This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Ian Green, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School for History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. Ian has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern print, education and domestic devotion. Here he reflects upon some of the most fertile areas of future research in further refining our sense of the relationship between mature Protestantism and graphic depictions in visual and material cultures.
As Eamon Duffy and others have shown, the iconoclasts of the mid-16th century destroyed much of the splendour and symbolism of the late medieval church, and as Patrick Collinson suggested, some of the leaders of the second phase of the Reformation in the late 16th century wanted to narrow the range of religious imagery even further. But not only is it open to question whether these ‘iconophobes’ were sufficiently well-placed or organized to bring about the decisive further shift in English culture that Pat thought he could detect, but also it may be suggested that the impact of iconoclasm in mid-Tudor England had not been as severe as in Reformed churches abroad or in Scotland. This was partly because the English authorities deployed a narrower definition of idolatry, and partly because at all levels of clergy and laity there appears to have been a reluctance to go beyond the bare minimum of destruction authorized, especially if the offending objects were hard to reach or expensive to replace. As a result a significant proportion of fittings, decorations and monuments were left alone until the 1640s, or even the 19th century and beyond, as in the ‘Shakespeare church’, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, which has two 15th-century images of Christ, scores of angels, and symbols such as the three nails used to crucify Christ, and the five stigmata of the wounds he received. And we need to ask why parishioners protected these remnants at the time, both the obviously Christian images and the pagan ones on misericords, roof bosses, gargoyles and pew ends, and how they were regarded in succeeding eras.
During the two centuries after the Reformation, moreover, there were at least two further developments in which the laity rather than the clergy took the lead. These led to the interiors of many churches becoming full to bursting again with new carvings, paintings and monuments, and we badly need detailed regional surveys of these before we attempt a national picture of religious art. One development was the adaptation to new ends of existing furnishings and fittings or their replacement by something very similar, especially in the nave where the laity spent most of the services. The configuration of the vast majority of parish churches remained the same as in Catholic times, but more pews were provided for the congregation to sit on while listening to more frequent homilies or sermons; richly carved new pulpits were added, many with a suitable scripture text and a sounding board above them; there were more eagle-shaped lecterns for the routine of regular readings from a folio copy of the latest translation of the English Bible; there were desks from which the parish clerk read the vernacular liturgy or lined out the metrical psalms; and in the tower new bells and new frames were added to the old medieval ones, to facilitate change ringing. There was also the acquisition of good quality communion plate, from which the laity could receive both the bread and the wine; the supplementing of medieval heraldry by painted or carved royal coats of arms; the replacement of old painted images on the walls by scripture texts or commandment boards in round-topped panels, like Moses’s tablets of the law in pre-Reformation images; and the replacement of weepers on pre-Reformation tombs by rows of boys and girls kneeling behind their parents, whose own effigies were less likely to be recumbent and more likely to be kneeling either side of a reading desk on which lay a bible or devotional text.
This brings us to the second development: the rapid diaspora of new monuments and other forms of decoration that were tolerated inside the church as well as outside. The monuments ranged from the lavish new floor-mounted monuments and the striking wall-mounted tablets that were given priority in the chancel or east end of the aisles, and many of which had colourful heraldic displays, and architectural features or motifs drawn from classical, Renaissance and Baroque sources, to the decorated ledger stones and gravestones of the middling sort and skilled artisans, which had simpler or more traditional iconography and vied for a prestigious place in the nave or the graveyard. Then there were the colourful decorations – scrolls, strapwork and foliage – and the putti that increasingly adorned the commandment boards and the scripture texts chosen to reflect the different zones of the church – entrance, font, nave, pulpit and communion table. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries came the smart new pipe organs, the new chandeliers (with a symbolic shape or relevant text), the classical reredoses with sacred emblems (dove, heart, crown of thorns) and yet more scripture texts, the new tiles in the chancel, the gilded charity boards and the new generations of painted glass windows. No wonder visitors to England expressed surprise at how colourfully decorated many English churches were.
In many cases, the impulses and fund-raising for these new fittings and forms of decoration came from the laity, inspired less by the so-called ‘avant-garde conformity’ and the Laudian ideals of a small minority of churchmen, than the blend of old and new motifs that crown and landed elites evolved, and soon trickled down to professional and urban elites and beyond. And the tens of thousands of inscriptions on the monuments, walls and boards reflected not only their humanist education and their pride in family connections and duties performed, and the emotional attachment of the living to the dead, but also the evolution of their views on how to pursue a Christian life and death with the best prospect of salvation. We badly need not only regional surveys of changing language and sentiments in the inscriptions of all social levels that survive, but also an explanation of how an emphasis upon good works meriting reward, and fulminations against cruel Fate (with a capital F) or the gods (plural) in stealing away the dearly beloved, could be combined in an author’s mind with the church’s insistence on salvation through grace by faith alone.
In sum, the physical survivals, adaptations and innovations in English churches may indicate that during the first two centuries after the Reformation the community of believers that overlapped with and intersected the parish community evolved a new blend of image, word and ritual that was distinctly post-Reformation in what was omitted, but also conservative or irenic in what pre-Reformation features were retained or adapted to new ends.