The first fruits of the new religion: iconoclasm

This graphic image of iconoclasm is part of a picture book of Calvinist atrocities in England, France and the Netherlands compiled by the Catholic exile Richard Verstegan. A free-standing cross is being dragged down with ropes and its base severed with a pickaxe. High up in the rafters of the church iconoclasts set about their work; on the right men throw statues and books into a bonfire. The accompanying Latin verses insist that only the heartless will not be horrified by the devastation of churches, sanctuaries and relics by which they are confronted in this compelling engraving of wanton and anarchic destruction. Operating at the interface of information, polemic and commemoration, this picture subtly rewrites the history and chronology of the English Reformation. Forgetting the cautious, Lutheran drive against abuses that marked the reign of Henry VIII (whose ‘uncontrolled and greedy desire’ it critiques), it remembers instead the more comprehensive Swiss-style reform of church interiors that occurred under his Protestant heirs. Published in Antwerp in 1587, Verstegan’s text has been interpreted as a call for an international crusade to invade Elizabeth I’s England led by Philip II of Spain. A ‘theatre of cruelties’ perpetrated by the ‘heretics of our time’, it evokes the recent past to make a provocative intervention in contemporary geopolitics. AW

Richard Verstegan, Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum nostri temporis (Antwerp: Adrianum Huberti, 1592), pp. 22-3.

CUL: U*.4.41(C)

Further Reading

Anne Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1553–1603 (Aldershot, 2002), ch. 5.

Margaret Aston, Broken Idols of the English Reformation (Cambridge, 2016), pp. 778–9.

Alexandra Walsham, ‘The Art of Iconoclasm and the Afterlife of the English Reformation’, in Antoinina Bevan Zlatar and Olga Timofeeva (eds), What is an Image in Medieval and Early Modern England?, SPELL: Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature, 34 (Tübingen, forthcoming 2017).

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