A tourist from Missouri who was traveling in Italy might have tried the same stunt this week, when he unintentionally broke the finger off a 600-year-old statue in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Called the “Annunciazione,” the statue of the Virgin Mary is actually a copy of an original by 15th century Florentine sculptor Giovanni d’Ambrogio.
According to reports, the unnamed tourist was trying to measure Mary’s hand by holding his own up to hers and giving her a “high five.” A museum guard, seeing the tourist reach toward the statue, tried to stop him from making physical contact with the priceless work; but the deed was done, and the Virgin’s pinky finger was broken. The Italian newspaper Corriere Fiorentino reports that the finger was removed by restorers before it could fall to the ground.
Reading this, I was reminded of another story I’d seen earlier this year, of a seriously vandalized statue which had lost more than simply a pinky finger before being hidden away, secure beneath the chapel floor at London’s Mercers’ Hall. This sculpture, the Statue of the Dead Christ (c. 1500-1520), is missing not just a finger—it’s missing its crown of thorns, arms and lower legs. It’s believed that the statue, which was discovered in 1954, was attacked by British iconoclasts, then hidden under the floor of the chapel to prevent further attack from religious reformers in the 16th century.
Beginning October 2, the Tate Gallery in London will feature the Statue of the Dead Christ in an exhibit titled “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm.” Tate curator Tabitha Barber, according to the BBC, expressed delight that the Mercers’ Company had loaned the sculpture to the Tate for this special exhibition. Barber said,
“Confronted by the statue today, its emotional impact is still such that the danger of such images feared by 16th century reformers – the confusion between the real and the represented, or the sinful worship of an image instead of God – is near enough to be imagined.
“This incredible loan will help us to explore the methods and motives behind attacks on art in Britain over 500 years.”
The exhibit will also include more recent examples of art attacks, including a Mark Rothco mural which was defaced by a marker pen and “The Hay Wain,” an 1821 painting by John Constable, which was targeted just this year by a protester in the National Gallery.
Besides the Statue of the Dead Christ, examples of religious iconoclasm in the planned exhibit include smashed stained glass from Rievaulx Abbey, fragments of the great rood screen from Winchester Cathedral, and a Book of Hours from the British Library which was defaced by state-sanctioned religious reformers.