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Iconoclasm’s Evil War Against The Sacred… The Beeldenstorm Of 1566 And How Catholic Artists Fought Back

July 10, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Part 1

“. . . The enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary! / Thy foes have roared in the midst of thy holy place . . . / At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. / And then all its carved wood / they broke down with hatchets and hammers / They set thy sanctuary on fire; / to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of thy name . . . / they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” (Psalm 74:3-8).
On Christmas morning in the year 1554, the faithful of Tournai, Belgium, were attending Mass at a side chapel in the city’s cathedral church when a stranger arrived, just before the consecration, a man “on a mission,” as it were. At the very moment when following the consecration the priest elevated the Host, Bertrand Le Blas stormed the altar, seizing the Host from the celebrant’s hands, and after hurling it to the floor, trampled the sacrament into fragments, ranting as he did so that it was an “idol.” This sacrilege was at the time an isolated incident. But it was a sign of things to come.
The campaign to reinvent Christianity known to history as the Protestant Reformation rose to a new frenzy across the Netherlands and Belgium as spring gave way to summer in 1566. The Low Countries were at the time still predominantly Catholic, but Calvinist preachers, several of whom were apostate Catholic clergy and religious, were gaining a popular following and fomenting unrest through their “hedge sermons,” sermons delivered in the open fields outside the cities. A favorite subject of these rallies was the condemnation of Catholic adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and veneration of religious images as “idolatry.” There was a plan afoot to put these words of rage against the sacred into action, and the agitators had more than one playbook to work from.
In 1554 the Dutch Protestant Jan Gerritz Verstege published a tract that a year later appeared under the title Der Leken Wechwijser (The Layman’s Guide). Verstege incites his readers to take the matter of religious images into their own hands, decrying the latter as “most shameful idols” that “should be thrown out of the churches and burnt.” Driving home his point, he adds, “…it is impossible that good evangelical hearts should allow all the gross gods to remain in the reformed temples or allow new ones to be made” (quoted in Keith Moxey, “Image Criticism in the Netherlands before the Iconoclasm of 1566,” Dutch Review of Church History, new series, volume 57, n. 2, p. 157 — downloaded from jstor.org).
On August 10, 1566, a chapel just outside the Belgian village of Steenvorde became the first of over four hundred churches and chapels across the Low Countries that within a period of less than two months were to fall victim to Verstege’s call to action. Over the weeks that followed, bands of rioters armed with hammers, axes, clubs, knives, and hatchets smashed, mutilated, dismembered, gouged out, and burned countless religious statues, crucifixes, reliquaries, altars, retables, and rood screens. Vestments, sacred vessels, candlesticks, and pipe organs were likewise destroyed. In Hulst, a crucifix was thrown into a pig sty.
Desecration of the Blessed Sacrament was a systematic component of the iconoclastic campaign. On August 12, at the Augustinian friary of Bailleul, rioters trampled upon Communion Hosts. In Culemborg, a nobleman fed the Blessed Sacrament to his pet parrot. In Ghent, liturgical vessels were employed for a celebratory binge of eating and drinking. In Limburg, a chalice was desecrated with urine.
On Sunday, August 18, the people of Antwerp gathered to celebrate their annual procession in honor of the Assumption in which the city’s most revered image of the Blessed Virgin, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw, was carried in a two-hour procession from its shrine church, the massive Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekirk.
On this occasion, tensions were high as the procession got underway. Some in the crowd began shouting insults against the Blessed Virgin, taunting her with the threat, “Little Mary, little Mary, this is your last time!” as they pelted the image with rocks. Two days later, fearful for the statue’s safety, the canons of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekirk decided to move the statue out of the center of the church, where it had been temporarily placed for the Assumption octave, and return it to its chapel.
The enemies of the image came back to mock the Blessed Virgin anew, disrupting those at prayer in the chapel as they shouted, “She’ll be knocked down soon” (Peter Arnade, Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots: The Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2018, pp. 143, 144).
Later that evening, the demonstrators made good on their threat. Taking advantage of a door accidently left unlocked, rioters swarmed into the church and vented their hatred upon the Blessed Virgin, subjecting the statue to a mock execution, beheading her, then severing her right hand and her left arm. Afterward they turned their weapons upon everything else sacred in the church, including the Blessed Sacrament, which they trampled underfoot. In a letter dated August 21, 1566, the Englishman Richard Clough relates what he saw upon entering the church that night:
“. . . it looked like a hell, where were above 10,000 torches burning, and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works, such sort that the spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church…organs and all destroyed” (“Eye-witness Account of Image-breaking at Antwerp, 21-23 August 1566,” A. Duke, ed. — available at www.dutchrevolt.leiden.edu/english/sources).
Though the iconoclasts claimed to be acting in the name of the Gospel, singing Psalms as they went about their destructive work, they routinely attacked books, tearing up Psalters, Bibles, and many other volumes containing the Scriptures.
In Hondschoote, a carpenter named Jacob van Hende raided the Cistercian abbey and tore apart precious illuminated manuscripts, finishing his work by throwing everything into a fire.
In Antwerp, there were places left knee-deep in the ripped-up paper of destroyed religious books.
In Ghent, almost the entire library of the Dominicans’ friary was lost, with so many of its books torn and thrown into the Leie River that, as one witness observed, it looked as if the water was strewn with “very large snowflakes” (Geert Janssen, The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 24).
Not even personal objects of devotion were safe from the marauding iconoclasts. On September 11, in the village of Ledringhem, rioters who earlier in the day had vented their wrath upon the parish church came back in the evening to rifle through private homes, intent upon targeting any domestic altars or shrines they might find.
Profanation of the sacred also meant profanation of the graves of the dead. Time and again, rioters broke into tombs and desecrated the bodies of the deceased, a gruesome form of sacrilege that 370 years later leftist militants were to employ during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.
One of the most disturbing dimensions of the 1566 Beeldenstorm was the conspicuous participation of children in the desecration of sacred images. In Ghent, it was children who began the violence. In the Church of St. Nicholas, where there was a depiction of the Holy Family with the Blessed Virgin in a recumbent posture holding the Christ Child, with St. Joseph standing at her side, a group of children began taunting the image of our Lady with the blasphemous insult, “Get up, Maike (Mary), you have been in bed for long enough, boozing and stuffing yourself, it’s time you got a move on.” The children then tore down the Holy Family and beheaded the statue of St. Joseph (quoted in Judith Pollmann, Catholic Identity and the Revolt in the Netherlands, 1320-1635, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 16). In Amsterdam, youths stoned the statues of a high altar, and in Hertogenbosch it was the young who destroyed a crucifix in the city’s cathedral.
This was not random, mindless violence. As scholars who have studied the 1566 Beeldenstorm closely have concluded, the raids were carefully planned and ruthlessly efficient in systematically eviscerating the Catholic fabric of each city and village they “cleansed.”

Scandalized By
The Incarnation

The logic of such iconoclasm is nothing other than the logic of hatred of the sacred. It is the logic of those who condemned Christ and put Him to death, the very first “iconoclasts,” the very first to be so scandalized that God would become man and take a human face that they called it blasphemy and hacked away with scourges and blows at that human face and human body that God had assumed.
For iconoclasm at its root is all about being scandalized by the Incarnation, scandalized by the “corporeality” of Christ, scandalized that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. John Calvin (1509-1564) implies almost as much when in the course of his execration against the Catholic veneration of religious images he declares that “the majesty of God is defiled by an absurd and indecorous fiction, when he who is incorporeal is assimilated to corporeal matter” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Edinburgh, Calvin Translation Society, volume 1, 1845, book 1, chapter 11, p. 121).
Perceiving the anti-Incarnational implications of the iconoclasts’ contentions, the English Catholic priest and apologist Nicholas Harpsfield (1519-1575) observed:
“Now the adoration of Christ, not only as God but also as man, lies at the forefront of our religion. His likeness offers to us the surest proof of His humanity. Since the mind, fixed deeply on Christ (whom the entire likeness represents), adores in His likeness neither the material nor the form nor the colors but rather through them adores Christ, what else could the rejection of this adoration as idolatrous be, except the silent confession either that Christ did not assume human flesh or at least that this flesh ought not to be adored in Him?” (Harpsfield, Dialogi sex, 1566, quoted in Keith Moxey, “Reflections on Some Unusual Subjects in the Work of Pieter Aertsen,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 18. Bd., 1976, p. 74 — downloaded from jstor.org).

In addition to all that iconoclasm is as a profanation of the sacred, it is also an act of theft, a theft by the destruction of property that is not one’s own, and a theft of the artistic patrimony of an entire people or nation. It is also a crime against the artists and artisans who devoted their time and talents toward the making of these images.
And artists did indeed react to the events of 1566. It is the responses of three Catholic artists in particular that will form the substance of part two of this exploration of the Beeldenstorm of 1566 and its aftermath.

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