the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) and destroying the Shrine to Seth in Mosul.
Other examples of religious iconoclasm
- According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites entering the Promised Land were instructed by God to 'destroy all [the] engraved stones, destroy all [the] molded images, and demolish all [the] high places' of the Canaanite indigenous population.
- In Judaism, King Hezekiah purged Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel of figures, including the Nehushtan, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings. His reforms were reversed in the reign of his son Manasseh.
- In 305–306, the Synod of Elvira appeared to endorse iconoclasm. Canon 36 states, "Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration."[Note 3] Proscription ceased after the destruction of pagan temples.
- During the process of Christianisation under Constantine, Christian groups destroyed the images and sculptures expressive of the Roman Empire's polytheist state religion.
- Many of the moai of Easter Island were toppled during the 18th century in the iconoclasm of civil wars before any European encounter. Other instances of iconoclasm may have occurred throughout Eastern Polynesia during its conversion to Christianity in the 19th century.
- After the Second Vatican Council in the late twentieth century, some Roman Catholic parish churches discarded much of their traditional imagery, art, and architecture.
- According to an article in Buddhist-Christian Studies: "Over the course of the last decade [1990s] a fairly large number of Buddhist temples in South Korea have been destroyed or damaged by fire by Christian fundamentalists. More recently, Buddhist statues have been identified as idols, and attacked and decapitated in the name of Jesus. Arrests are hard to effect, as the arsonists and vandals work by stealth of night."
Political and revolutionary iconoclasm
Revolutions and changes of regime, whether through uprising of the local population, foreign invasion, or a combination of both, are often accompanied by the public destruction of statues and monuments identified with the previous regime. This may also be known as damnatio memoriae, the ancient Roman practice of official obliteration of the memory of a specific individual. Stricter definitions of "iconoclasm" exclude both types of action, reserving the term for religious or more widely cultural destruction. In many cases, such as Revolutionary Russia or Ancient Egypt, this distinction can be hard to make.
Among Roman emperors and other political figures subject to decrees of damnatio memoriae were Sejanus, Publius Septimius Geta, and Domitian. Several Emperors, such as Domitian and Commodus had during their reigns erected numerous statues of themselves, which were pulled down and destroyed when they were overthrown.
Iconoclasm in the French Revolution
Throughout the radical phase of the French Revolution, iconoclasm was supported by members of the government as well as the citizenry. Numerous monuments, religious works, and other historically significant pieces were destroyed in an attempt to eradicate any memory of the Old Regime. At the same time, the republican government felt responsible to preserve these works for their historical, aesthetic, and cultural value. One way the republican government succeeded in their paradoxical mission of preserving and destroying symbols of the Old Regime was through the development of museums.
During the Revolution, a statue of King Louis XV in the Paris square which until then bore his name, was pulled down and destroyed. This was a prelude to the guillotining of his successor Louis XVI in the same site, renamed "Place de la Révolution" (at present Place de la Concorde).
The statue of Napoleon on the column at Place Vendôme, Paris was also the target of iconoclasm several times: destroyed after the Bourbon Restoration, restored by Louis-Philippe, destroyed during the Paris Commune and restored by Adolphe Thiers.
Destruction of Hindu temples
Records from the campaign recorded in the Chach Nama record the destruction of temples during the early eighth century when the Umayyad governor of Damascus, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, mobilized an expedition of 6000 cavalry under Muhammad bin Qasim in 712.
Muhammad triumphantly marched into the country, conquering Debal, Sehwan, Nerun, Brahmanadabad, Alor and Multan one after the other in quick succession, and in less than a year and a half, the far-flung Hindu kingdom was crushed ... There was a fearful outbreak of religious bigotry in several places and temples were wantonly desecrated. At Debal, the Nairun and Aror temples were demolished and converted into mosques.
In 725 Junayad, the governor of Sind, sent his armies to destroy the second Somnath. In 1024, the temple was again destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, who raided the temple from across the Thar Desert. The wooden structure was replaced by Kumarapala (r. 1143–72), who rebuilt the temple out of stone.
Sultan Sikandar Butshikan of Kashmir (1389–1413) ordered the breaking of all "golden and silver images". Firishta states, "After the emigration of the Bramins, Sikundur ordered all the temples in Kashmeer to be thrown down. Having broken all the images in Kashmeer, (Sikandar) acquired the title of 'Destroyer of Idols'".
There have been a number of anti-Buddhist campaigns in Chinese history that led to the destruction of Buddhist temples and images. One of the most notable of these campaigns was the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of the Tang dynasty.
During the Northern Expedition in Guangxi in 1926, Kuomintang General Bai Chongxi led his troops in destroying Buddhist temples and smashing Buddhist images, turning the temples into schools and Kuomintang party headquarters. It was reported that almost all of the viharas in Guangxi were destroyed and the monks were removed. Bai also led a wave of anti-foreignism in Guangxi, attacking Americans, Europeans, and other foreigners, and generally making the province unsafe for foreigners and missionaries. Westerners fled from the province and some Chinese Christians were also attacked as imperialist agents. The three goals of the movement were anti-foreignism, anti-imperialism and anti-religion. Bai led the anti-religious movement against superstition. Huang Shaohong, also a Kuomintang member of the New Guangxi clique, supported Bai's campaign. The anti-religious campaign was agreed upon by all Guangxi Kuomintang members.
Many religious and secular images were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, ostensibly because they were a holdover from China's traditional past (which the Communist regime led by Mao Zedong reviled). The Cultural Revolution included widespread destruction of historic artworks in public places and private collections, whether religious or secular. Objects in state museums were mostly left intact.
Iconoclasm in Eastern Europe
During and after the October Revolution, widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery took place, as well as the destruction of imagery related to the Imperial family. The Revolution was accompanied by destruction of monuments of past tsars, as well as the destruction of imperial eagles at various locations throughout Russia. According to Christopher Wharton, "In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble".
During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and during the Revolutions of 1989, protesters often attacked and took down sculptures and images of Joseph Stalin, such as the Stalin Monument in Budapest. The fall of Communism in 1989-1991 was also followed by the destruction or removal of statues of Vladimir Lenin and other Communist leaders in the former Soviet Union and in other Eastern Bloc countries. Particularly well-known was the destruction of "Iron Felix", the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky outside the KGB's headquarters. Another statue of Dzerzhinsky was destroyed in a Warsaw square that was named after him during communist rule, but which is now called Bank Square.
Other examples of political destruction of images include:
- During the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty pulled down and destroyed the gilded lead statue of George III of the United Kingdom on Bowling Green (New York City), melting it down to be recast as ammunition. Similar acts have accompanied the independence of most ex-colonial territories. Sometimes relatively intact monuments are moved to a collected display in a less prominent place, as in India and also post-Communist countries.
- From the 16th through the 19th centuries, many of the polytheistic religious deities and texts of pre-colonial Americas, Oceania and Africa were destroyed by Christian missionaries and their converts, such as during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
- There have been several cases of removing symbols of past rulers in Malta's history. Many Hospitaller coats of arms on buildings were defaced during the French occupation of Malta in 1798–1800; a few of these were subsequently replaced by British coats of arms in the early 19th century. Some British symbols were also removed by the government after Malta became a republic in 1974. These include royal cyphers being ground off from post boxes, and British coats of arms such as that on the Main Guard building being temporarily obscured (but not destroyed).
- In 1942 the pro-Nazi Vichy Government of France took down and melted Clothilde Roch's statue of the 16th-century dissident intellectual Michael Servetus, who had been burned at the stake in Geneva at the instigation of Calvin. The Vichy authorities disliked the statue, as it was a celebration of freedom of conscience. In 1960, having found the original molds, the municipality of Annemasse had it recast and returned the statue to its previous place.
- The Taliban destroyed two ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Bamyan, Afghanistan in March 2001.
- The Battle of Baghdad symbolically ended with the Firdos Square statue destruction, a US military-staged event in April 2003 where a prominent statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down.
- In 2016, paintings from the University of Cape Town were burned in student protests as symbols of colonialism.
- In August 2017 a statue of a Confederate soldier dedicated to "the boys who wore the gray" was pulled down from its pedestal in front of Durham County Courthouse in North Carolina by protesters. This followed the events at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in response to growing calls to remove Confederate monuments and memorials across the U.S.
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