Iconoclasm today

By Luiz Coelho

When Hans Holbein decided to go back to Continental Europe after a successful period in England painting royal family portraits, his close friend Erasmus of Rotherdam warned him about the mass-destruction of paintings (especially religious ones), seen by most Protestant groups as idolatry. Nonetheless, Holbein decided to go back to Basel, anyway, only to realize that in Central Europe there was no real space for him as an artist, at that moment, and that the best thing to do would be to go back to England and build a career there (little he knew that soon England would be following the same path).

Iconoclasm is not a privilege of Protestantism. Most of Christendom had it in many varying degrees. Of course, there are notable examples such as the 8th century controversy in the Byzantine Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Leo, the Isaurian, and the subsequent restoration of icons under the auspices of the Second Council of Nicaea (a moment remembered by the Eastern Church as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”). However, there is a kind of iconoclasm that is not always noticed by us, which usually happens for the sake of “art”, grandeur, or style. This kind is not rarely connected more to individual egos than to theological viewpoints, and can be seen as a way of imposing someone’s personal views on a Church.

Take for example St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This magnificent building – a triumph of Roman Catholic artistic patronage and a testimony to the world of the Pope’s power even in the midst of religious controversies – took more than one century to be finished, and had several designs and chief architects , among whom notables like Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini, who finally finished it already in the period known in Art History as Baroque. Sadly, this magnificent church was built on top of what once was the original St. Peter’s Basilica, also known as “Old Saint Peter’s”, erected during Constantine’s times and, if still “alive”, would be one of the few examples of buildings (such as the Pantheon, Santa Maria Maggiore, or the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna) that date from Roman times and are still up and preserved.

St. Peter’s was not an isolated case in time. Actually, since time immemorial, it has been the major practice in art and architecture to replace the “old” (usually seen as primitive and outdated) by the “new”, without any consideration for the History and traditions embedded in what previously existed. In the particular case of Christian art, this meant that in many circumstances, Romanesque churches were destroyed to make room for Gothic inovations. Gothic churches, in turn, were later destroyed to make room for Classically-inspired buildings. Romanesque iconography, Gothic paintings and altarpieces and even imported Byzantine icons were all seen as primitive and rudimentary during the Renaissance, and many of them were lost forever due to lack of preservation or even deliberate destruction in order to make room for newer pieces that conformed to the vernacular of that time.

And during the following centuries, what pretty much happened was a pendulum shift from one style to another. Critics would praise some elements of an older trend and mock the one that came immediately before it. (One should note that both “Gothic” and “Baroque” are words initially created with derogatory meanings by adepts of classicizing styles). Churches, as everything else, had to conform to the new vernacular, and although since the 15th century, a greater respect for the masters and their work helped maintain their pieces intact, many minor works have disappeared, not seldom replaced by ones that would conform to a newer artistic trend.

In our times, although many art historians argue that what we see now is called “Post-Modern art”, it can be said that Modern Art and architecture is still the main vernacular in Western Churches. This would mean that a typical new church building would have plenty of space, clean walls, simple geometric shapes and usually a minimalistic approach to furnishings. The altar would be free-standing, with a choir behind it, and reasonably close to the pulpit. Art could be very eclectic, but one could expect abstraction especially in stained-glass windows, vestments and linens, and a less realistic approach to the human figure in iconography (from Sadao Watanabe prints to Byzantine icons, encompassing a variety of other styles).

However, not all churches are new. In fact, many are centuries old. So, we are faced with the same problem that existed before: “what to do with the style perceived as old and at the same time conform ourselves to the new trend?” Since the 19th Century, eclecticism in art has helped us understand that “yes, it is OK to have different styles together,” and for the last century and a half, churches have been built or refurbished following several different inspirations. At first, it has to be said, much was done in a very amateurish way. Even when the attempt was to restore a building to its original state (as was the case with many Neo-Gothic attempts at restoring Gothic churches), renovations were not historically accurate, and ended up erasing completely the few hints we had of what a church originally looked like.

It would be cruel for me to blame our predecessor for the losses , since they had no idea of historic preservation. However, in our times, a major emphasis has to be placed on the will and hardwork of our ancestors, and the preservation of their works for future generations. This stems from two basic reasons: first of all, no Church has the political or economic power to spend lavish amounts of money on art and architecture, so it is always more reasonable to try to keep in a nice state what we already have and add embellishing pieces to the existing artistic glory. Second, the Church has (one hopes) become much more aware of the inconsistency that lies beneath spending ridiculous amounts of money on aesthetic elements while its mission in the world is ignored. Therefore, the “rule of thumb” for artistic projects in Church should be: a just yet reasonable price, a clear missionary vision that would impact the world around it and a deep respect for the dedication of our predecessors and what they have achieved.

With this in mind, I believe it is past time to stop the destruction (usually disguised as renovation) of high altars, screens, boxed pews, tablets, kneelers, reredos and other architectonical features often found in historic churches. In most cases, there are cheaper and simpler solutions that can be adopted and still respect the integrity of the original architectural style in which they were built. Boxed pews can always be left open all the time. If an East-Facing mass is considered theologically undesirable by the congregation, a simple table can be placed anywhere in the nave or chancel. If original reredos with Ten Commandment tablets are seen as “too Protestant”, they can be left visible during Lent and/or Advent and covered by banners during other seasons (still leaving room for artistic endeavors in the church). Yes, in some rare cases, there is no other choice but to completely redo some areas of the building, but even under those circumstances, arrangements can be made to allow the reuse undesirable artwork in other environments, such as chapels, parish halls or new church plants. In most cases, though, the money spent on such transformations could be used in much more urgent purposes, including building new facilities for the church, mission, evangelism and even new church planting (and consequently, new art and architectural challenges).

Simply put, destroying an altar, or screen, or kneelers, or anything else just to build another one in the same place is bad, bad stewardship. It shows no respect for the sacrifice of the ones who came before us, it spends money that could be used with much more urgent causes and it diverts the mission of the Church, and of sacred art, from its main focus. It is, as the Brazilian proverb says, “to change six for half a dozen”, and I wonder if some centuries from now, we will be seen by our descendants as the iconoclasts of our times.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”

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