Published in The Courtauldian, Issue 4, October -November 2013, London
The current exhibition Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at the Tate Britain provides a new incentive to reconsider the ways in which religion and politics have tried to lead the masses.
The exhibition narrates the history of iconoclasm in England from the end of the fifteenth century to the present. The primary focus of the show is how activists mangled religious icons associated with the subjective interpretation of the Bible.
This exhibition is outstanding in the sense that it sheds light on why and how the interpretation of religious images and their relationship to people have changed over time in England.
However, although a variety of visual religious evidence is shown, such as altarpieces, glass windows, paintings as sculpture, the exhibition falls short of illuminating why religious leaders and politicians originally wanted to visualize their faith. Explaining the origin of Christian icons, for example mentioning the story of St. John, would help to provide a basic context for their later fall from favour. The Saints play an important role as they were some of the first people depicted in images intended for worship.
The first imperially governed break with polytheism in the ancient world was associated with a change in politics in the Roman Empire when Constantine came to power. He not only moved to Byzantium and urbanized it, but he also officially established a new religious orientation: Christianity. The exploitation of images added drastically to the transformation of people’s belief in religion in the Western world, and has changed their way of worshipping since the eight century.
Art under Attack starts telling the story of iconoclasm with the beginning of the destruction of Christian images and the movement from a visual to a verbal culture. One of the key figures in the exhibition is Henry VIII. Around 1540 he ordered that visual images be replaced with the text from the Bible, such as with the Ten Commandments, as he claimed that images did not always represent the original Christian faith. Nevertheless, this did not help to separate politics from religion, owning to the same issue of subjective interpretation and selection of the Bible text.
The lessons to be learned from Art under Attack are that people are forever trying to break free from existing texts and images; and that the progress in reinventing our society helps to understand our relationship with religion and contemporary art.
Art Under Attack, Tate Britain, London, 2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014