About Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Birmingham, and is on twitter as @CREMS_Bham and @drjpwillis

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…

Historiographical Reflections

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Alec Ryrie, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  Alec has expertise and has published widely in a variety of areas pusuant to the history of the English reformation, including Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Here he offers some historiographical reflections on Collinson’s Stenton lecture and the model of doing history which it offers.

The consensus view of the workshop was that significant parts of Collinson’s argument in this lecture were, simply, wrong; but also that they were fascinatingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong. Pieces of this kind appear periodically in historical scholarship: powerful arguments which do not necessarily command any kind of assent, but which unsettle and stimulate a wide range of scholars and end up advancing an entire field. We can all come up with a short list of works of this kind. They are a very useful part of the scholarly ecosystem. My question is, how do we encourage this kind of work? And I ask not least because I fear that it is becoming less common than once it was.

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Future Directions

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.

47372As 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. Continue reading

Somerton: a Parochial Case Study

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Susan Orlik, a PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Susan is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on the changing material culture of the English parish church, c.1560-1640.  Here she reflects upon the implications of a close case study of the Somerset parish of Somerton for Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis.

Over the last thirty years scholars have challenged Patrick Collinson’s generalised arguments on iconophobia, which he laid out in his famous 1985 Stenton lecture, and then developed in The Birthpangs of Protestant England in 1988. In the book he used the famous phrase ‘severe visual anorexia’ to describe the absence of the visual.[i] Recently the rich material evidence from local parish churches has been used to challenge his view and provide a more nuanced perspective about the visual.

Somerton in Somerset provides such rich material evidence. It has an inscribed and coloured pulpit of 1615 and a carved communion table of 1626 with some rare images on its bulbous legs. The material evidence is matched here by informative Churchwardens’ accounts: these tell of the Churchwardens raising an annual rate and also raising an additional rate for a specific purpose. In 1615 the additional rate was levied ‘for and towards the building of the new pulpit and repayeringe of defects about the church’. The octagonal pulpit has the date on it, as well as an elaborately decorated cornice with a frieze of flowers and leaves. Continue reading

The Case for Domestic Imagery

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Andrew Morrall, Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at the Bard Graduate Centre.  Andrew has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern Northern European fine and applied arts, the reformation and the arts, the history and theory of ornament and the early history of collecting. Here he reflects upon the field of domestic imagery, and its relationship to Collinson’s thesis.

This contribution to the After Iconophobia workshop consisted chiefly in suggesting a number of perceived blind spots with regard to Collinson’s theory of “creeping aesthetic totalitarianism” in the sphere of Protestant visual culture in later Elizabethan England, in the light of subsequent scholarship.[1] Collinson’s argument is that between the years c.1570 to c.1600, there occurred a definitive and radical shift from a visual to a logo-centric culture, during which the religious image was apparently so completely removed from the culture that it was worth the author positing the question of the generation that grew up within those years:

“What do we know of the capacity to form mental pictures of someone who has never seen an actual picture? What would our mind’s eye of Christ be if we had been totally isolated from the Christian iconographical tradition”? (p. 296).

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Fragments of Doom in Post-Reformation England

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Richard Dhillon, an AHRC M3C-funded PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Richard is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on representations of the hell actoss the English reformation.  Here he reflects upon some of the changing ways in which the traditional ‘doom’ (or last judgement scene) continued to be represented visually after the reformation.

Guild Chapel

Fig. 1 A reconstruction of the Doom at Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel by William Puddephat.

In his accounts for 1563, John Shakespeare, father of William Shakespeare and chamberlain of Stratford-upon-Avon, recorded a charge of 2s for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chapel’.[1] In a purification exercise that has become emblematic of Protestant iconoclasm, Shakespeare whitewashed the walls of the town’s Guild Chapel, covering much of the rich scheme that adorned them, including the Doom which dominated the chancel arch.[2] [Fig. 1] The scene depicted the Day of Judgment, as described in the Book of Matthew. Christ sits in majesty at the centre of the scene. To the viewer’s left are the saved, entering the kingdom of heaven, and to the right are the damned, being delivered into the gruesome mouth of hell.

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English single-sheet prints c.1580-c.1620 in the light of Collinson’s 1985 lecture

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Malcolm Jones, former senior lecturer in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, and author of The Print in Early Modern England.  Malcolm also has more than 70 Pinterest boards with examples of early modern visual culture.  Here he reflects upon the implications that surviving single-sheet prints in the period c.1580-c.1620 have for Collinson’s ‘iconoclasm to iconophobia’ thesis.

When first I came across Patrick Collinson’s statement in From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia, that by ‘iconophobia’, in the period c.1580-c.1620,[1] his ‘Second Reformation’, he intended, “the total repudiation of all images” (p.8), I was non-plussed, but I assume he meant “the total repudiation of all religious images”, or “of all overtly representational religious images”, or something along those lines, rather than a quasi-Islamic ban on all representational imagery in those decades, and I have proceeded on that understanding.

His meaning is perhaps clarified in the final section of his lecture which is devoted to “pictorial art and its creeping disappearance as a means of communicating religious knowledge and arousing moral virtue”, but even here he specifically excludes from consideration emblems, and “secular didactic, decorative, ceremonial and heraldic” art (p.22).  By apparently ruling out of consideration ‘decorative’ art, he thus glosses over the entire wealth of religious imagery which Tara Hamling has recently brought to our attention in “Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household”.

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