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The Intricacy and Impact of Protestant Reformation and Iconoclasm

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These vivid sentences are the word of God, quoted by the German reformer Andreas Karlstadt von Bodenheim in his 1522 sermon ‘On the Abolition of Images..’. Envisioning an actively cleansed and reformed church, Karlstadt draws from their ancient authority to strengthen his call to action. Because in a predominantly God-fearing 16th century Europe, there was no higher authority than the Word of God.

The concept of authority is inextricably linked with every aspect of the Reformation in early-modern Europe. It could even be argued that this multi-faceted passage in history could be summarised as the challenging of one, the Catholic Church, and establishing of another authority, the Protestant Church. Though, as we’ll discover, the reality is far more complicated and intriguing.

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The traditional beginning of the Reformation has been dated on the 31st of October, 1517. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 174) Supposedly, it was on that day, in the German town Wittenberg, that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle church. Officializing the challenging of many ancient religious traditions as well as the overall authority the Catholic Church had held for centuries. Because despite a common faith in God, the belief system the Catholics had built around it was no longer acceptable to the reformers. The fundamental difference between the two can be identified in the reformers their believe that salvation could be found through personal faith. Contesting what they perceived as the Catholics their ‘dependence’ on participation in the rituals of the church. As well as the ‘rule’ of its human, not divinely, appointed hierarchy of priests and bishops. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 170)

Although all reformers shared similar views on what was ‘wrong’ with the Catholic church, visions for their reformed church were varied. Followers spread among several authoritative figures, each with their own ideas. Creating a broad church filled with internal conflict. One of the main points that caused the divide was the use of devotional imagery. For Christians, such objects had specific functions, meanings and carried religious authority. And thus venerated them. Although all Protestants agreed on the ‘evil’ in this idolatry, their opinions differed hugely on how to handle the icons themselves. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 172)

These disputes happened across borders as well as within the same town. An example is the conflict of previously mentioned reformers Luther and Karlstadt. Representing the two most prominent ‘camps’ in the battle on idolatry in all of Europe – for and against iconoclasm. Before we examine their personal views, it will be helpful to get a better understanding of the Protestant stance on representational images, as well as of the term ‘iconoclasm’. The former went much further than just the, in their opinion, misplaced worship of icons. It existed of several valid arguments. For one, the reformers deemed the images ‘unnecessary expense’, arguing that the money should be spent on those in need. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 181) It was also intertwined with the concept of indulgences – bought pardons for sins – as most icons in those days were ‘good works’. Meaning religious art donated by people who believed they could buy their salvation, while the reformers believed that the only way into heaven was through faith. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 181) Therefore, all protestants agreed the icons should be removed, it was in the ‘how’ that opinions differed. One of the ways introduced was iconoclasm, the ‘destruction’ of thus said objects. The other side argued for peaceful authority-led removal.

Having explained the reasoning and options, we can now return to Karlstadt and Luther their views. Idolatry and iconoclasm both deal with how authority is given to something or someone by another. They are man-made concepts, something Luther was very aware of. He argued that it was the idolatry, the human act, that was the sin, not the image. Luther believed that change had to come from within the faithful. They had to choose to reform. Just like they had to decide to stop venerating icons, thereby taking away the images their authority without the need for destruction. He claimed this could be accomplished simply by teaching and preaching the Word of God, as he believed in the power of the word above all else. (Luther, 1522) Luther, therefore, argued for the orderly removal of icons, through a community established policy. This would take time but also keep the peace. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 180)

In contrast with Luther, Karlstadt argued for iconoclasm. He believed it was the reformers obligation to remove icons, to ‘cleanse’ the church. Claiming it was God’s will that all idols should be destroyed. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 180) As we have seen in the introduction, he used the Word of God to justify the violence he encouraged. As well as to argue that idolatry was a crime, as he claimed God forbade idolatry ‘no less’ than crimes like ‘murder’ or ‘stealing’. (Karlstadt, 1522) Arguably to lessen the crimes of destruction he encouraged, while simultaneously giving his argument an almost lawful authority.

In hopes of stopping the violence, Luther decided to oppose Karlstadt in his Lenten sermons of 1522. Luther highlights the ‘problems’ in Karlstadt his approach, explaining that iconoclasm inadvertently gave the icons the religious authority they fought to deny. He also points out that when Karlstadt made the abolition of images out to be a ‘Christian duty’, letting his followers believe they had to destroy icons to be ‘good’ Christians, he created a sort of ‘good works in reverse’. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 182)

Karlstadt his more active and immediate stance had a significant influence on the reformation. With only a small percentage of the population having enjoyed education, everything they knew about their new religion, including its stance on icons, was what they were told, or rather, taught, through sermons by authoritative religious leaders. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 177, 185) Assumably, it was through Karlstadt his passionate preaching that the first official iconoclastic events of the Reformation took place. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 177) Showing how far an authority its influence can reach, even pushing people to commit violent acts. These attacks set a ‘revolutionary precedent’, spreading all over Europe in only a couple of years. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 179)

The events outside of Wittenberg show that iconoclasm was more than a theological response to icons. The causal factors were far more varied, including internal politics, international relationships and propagandist motives, all specific to a time and place. Take the beeldenstorm in The Netherlands for example. The dutch used the shift in religion, and the accompanying violence, to free themselves of Spanish Catholic rule. (Colombo, 2019) Another motive can be found in the involvement of the city councils. They either assisted or restrained the iconoclasts, arguably not out of their faith, as much as whichever approach would suit them best politically. They were either ignored or embraced by the iconoclasts in much the same way. (Grell et al, 2014, pp. 189) Introducing various new forms of authority that were intertwined with the reformation, including that of rulers and the law.

In the introduction, I suggested the reformation is a more intricate historical event than simply ‘the challenging of one and establishing of another authority’. As we have seen, it was not just one authority that got challenged. With various motives in play, they defied many authoritative figures, from religious leaders to rulers of entire countries, as well as ancient traditions and ideas that were ingrained in society. As well as various disciplines like, though not touched upon in this essay, the arts. They created a movement that still lives on today, with an on-going influence stretching beyond the theological.

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