Icons of Protestantism

I have written before about how nature abhors a vacuum, and the banishment of traditional icons and images from Protestant churches has simply called forth in our age the introduction of TV and projector screens to dominate evangelical sanctuaries.  But I was struck upon a recent visit to London and Canterbury just how deep and disturbing this Protestant hypocrisy runs.  When you visit St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you are sure to be struck with the number of rich and lavish sculptures and monuments lining the sides of the nave and stuffed into every chapel and alcove.  But when you stop to look, you’ll realize quickly that these are not the images of Christ or his saints–at least not traditional saints.  They are state saints. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral is like Britain’s Arlington National Cemetery.  Here, in great pomp and splendor, lie the bodies of Wellington and Nelson, of the great Field Marshals of the two World Wars, and of a host of military heroes, many forgotten today but honored in their generations, from the past three centuries.  Most of their tombs are topped with grand images of the heroes, so that visitors may come and pay homage to their greatness. 

Why is St. Paul’s like this, I wondered, so much more than any other cathedral I’d visited?  St. Paul’s is something of a national cathedral, I reflected, second only to Westminster Abbey as a center for State occasions.  And as England does not (mercifully) have a temple dedicated to the express purpose of honoring its military heroes (like the unsettling Les Invalides in Paris or the downright creepy Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh), it makes sense that many would have ended up at St. Paul’s.

But there’s more to it than that, I think.  St. Paul’s is, after all, the first real Protestant cathedral in England.  All the others of any importance were holdovers from the medieval era, already chock full of bishops and saints (even if many of the shrines had been ransacked or removed at the Reformation).  St. Paul’s burned to the ground in 1666, and when Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild it, he intended it to serve as a glorious symbol of England’s new Protestant identity, and at the same time, its English identity.  This cathedral, unburdened of its medieval past, was able to fully express what it meant to be an English Protestant cathedral.  Now that the Church had been dethroned as the center of society, and folded into the state, now that saints and their relics no longer served as magnets of popular devotion, the state and its heroes became the new sacred symbols, the new icons for veneration.  And this meant above all military heroes, whose profession, now liberated from the stigma that it had never quite been able to shake off since Jesus preached that pesky bit about “blessed are the peacemakers,” returned to the churches in places of honor, as an adoring public contributed millions for monuments to offer each glorious expander of the empire.   

At places like Canterbury Cathedral, this preference for the secular icons over the sacred was explicit.  The doorway of the cathedral was once flanked by magnificent statues of great kings of England and of Christ and the Apostles.  In the Reformation, the latter were smashed to bits, but the former remain in their places of honor–kings could be given visible adoration, but for Christ and his apostles, it had best remain invisible.  Thomas a Becket, the saint of Canterbury who died standing up to an arrogant king, was the particular object of iconoclastic ire.  His shrine was completely destroyed by Henry VIII, and a century later Cromwell’s Puritans systematically destroyed every image of him in the cathedral.  The one thing conspicuously left untouched, however, was the tomb and relics of the great medieval war hero, Edward the Black Prince, who was greatly honored by Cromwell’s men.  

None of this is to say that military and national heroes were never disproportionately honored in the Middle Ages (after all, Edward the Black Prince’s tomb has been there at the head of the cathedral since 1378), nor is this to say that there were not often some good reasons for Reformation iconoclasm.  Nor is this even to insist that the “migration of the holy” from church saints to state saints was part of a conscious appropriation of the sacred by the nascent nation-state, as Cavanaugh and others have extensively argued; this narrative, whatever its value, is too simplistic.  But nature does abhor a vacuum, and if you try to get rid of icons, relics, and saints, you will soon simply find yourself with new icons, relics, and saints, reflecting new values and virtues.  

3 thoughts on “Icons of Protestantism

  1. Bradley

    Too right. We must remove the plank from our own eye before we can remove the speck from our brothers' eyes.In America the situation is similar, albeit uglier. Nationalism pervades the Church, especially the Church in the South. We might not build monuments to war heroes in our churches, but we revere war heroes with a religious awe and are practically idolatrous towards the American flag.(I'm now remembering that various branches of the Eastern Orthodox church tended to be very nationalistic as well…I wonder how it compares to the American and British nationalism within our churches)

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the link–I look forward to reading that article. I am well aware of the basic teaching of Anglicanism regarding images, and wasn't meaning to imply anything otherwise in this post. However, as we both know, in this as in anything else in Anglicanism, one can more accurately speak of a "range of opinions" than one consensus teaching, and historically Anglicanism has ranged from Puritan iconoclasm to Anglo-Catholic veneration; unfortunately, at the time of the Reformation and the Civil War the former resulted in a great deal of gratuitous destruction.

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