Concluding Thoughts

This concluding post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Jonathan Willis, monster-head and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Jonathan is a reformation historian who has worked on the musical and material cultures of the English parish church, in his Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England and in his forthcoming book The Reformation of the Decalogue.  Here he reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Collinson’s original lecture, which posited a shift in Protestant attitudes to religious imagery, music and drama around the year c.1580 from creative engagement (his idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclasm’) to ideological disengagement (‘iconophobia’) presents three challenges to historians.  Well, it probably presents more than three, but there are three in particular that I want to focus on here…

3666e534c7bdb9746caf03110c90dc4fThe first challenge, and the one which has been taken up and answered with the most gusto, in the contributions to this symposium as well as in the scholarship more broadly, has been to disprove the notion of a shift to ‘iconophobia’ through the identification and presentation of concrete counter-examples.  Religious imagery, religious music and religious drama did not cease to exist c.1580.  It is worth pointing out at this juncture that Collinson’s article (perhaps unsurprisingly) stands up much better today upon re-reading than I had anticipated.  Much of what people have challenged him on, he doesn’t actually claim.  He doesn’t speak about religious music in general, for example; just godly ballads.  He doesn’t speak about pictorial art in general, and explicitly rules out domestic decoration from consideration.  His claims and evidence are much more limited than they are often taken to be, and therefore in a narrow sense they remain more or less correct.

However, that means that there is still room, if not to challenge Collinson directly, then at least to add nuance and finesse to his broader argument by multiplying the number of test cases for the shift he claimed to identify.  As Richard Dhillon, Tara Hamling, Malcolm Jones, Andrew Morrall, Susan Orlik, Adrian Streete, Jan Tasker and others have shown in their contributions to this symposium and elsewhere, not all drama, music, imagery and material culture follows the narrow pattern of ‘from iconoclasm to iconophobia’.  It therefore follows on the basis of the consideration of these types of evidence that English Protestantism never moved beyond the sceptical but imaginative engagement with visual, musical and dramatic media which Collinson rather provocatively described as ‘iconoclastic’.

5547581ae5a3f3c551d923ad10f8c80fThe second challenge, and the one I want to dwell on for a moment here, is to leave the artistic evidence to one side and to consider instead the theological underpinnings of Protestant attitudes to visual, musical and dramatic media.  Was there a significant shift in thinking around the year 1580, and the emergence of what we might call a ‘theology of iconophobia’? In a word, no.  In exploring this question, ‘iconoclasm’ is not actually the most helpful concept.  It is only the practical consequence of another more important concept, idolatry, which is its creator and shaper.

Idolatry was essentially defined negatively by the second of the Ten Commandments:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Like all the commandments, the second included both a prescription and a proscription.  John Dod, author of one of the most popular expositions of the Ten Commandments of the early seventeenth century, explained that ‘in this second Commandement, all false meanes of Gods worship are condemned, and the true meanes required’.  In other words, the commandment directed men to worship God ‘not after the inventions of flesh & bloud, but according to the directions of his holy Word.’  The unusual length of the commandment was because God was fully aware how likely men were to break it: ‘our nature is wonderfull prone to idolatry, and wee are very apt and readie to worship God falsely and superstitiously’.

The only images specifically outlawed by the commandment were images of the persons of the trinity: even representing Christ was impossible, because any representation could only include his humanity, and not truly depict his divinity.  The rest of the commandment referred not to images, but to human behaviour: to the misappropriation of worship, all of which was due unto God, to works of human fancy or imagination.

Dod is fairly representative of the attitude to idolatry of what Collinson called the ‘second phase’ of the English reformation.  What of the first phase?  Some fifty years before Dod, John Hooper, the Edwardian bishop of Gloucester and future martyr published his own Declaration of the Ten holy Commandments of Almighty God.  At first glance, Hooper’s discussion of the Second Commandment is much more limited than Dod’s, relating exclusively to the making and honouring of images of God.  Looking across his exposition more broadly, however, we see many of the same arguments made by Dod appearing under other commandements, and in particular the first, the second part of which ‘forbiddeth all false Gods’.  Hooper explained that the injunction

“thou shalt have no strange gods before my face” removeth all false religion and superstition, wherewithal the glory and majesty of God might happen to be diminished or darkened in the soul of man … this honour we owe only to God, faith, love, fear, and prayer.  Now to attribute any of these to any creature is idolatry, and to have false gods before his face.

It was the First Commandment, for Hooper, that forbade prayer to saints, faith in astronomy, conjuring, sorcery, and ‘every thing that we do for the honour of God, not commanded by his word’.

In terms of the commandments, then, two things are clear.  The first is that the importance of their reformation renumbering to give increased prominence to the prohibition against the making of graven images has been overstated, as all the commandments of the first table prohibited idolatry in one form or another.  And the second is that while the pronouncements later in the century may have been more detailed, the same essential conception of what constituted idolatry was present at the beginning of the reformation as during what Collinson called its ‘middle age’.  In other words, there doesn’t appear to be anything in the theological writings of the time to support the notion of a shift to iconophobia, or a change in religious attitudes.

s-l300Thirdly and finally, then, a challenge remains.  If we have good grounds to reject the shift from ‘iconoclasm’ to ‘iconophobia’, both in terms of surviving artistic evidence from Collinson’s period of ‘maturity’ and also continuity of Reformed thinking about what constituted idolatry, then what should we replace it with?  Insofar as it remained implacably opposed to idolatrous worship, English Protestantism remained resolutely iconoclastic (in both the traditional and the Collinsonian senses), or perhaps more accurately ‘iconomachical’ (opposed to the worship of icons).  However, it is also possible to detect a hardening of attitudes towards certain forms of representation, in certain media, and in certain contexts, around the middle of Elizabeth’s reign, especially amongst the godly, as Collinson described.  Why?  Perhaps we need to start thinking less about hard theological absolutes, and more about contingent factors such as necessity, function, and use.  An instructive comparison can perhaps be made with godly attitudes towards adiaphora (things indifferent) in worship.  Godly attitudes regarding adiaphora required ceremonies to be positively edifying, not merely ‘not repugnant’ to the word of God.  In the shift of the reformation from a propaganda campaign to a campaign of education, did certain media, certain tropes, fulfil and by doing so forfeit their edifying function?  While much of the Elizabethan church was fossilised in the settlement of 1559, English Protestantisms and their notions of what was ‘acceptable’, ‘edifying’ or ‘appropriate’ continued to evolve, often in contrary directions.  The opportunity still exists for somebody to provide us with a model of exactly how…

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6 thoughts on “Concluding Thoughts

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  2. Thank-you, Jonathan and Tara, for organising this symposium. I have found it very fruitful indeed and it seems that there is life in the debate yet. Bravo!

    I think your concluding point about changes in the use and function of images is an important one, Jonathan. A series of points well made.

    • Thank you Adam, for your post and for a series of thought-provoking comments. I thnk the challenge we face is coming up with an argument as lucid, persuasive and attractive as Collinson’s, which is still able to do justice to the complexity and richness of new evidence which has been unearthed around the topic. In fact, this is perhaps a microcosm of the challenge facing reformation historians more broadly!

  3. Interesting stuff indeed. Timing: return of the clerics from the continent with an intention to (re-)educate the clergy, such as Lever in archdeaconry of Coventry. Their programme maturing about 1580? OTOH, visitation returns illustrate the failure of the parochial clergy fully to catechize the young.
    Your point about TCs is interesting, informed by your important research. It raises then the question, which you have addressed (and which addresses also Bossy) about why the TCs could be ignored previously, most particularly in the Man of Sorrows and the Humanity of Christ. Then again, I’m not really au fait with this stuff.
    Personally, I’ve found this a very (positively) challenging discussion. I have to repeat my scepticism about a ‘Long Reformation’ which seems to ignore so much that concurrently occurred, in other aspects of epistemology/knowledge and (to use Eggert’s infelicitous term) ‘disknowledge’.

    • Thank you Dave for this comment, and for being one of the most active and engaged posters across the symposium as a whole! It’s striking that Hooper – one of the most thoroughgoing evangelicals of his day, winess the first vestiarian controversy – largely considers the problem of idolatry settled by the reign of Edward – the English have moved beyond it. Later in the century, the merest fragment, trace or echo of the Catholic past is enough to drive some commentators into paroxysms of rage. What success looks like changes radically as the reformation progresses, and reform is also perhaps subject to a law of dimishing returns the longer it goes on. The big victories are comparatively easy to win; the small ones are much harder and take much longer, but they remain symbolic of the same life or death issues for some, even as they become irrelevant to others.

  4. I’ll add another (probably juvenile) comment to endorse what you advise about the grand thesis still being inhabited by nuance. As you comment, behind the bare title, Collinson did retain nuance and it is important that you defined that. I’ve never been opposed a priori to ‘presentism’, but that again must be nuanced. We run a risk of everything becoming structural/binary (as opposed to say Bourdieu’s structuration/structured) and dichotomous. ‘Presentism’ can be enticed into sensationalism applied to the past, not least in ‘popular’ renditions. That reductionism adds no value and can be profoundly unproductive – and reproduce conflict. We may also conclude with the sort of dialectic now so prominently practised: thesis-antithesis-‘I don’t accept that’ (the IDS revision). I think your and Bossy’s discussion about seven mortal sins to ten commandments is an excellent example of a grand thesis which is inclusive of nuance. So, yes, let’s have this return to grand theory/themes without losing sight of the nuance – as, in your case as you indicate, for example, between levels of social organization etc. BTW, isn’t is time that we revisited what culture actually means in different contexts? It runs the risk, perhaps, are becoming a cliche (apologies no diacritic).

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