I was talking to some of my students about iconoclasm – the breaking of images – on Monday (and taught them the word in the process, those who didn’t already know it, which is a first for me) because one of them, Masato, had been to Ely over the weekend and had visited the Lady Chapel in the cathedral there, where the statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints in niches had their heads or faces smashed during and after the Reformation (something I have posted about before, here).
Iconoclasm during the Reformation in England and elsewhere was a serious matter of conscience. It was usually carried out not in frenzied uprisings of riot and carnival, but soberly, with ladders and appropriate tools, as a necessary public work. In some cases it was treated as a family day out, with people bringing food and children playing in the naves of the great churches.
Perhaps because of the bureaucratic levels of organisation, it was a thorough business. Very little remains of pre-Reformation religious art in England. Hence the excitement over the restoration of a fifteenth century (i.e. pre-Reformation) panel painting by conservators at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The panel depicts the kiss of Judas, and was therefore at risk in its lifetime not only from Protestant iconoclasts but from zealous Catholics appalled by the representation of the betrayer-apostle. It seems the painting was saved by the quick thinking of someone who turned it around and used its back to list the Ten Commandments. Which have something to say, if I recall, about graven images.