Strange stories

The hatred of symbols

(Published in GralsWelt 24/2002)

In March 2001, the media reported that despite strong protests from many countries, including Islamic countries, the gigantic Buddha statues of Bamian - the largest in the world - had been blown up in Afghanistan.

Allegedly it was radical Taliban who wanted to set an example in barbaric destructiveness for the unstoppable victory of their ideology. Even after his victorious entry into Mecca, Mohammed smashed the idols gathered around the Kaaba.

Destruction as a manifestation of power
The destruction of religious or political places of worship is by no means new. The victors have always appropriated the property of the defeated, and in order to humiliate them, the victors often destroyed what was most sacred to the defeated; e.g. religious or political symbols.

In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh had names and statues of unpopular predecessors removed from the temples; In ancient times, the corpses of dead enemies were torn from their graves and burned, or the temples of conquered cities were destroyed. 

After his victorious invasion of Mecca (630), Mohammed destroyed the idols set up around the Kaaba.   

Christian missionaries felled the Donar oak (Boniface in 724), smashed idols or burned "heretical" writings, including ancient American texts that they could not read.

Deviants from the official church, such as the Hussites, destroyed images of saints and crucifixes, atheists destroyed churches and monasteries (e.g. after the Russian October Revolution), and politicians have emblems and statues of the displaced rulers removed after a successful coup. 

The struggle for the religious image
A question that was once hotly debated was whether religious images should be venerated. Over the centuries there have been a number of theological theories that we can only touch.

In ancient Judaism (as later in Islam) the Second Commandment was strictly obeyed:
“You should not make a carved picture for yourself, no image of what is in heaven above or below on earth or in the water under the earth. You shouldn't prostrate yourself in front of these pictures and not worship them ... " (Lev. 26). *)

Images of the emperor were venerated in the Roman Empire, and early Christians had no problem praying in front of an image of Jesus or an image of the crucified one. However, it took some theological contortions to justify the cult of images in spite of a seemingly unambiguous Old Testament Bible word.

The church fathers discussed whether and how the cultic value of the images should be justified; whether an image of Jesus is to be regarded as a symbol, or whether through its shape it has a share in the human and divine nature of the Son of God and is thereby sanctified.

There was a dispute about the value and meaning of Christian images, even their rigorous destruction, for example in the 8th century in Byzantium during the so-called "iconoclasm". Kaiser, Leo III. banned the widespread worship of incons. Presumably it was less about the icons than about the rule of the emperor over the church, possibly also about the struggle of the bishops of Rome and Byzantium for the dignity and power of the head of the church.

There was no Christian tolerance for pagan images. The Taliban send their regards. Such "devil stuff" had to be destroyed, the pagan temples, allegedly consecrated to demons, burned down.

In the 4th century pagan religions were finally banned, the places of worship destroyed or converted into Christian churches. The practice of pagan cults faced the death penalty.

Art in the service of faith
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor - and you will have a treasure in heaven - and come and follow me". (Matth. 19, 21). *)
Selling all of one's possessions and giving the money to the poor - this tough demand on the rich could not be enforced. That is why the Fathers of the Church have been looking for compromises since the 4th century: those who do not want to give everything to the poor and thus to Christ should pass on at least a part.

Whereas in early Christian times such foundations, bequests, donations and bequests mainly benefited the poor, in the Middle Ages the view developed that “spiritual bread” was no less important than physical bread, that is, foundations from monasteries, churches, chapels, and altars , religious images would be no less meritorious than kind gifts to the poor. Those who could not donate a large building to the church participated as much as possible in the interior decoration, so that "church decorations" became a special form of almsgiving. In the Middle Ages, handicrafts and arts in the service of religion flourished, and the works created at that time bear witness to this day of a deep piety that has become alien to us.

Especially between the 12th and 16th centuries, a large part of the national wealth was used for the cultivation of Christian cults. Cathedrals dominated the cities, there was a church in every village, and the vast landscape was littered with monasteries, chapels, and crucifixes.

There was a general fear of purgatory. With a pious foundation one could buy oneself from it freely and, for example, finance reading a soul mass until “Judgment Day”.

After all, such a large part of the national wealth flowed into ecclesiastical property that the situation became threatening for the economy; Since the 13th century, laws had to be passed against the holding of property by church institutions. 

Without good works to heaven?
This system of medieval conceptions of the afterlife, fear of hell and purgatory, was Luther's writing "Of the good works" (1520) in question. Luther believed in predestination (predestination) and taught that God did not ask us to do works such as fasting, pilgrimages or the establishment of altars and churches, only "Faith in Christ who redeemed us with his death". He was convinced that the kingdom of heaven could not be bought with foundations, gifts, indulgences or other material gifts. 

Iconoclasms in the Reformation
As a result of the Reformation, the churches in the Protestant countries were now cleaned of all superfluous accessories; because the new variety of Christianity concentrated entirely on the "book", the "Holy Scriptures". Believers should refrain from portraits that only distract from the core of the faith.

Most of the people of the Middle Ages were illiterate. The numerous religious images of this era were intended to educate the unlearned and to encourage devotion.

With the Reformation, the Bible, translated into the national languages and now also printed, became accessible to more and more people who could now for the most part read and write; the writing replaced the picture. Portraits and statues were removed from Protestant churches because the faithful were supposed to concentrate on the essentials, on the book.

Luther himself was not an iconoclastic zealot. Although he had the portraits removed from the churches, most of which (images of saints, statues of the Virgin, etc.) no longer fit the new doctrine, he did not demand their destruction.

Elsewhere there were iconoclasms, willful destruction or destruction of sacred works of art ordered by the authorities. Calvin and Zwingli preached against the papist images and demanded their destruction. Countless pictures, statues and carvings were lost, and entire landscapes (e.g. in Switzerland and the Netherlands) were cleared of "idols". Most people were probably not aware at the time that these were largely valuable cultural assets.

In the Catholic understanding, sacred images were consecrated and therefore sacred objects. Whoever destroyed church images committed sacrilege (sacrum legere = steal the sacred), a crime worthy of death.

As is often the case in the history of religion, the new doctrine stood out from an older one in that it committed “taboo breaks”, ie acts that were considered to be crimes in the understanding of the older religion.

A devout Jew could not recognize Jesus as a living part from God; an Orthodox Christian was shocked when he saw that in the Catholic Church the priest stood with his back to the altar when he presented the host; and another Catholic saw the destruction of consecrated sacred objects as the work of Satan.

Today it may be difficult for us to cling to such details which, according to today's understanding, have little to do with genuine religiosity; but centuries ago most people cared about outward forms. 

The consequences of the Reformation and its iconoclasms
The removal of sacred images from the churches was also an expression of a necessary change brought about by the reformers: the abandonment of the fear of the hereafter; the turning away from the mistaken belief that eternal bliss can be bought through earthly gifts, through the purchase of indulgences, or other material expenditures. Viewed in this way, the iconoclasms of the Reformation period were an indicator of a change in religious consciousness. As with all revolutions, here too much was unnecessarily destroyed.

A new understanding of Christian life developed in the Reformed congregations. The sensual experience of faith, which the Counter-Reformation wanted to convey again in the Baroque style, stepped back from a narrower religion based on the biblical word.

Religious art lost its importance. Soul masses and other foundations for salvation from purgatory were superfluous, and expenditures for religion shrank to a fraction of the former expenditures.

By eliminating the feast days dedicated to the saints, 30 working days per year were added, and the Protestant work ethic developed, which at least in part (Puritans) saw economic success as the best evidence of a Christian way of life. -

Another contribution to the topic is "500 years of Reformation"Under" Remembrance Days ". 

Final grade: 
*) This one, the rich young man of Jesus personally advice given was simply generalized.

(1) Bredekamp, Horst “Art as a Medium of Social Conflicts”, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1975.
(2) Depeux, Cécile / Jetzler, Peter / Wirth, Jean "Iconoclasm", Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern 2000.
(3) “Der Spiegel”, 11/2001 of March 12, 2001, Spiegelverlag, Hamburg.