Taliban zeal for smashing images has many precedents

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

LONDON (AP) -- With England embroiled in civil war, William Dowsing arrived in Cambridge in December 1643 filled with Puritan zeal, determined to smash the lingering reminders of the old Roman Catholic faith.

''We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells, and the 4 Evangelists, and Peter, with his keies (keys) on the chappell door and about a hundred chirubims and angells, and divers superstitious letters in gold,'' Dowsing wrote in his journal.

His mission took him to 245 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, finding something to destroy in more than 90 percent.

A similar determination to smash ''false idols'' has inspired the Taliban in Afghanistan to open fire against ancient images of the Buddha, to the horror of moderate religious leaders, art curators and historians.

''Images, symbols, whether religious or not, always attract violence when there is conflict. Religion intensifies it, because religious symbols are more densely packed with meaning,'' said Carlos Eire, professor of religious studies at Yale University.

Iconoclasm -- image-smashing -- marked the Protestant Reformation in Europe, but it was nothing new.

In the eighth century, there was a protracted conflict in the eastern church over the use of icons. The Byzantine emperor Leo III prohibited icons in 730, and those who worshipped icons were persecuted. Icons were restored in 787 but forbidden again in 815. The veneration of icons was finally restored in 843.

Christian iconoclasts have drawn inspiration from parts of the Bible which condemn idols and graven images. When William Dowsing met resistance from the fellows of Pembroke Hall, he took on the academics in a debate on scripture and the law.

Dowsing cited the story of King Josiah breaking the altars of Baal; he also noted the passage in the seventh chapter of Deuteronomy: ''Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.''

Dowsing had the authority of Parliament. In August 1643, it enacted an ordinance ''for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all monuments of superstition and idolatry.''

It was a long list: images of God, the virgin Mary and saints; crucifixes, stone altars, communion rails and candlesticks. Chancels were to be made level with the rest of the church, and ''superstitious'' inscriptions were to be removed, including words such as ''pray for me'' on tombs.

Dowsing sometimes encountered fellow Christians who disagreed with him about images, but never faced an argument about the value of art or history.

''I don't think art came into it at all for him,'' said Trevor Cooper, editor of a scholarly edition of Dowsing's diary just published in England.

''Much of what he was destroying would have been regarded as ugly, quite out of date and of no value at all,'' Cooper said.

Eire said iconoclasts generally set out to destroy images, though during the 16th-century episode in the Netherlands there were some instances of people saving images and selling them to Catholic families, or giving warning to patrons in time to rescue images.

The Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has ordered all pre-Islamic statues in the country destroyed, including the towering Buddhas hewn from a cliff face in central Bamiyan in the third and fifth centuries.

Europe produced many instances of iconoclasm as violent as the Taliban's.

In Basel, Switzerland, in 1528, the humanist scholar Erasmus witnessed the smashing of images.

''Not a statue has been left, in the churches ... or in the monasteries; all the frescoes have been whitewashed over. Everything which would burn has been set on fire, everything else hacked into little pieces. Neither value nor artistry prevailed to save anything,'' he wrote to a friend.

But in Zurich, ''they closed churches, sent in craftsmen one church at a time and removed images very neatly,'' said Eire, author of ''War Against the Idols,'' a study of Reformation iconoclasm.

A current exhibition-- ''Iconoclasm: Insanity or God's Will?'' -- at the Bern Historical Museum displays fragments of images destroyed by iconoclasts in that Swiss city.

Peter Jezler, curator of the Bern exhibition, said the assault on images followed a boom in the building and adornment of churches. Just 10 years after Martin Luther set the Reformation rolling by posting his 95 theses in 1517, the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli was calling for the removal of all ''idolatrous trash'' from the minster in Bern.

The Swiss reformer John Calvin was also strongly against images, though he also opposed mob action to remove them.

Iconoclasm has not been the norm in Islam, said Amira Bennison of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at King's College, Cambridge.

''There is obviously a precedent in that the prophet in his lifetime cleared the idols from the Kaaba in Mecca -- that's the basic paradigm,'' Bennison said.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has never promoted figurative art.

The view is that ''man has no right to take on the role of creator, and when you attempt to depict a human, animal or even a plant in details, you are trespassing on God's right to create,'' Bennison said.

''I think the Taliban are quite extraordinary,'' she added. ''The fact that during this crisis, so many Muslim countries have said they should not be destroying statues shows that they are radical.''


On the Web:

''The Journal of William Dowsing'' is published by Boydell & Brewer (http://www.boydell.co.uk)

''War against the Idols'' by Carlos Eire is published by Cambridge University Press (http://uk.cambridge.org)

End Adv for Friday, March 9

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