In a recent Times Literary Supplement, David Motadel reviewed James Noyes’s 2013 book The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam. The review, and the associated scholarship, raises important questions about how we conceive of the Reformation, how we teach it, and, significantly, how we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event in 2017.

Motadel writes that,

“The prototype of all modern forms of iconoclasm [Noyes] found in Calvin’s Geneva and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s Mecca. Sixteenth-century Geneva witnessed one of the most devastating waves of religious image-breaking in history. Incited by a group of charismatic theologians – among them John Calvin himself – mobs raged against objects associated with miracles, magic and the supernatural, destroying some of the city’s most precious pieces of Christian art. Invoking the Second Commandment, they denounced these works as idols, and as remnants of a rural, feudal and superstitious world, a world corrupted by Satan.”

Nor  was Geneva unusual. In Basel in 1529, widespread iconoclastic riots destroyed virtually all the material tokens of traditional Catholic worship and devotion in the cathedral and the city’s leading churches. Even these German and Swiss manifestations were dwarfed by the devastating Storm of Images (Beeldenstorm) that swept over the Netherlands in 1566.

This movement was directed against any and all Catholic material symbols — against stained glass windows, statues of the Virgin and saints, holy medals and tokens.

Such stories of image-breaking (iconoclasm) are familiar enough to anyone who knows about the Reformation, and there are plenty of scholarly studies.

Recent works, though, highlight two features of the movement that often get underplayed:

1. Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance.

Historians of the Reformation tend to be bookish people interested in books, so they focus on aspects of literacy and translation, with the spread of the vernacular Bible as the centerpiece of the story. The idea of the Reformation as a “media revolution” is common enough.

Yes, we do read of outbreaks of destructive violence and iconoclasm, but these are usually presented as marginal excesses, or understandable instances of popular fury against church abuses. Once we get those unfortunate riots out of the way, we can get back to the main story of tracing the process of Bible translation.

That’s very misleading. For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase.

In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed.

In words adapted from the Vulgate version of Job, the Calvinist motto proclaimed, Post Tenebras Lux: After darkness, Light. (And that is still Geneva’s motto).

We also need to think through the effects of such violence. Protestant historians sometimes write as if the Reformation brought religious knowledge and spirituality to a Continent from which it had been largely lacking. Of course, pre-Reformation believers had ample access to the Christian tradition, but usually mediated through non-literate forms, through drama and visual culture. When Reformation states and mobs destroyed or suppressed those alternative cultural forms, they were in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story.

It was also an unabashedly top-down phenomenon. That image breaking we hear about was invariably the work of urban mobs, in societies that were overwhelmingly rural. The Reformation was a war of the cities against the countryside, of the ten percent (perhaps) against the ninety percent.

It would be decades or centuries before the new religious order based on books and literacy would disseminate throughout the whole country, including rural areas. Urban communities spent those decades sneering at the religious ignorance of the peasants.

From the perspective of visual art and culture, the Reformation was one of the greatest catastrophes that ever befell Europe. It also had a massive class bias, in that it targeted objects beloved by ordinary people, while princes and dukes were able to safeguard their Classical treasures. Obviously, there were also cultural gains, in the form of mass literacy, and new forms of visual media, including pamphlets and cartoons. But in terms of paintings, murals, sculpture, architecture, and stained glass, the losses were irreparable.

Centuries of vernacular culture and piety vanished within a generation.

2.Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit.

Noyes compares Calvin closely to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement that so often features, unflatteringly, in our headlines. Al-Wahhab (1703-92) was also a near-exact contemporary of John Wesley (1703-91), a fact that cries out for a comparative dual biography!

Like Calvinism, Wahhabi Islam urged the destruction of everything that could be seen as a later accretion to the core of the religion, as well as all manifestations of paganism or idolatry. Since the 1920s, this version of the faith has been the official creed of Saudi Arabia, and variants of it are found among Islam’s violent and extreme movements.

For present purposes, it is the Wahhabi tradition that has unleashed the savage destruction of shrines and holy places that has been so widely deplored in the past half-century or so. This includes the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the attempted eradication of the glorious shrines and libraries of Timbuktu, and the annihilation of most of the ancient shrines and tombs around Mecca itself. Some Egyptian Islamists fantasize about eradicating all the ruins of pagan ancient Egypt, including the Pyramids themselves.

Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity’s cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West’s own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment’s sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in.

I am sometimes bemused to hear Western commentators call for contemporary Islam to experience a “Reformation,” by which they mean an opening to freedom and toleration. That is of course an extremely distorted view of Christianity’s own Reformation. Arguably, Islam has been going through its own Reformation for a century or so, which is exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists. That’s the problem.

In comparing the Protestant Reformers with contemporary Wahhabis, I am not commenting on their theology, their attitude to violence, or to social issues like the status of women. I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?

It will be interesting to see how prominently this iconoclastic aspect of the Reformation heritage will be celebrated come 2017. My suspicion is, scarcely at all.

By the way, those recent academic studies that I mentioned include:

Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Lee Palmer Wanderl, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Virginia Chieffo Raguin, ed., Art, Piety and Destruction in the Christian West, 1500-1700 (Ashgate, 2010).

Eamon Duffy’s brilliant The Stripping of the Altars is in a second (2005) edition.

For an older work, see John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660 (University of California Press, 1973)

And of course, see the Noyes book I mentioned at the outset.



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  • Preston Garrison

    I remember reading in Texas Monthly some years ago of James Robison taking Cullen Davis’s collection of African art out and dumping it in a Texas lake. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that if you can’t curse in a god’s name, then that god is of no significance any more. That wouldn’t have given the Reformers any sense of perspective, but it is a place to start.

  • A faith without holy, informative images is more likely to have its members succumb to ungodly imagery or detest the image of God through man altogether. Icons can be reflections of Christ’s lights into the windows of our eyes, which creates a clear contrast with the deception of the world’s cherished visuals.

  • eblum

    And we can include the Pueblo Revolt that Paul Harvey writes about in The Color of Christ

  • Andrew Dowling

    Thanks Dr. Jenkins for speaking the truth on this. The Reformation was an overall very ugly movement, with disdain for intellectuals, the arts, and even basic entertainment for children. It was much closer in scope to modern Islamism than anything resembling early Christianity, which it claimed to be harking back to.

    From it eventually (thankfully) sprang forth more tolerant, liberal strains from which much of the Enlightenment eventually gained traction from, but its initial initiators, including Luther and Calvin, would be called today a bunch of extremist nuts.

  • PortageMain

    “It will be interesting to see how prominently this iconoclastic aspect of the Reformation heritage will be celebrated come 2017.”

    It will, but not for the reasons the author suggests. There is a considerable amount of disagreement among Protestants about icons, from a strictly Puritan perspective denouncing all forms of religous objects to the Anglicans who don’t see anything particularly wrong with them.

    And your comparison of Protestants to Wahhabis is not appreciated, nor does it have any grounding in fact. It’s nice of you to finally mention in the 6th paragraph that you aren’t talking about the Protestant’s “theology, their attitude to violence, or to social issues like the status of women”, but by then the damage is pretty well done.

  • Mark Byron

    Anglicans wouldn’t consider themselves Protestant in that context, as their split with the Catholic church was more political than theological.

    The comparison to the Wahhabis does hurt, but that’s because it’s a good analogy; both they and the early Protestants did a bit of icon-bashing and wanted to get back to theological basics. It doesn’t judge the merits of their faiths, just their somewhat common styles.

    As far as lacking “grounding in fact”, I’ll take Dr. Jenkins’ track record over a random disgruntled armchair theologian.

  • PortageMain

    I wasn’t aware I needed a degree to comment on this article. Thanks for letting me know

  • Mark Byron

    I just wasn’t that fond of your dismissal of a fairly well researched piece as having “no grounding in fact” without bringing something to bear with that argument. I’m also an “armchair theologian” with no formal training outside of weeknight Bible studies and Sunday School classes, so we can delete my posts along with yours if we agree to Mutually Assured Deletion.

    That being said, to dis one of the better comparative theology experts on the planet out of hand shows a bit of cockiness.

  • PortageMain

    Mark – I appreciate your thoughtful reply. My intention was not to “diss” the good doctor, but to dispute, admittedly rather crudely, some of the points he made. A number of his points aren’t exactly a consensus opinion (that Iconoclasm was a central feature of the Reformation) and others are controversial and provocative (citing Noyes’ comparison of Wahhabis and Reformation-era Protestants, on a couple of rather narrow points) so I thought he would be expecting, and possibly hoping for, a bit of reaction.

  • philipjenkins

    Your point about consensus is well take, but let me ask you a serious question. Why do you feel that on the specific issues of iconoclasm and idolatry, the Reformers and the Islamists are so different? To me, they seem very similar in their actions and the justifications they offer for them. Where do you see such a clear distinction?

  • FA Miniter

    Our outrage at the destruction of Buddhist monuments by Islamic militants should inform our view of the Protestant Revolution (to call it by the name Catholicism has given it).

    I absolutely disagree that destruction of images was necessary for literary to expand. That is nonsense, as proved by our current age where images and icons (on screen and off) are proliferating along with the written word. The reader also ignores the fact that the printing press made it possible to proliferate images as well as text. Indeed, images were used by the Protestants as weapons against the Catholic Church.

  • Very thought-provoking piece. So when we break the images, we’re being champions of goodness and purity and fighting back against oppression; but when they do it they’re ignorant savages who want to deprive us of our human heritage. Nice.

  • PortageMain

    As I reflect and read the text again, I find myself disagreeing not so much on principle as on emphasis. I think the analogies between European Reformation-era Protestants and the Wahhabis on the specific issues of iconoclasm and the supremacy of the written text are quite accurate, and I agree that Calvin, Zwingli and others of the era wouldn’t lose a minute’s sleep over the Wahhabis’ iconoclasm. Beyond those two specific issues though, the two movements could hardly be more different. You do note the differences between Protestantism and Wahhabis toward the end of the section but the title of that section seems to imply that the two movements are analogous to each other in a broad sense, rather than in a couple of very specific ways.
    Even on the issues of iconoclasm and supremacy of the written texts the analogies aren’t perfect. We can disagree about the centrality of iconoclasm to the Reformation-era Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. I hope we can agree that it hasn’t been a central part of Protestantism recently. There are still a variety of schools of thought in Protestantism about icons, but iconoclasm (of other church’s property) hasn’t had much of a following for quite a while.
    It might have been useful to provide some historical context for the two movements in the article. At the time of the Reformation, pillaging and destruction of property was common. It might have been new to the Church, but invading armies of the time certainly did it and the general public would have been aware of the practice. In the 21st century, however, we generally have more genteel standards for our discussions about religion – at least in this part of the world – so it seems rather more shocking to hear about the destruction of millennia-old religious artifacts. There is a sense that they should “know better” in this day and age than to destroy icons that don’t fit their views.
    The supremacy of written texts is also relatively common in other religions and in the study of the constitution and law. There are those who ascribe to strict constructionism on the constitution or textualism or originalism in law, all of which seek to elevate the original texts rather than later interpretations. Orthodox Judaism has a similar emphasis on the written text of the Torah. There are certainly similarities between the Reformers and Wahhibis focus on the supremacy of written texts, but I would argue that it’s part of a ‘back to basics’ philosophy that is quite widespread across disciplines.
    Sorry to have become so long winded, but your inquiry offered me the opportunity to do some more thinking and research on the question, and to assemble some thoughts beyond my initial reaction to your article. It has been a pleasure for me to share some of my thoughts with you

  • GEVeith

    Well, Martin Luther opposed the iconoclasts. He came out of hiding after the Diet of Wurms, at great personal risk, to preach against them. His book “Against the Heavenly Prophets” is a brilliant treatment of the subject from a decidedly Reformation perspective. The Lutherans were surely an important part of the Reformation and its tradition. What is being celebrated in 2017 is the anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in 1517. To say that iconoclasm is at the essence of the Reformation is to say that Calvin, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists were more essential to what the Reformation was all about than Luther was. The difference between the “conservative Reformation” (Lutherans, Anglicans) and the “radical Reformation” is very significant and not to be overlooked.

  • philipjenkins

    Excellent distinction.
    But Luther and Lutherans were not necessarily the same thing. Let me quote from wikipedia’s THE REFORMATION AND ART:

    “After a few decades Lutheran commissions for new altarpieces effectively ceased, and Lutherans often had to struggle to defend their existing art from a new wave of Calvinist-on-Lutheran iconoclasm in the second half of the century, as Calvinist rulers or city authorities attempted to impose their will on Lutheran populations in the “Second Reformation” of about 1560-1619.”

    By that point, Lutherans were very much to the moderate side of the spectrum, and the dominant cutting edge was definitely Calvinist.

  • philipjenkins

    That’s not long winded, it’s thoughtful. I might say, the reason they give up image breaking after the seventeenth century is that all relevant images are already broken!

  • CPT

    This is ridiculous rhetoric.
    Wahhabists wish to to destroy all kinds of religious art and even what non-religious monuments, no matter where they are: the Afghan Buddhas in a cave, the Pyramids out in the middle of the desert, Shiite shrines in an area run by Shiites, etc. The Reformers merely wanted to remove images from their churches (and to have Christians get rid of the icons they kept in their house). Calvin did not desire to lead an army to invade Rome and burn down St Peter’s Cathedral; Cranmer never wanted to tear down Stonehenge; Jan Hus didn’t want to ransack the Hagia Sophia, etc.
    Think about it this way. If Wahhabis simply wanted to have plain mosques, and to tell their followers to get rid of devotional images they owned, would anyone be all that outraged by them? That’s essentially all that the Reformers wanted.

  • Philostratos

    I am an atheist and I dislike the Catholic Church intensely, but it seems to me that Calvinism and Islam have a whole lot in common. Both oppose images, alcohol, music, dancing, joy in general. It’s also interesting that Protestantism takes the Bible literally, like Islam doews with the Koran. They also had even less of a separation of church and state.

    Moreover, even the more moderate Martin Luther made sure that girls had to get parental consent before they could marry, whereas in Catholicism, it’s her own choice (subject to practical limitations, of course).

    Today, we see that radical Protestant types (Pentecostals mostly) resurrect primitive dietary rules found in the Bible, as well as genital mutilation. Moreover, in Africa, innocent women and children are tortured to death, because they are accused of being “witches”. This is what happens when very ignorant and barely literate people get access to a book they believe is divine.

    I am not sure that the Reformation was a good thing, on balance. It’s good that it led to secular governance, because of endless relgiious strife, but I can’t help but wonder how we would have fared if Catholicism had been permitted to put down Protestantism with force, like so many other heresies.

  • Philostratos

    Islam has no images, and Muslims are the most devout people imaginable. They certainly don’t detest their god.

  • Philostratos

    Calvin didn’t have the power to invade Rome and burn down St. Peter’s Cathedral. But where his followers did have power, they behaved with intolerance, as we can see in the Netherlands, and the cities of Southern France that were taken over by Huguenots during revolts.

    Not that Catholics were any better, mind you.

    It wasn’t just that Calvinists just preferred to have churches without icons, it’s that they believed images were blasphemous. Which is why you have mobs marching from church to church to smash icons. Do you really think that Calvin would have permitted statues of the Buddha to exist? I don’t think Catholics would have permitted that.

  • CPT

    Calvinism does not oppose alcohol, music, or dancing. The temperance movement was among Arminians, not Calvinists.

  • No holy images whatsoever? I would think their art, architecture, media, and modest attire would be visual symbols that encourage them in their devotion. Besides, it is the more radical Muslims that despise imagery, or at least claim to.

  • Philostratos

    Calvin did oppose alcohol, and I’m pretty sure he banned music in his petty theocracy. As for dancing, I know that the Huguenots (French Calvinists) were against it.

  • Philostratos

    Maybe I didn’t understand you correctly. Doesn’t your logic imply that the radical Muslims who despise imagery will soon “detest the image of God”?

    Opposition to images is mostly a shi’ite/sunni division. Nearly all Sunnis oppose images, while nearly all Shi’ites don’t. The extremists causing trouble for us are mostly Sunni, so we tend to think that they are the only extremists out there.

  • Oh, I realize my error. It should be that ‘and’ “succumb to ungodly imagery.” Foolish me, it is not plausible to have one without the other.
    I should also clarify: “detest the image of God through man,” as in hating their fellow man – the imago dei. Basically, go too far in devotion by hating, if not killing others.
    These discussion feeds are really helpful in improving one’s expression of thought.
    I look more forward to visiting my local mosque regularly in the near future. There is indeed a divine emotional beauty in such devotion to God, which I would like to explore in conversation. A major curiosity is the view and application of imagery, considering how dynamic yet subtle cultural Arabic visuals are.

  • ” Protestantism takes the Bible literally” This (among other things) is too simplistic and narrow. Biblical literalism goes only with some protestant branches (evangelical fundamentalism mainly).

  • I will say that the comparison between Calvinism and Islam, both in terms of actions (Iconoclasm) and in perception of God, is not a new one. It can be used in a polemical way by anti-Calvinists to tar them as being un-Christian, to the degree of being almost Islamic. That use is insulting to both Calvinists and Muslims, but it does point to an intuitive similarity in the way God, and God’s will/sovereignty is emphasized.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Calvin did and supported the imposition of such restrictions in Geneva during his stay there.

  • Michael Falsia

    The problem with the Protestant reformation is that they attempted to “reform” an apostate institution who held sway and dominion over Christian society as it existed under the Holy Roman Empire. The term “Christendom” already meant that Church and State were seen as one and regarded as indivisible. It was Christian civilization versus every thing else that was at issue. The Reformers were born into a preconceived world that made no distinctions between believers and unbelievers.Christendom as it saw itself was the new Moses who had the divine right to legally impose Christian doctrine in every sphere of society. The Reformers only attempted to recover an evangelicalism that they believed was corrupted by the reigning Religious institution of the day namely the Roman Catholic Church. The mission was to “reform the Church of Rome” beginning with the doctrine of justification by faith alone instead of through the Church and its sacraments. The Reformers like their Roman adversaries saw the Church and State as a single entity similar to what God established with ancient Israel under the Old Covenant. In other words from a biblical perspective they tried to establish the evangelicalism (which they did) of the New Covenant but unfortunately with an Old Covenant mentality. The Reformers, although there were sharp differences between Luther and the others it was this sense of a Christian society that was common for all. Protestantism sought a Christian Theocracy where Reformed doctrine, not the corruptions and errors of Rome were the new authoritative standard. Hence a Christian Theocracy where the written word of God and not man made traditions reigned supreme and became the only rule of faith not just for professed believers but for all members of this perceived Christian State. This accounts for why any practice contrary to established Protestant doctrine (heresy) was subject to rigorous censor and liable to civil penalty. When you understand that then you can begin to appreciate why Protestantism acted as it did toward dissenters and saw themselves morally and legally obligated to enforce the Law of God by the power of the Christian State.. So yes there is a fair parallel on some levels between Wahab-ism and Protestantism as suggested by the author. We could also say the same for the godless religion of the French atheists during the infamous French Revolution who acted with all the fervor and authoritarianism of anything that ever took place within the various epochs of Christendom! The 20th century communists were the worst of the lot when imposing a ruthless social order on the nations implementing the Doctrines of Marx and Darwin. Humanists of this class also share an undeniable parallel with Wahab-ism as well! All moral systems whether religious or non religious stand or fall on its perceived and accepted authority. This is the real dilemma that plagues the Human race in its natural relativism.

  • Brodi

    If your point is simply to point out that Calvinists and Enthusiasts dominated and shaped what we, in this day and age, believe the Reformation to be, I get what you’re saying. I will add though, that this is why I don’t typically associate Lutheranism with the Reformation as much as I do with the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  • Brodi

    Also, I really liked the article. I’d really be interested in any other articles you have that explore the Radical reformation’s legacy.

  • Nick Barden

    It still doesn’t seem terribly fair to attribute iconoclasm to the Reformation when one really means Calvinists and Anabaptists. Nuancing one’s statements would be better than ignoring the immense significance of Lutheran thought in the Reformation.

  • John Bonnett

    While the Reformation’s historic rejection of visual forms of art is interesting, I find myself wondering how its successors will act in future. I’m a historian and digital humanist, and one of the things that has become clear to me in the past few years is how fast our platforms for disseminating content and our tools for expressing content are evolving and changing. With the emergence of tools like SketchUp it is possible to generate 3D digital content quickly, easily and, perhaps more importantly, freely. A new version of the web, the GeoSpatial web, will come soon. Instead of an Internet populated by web pages, think of a network of Google Earths, and you get a sense of where things might be going. Finally, it’s likely that our web browsers are going to evolve and converge with applications like Game Engines.Game Engines can be viewed as something akin to word processors except their designed to produce three-dimensional, animate content. Now, my question is: how will the church universal and more specifically the church evangelical react to all of this? If the various branches of the church are wise, I believe they will embrace these new modes of expression for preaching the gospel, moral instruction, engaging in theological reflection, and so on. I won’t even hazard a guess as to how Islam will react to all of this, nor will I presume to prescribe a preferred option for it.

  • philipjenkins

    You write far more knowledgeably of those matters than I do, but I think the questions you raise are excellent.

  • cowboybob

    four walls and a sermon, all else is a distraction. God is a spirit.