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The 1566 iconoclasm in the Low Countries

1566 iconoclasm

The 1566 Iconoclasm – known in Dutch as the Beeldenstorm – was when countless religious statues, paintings and buildings were defaced or destroyed.

What led to the 1566 iconoclasm?

The roots of the 1566 iconoclasm lay in the Protestant Reformation. More specifically, it was the belief that excessive commemoration of the saints and their images by the Roman Catholic Church was idolatry.

Other factors contributed. Average men and women were being persecuted by the church as heretics. Unemployment levels were high. Poverty was prevalent, particularly after successive poor harvests. With spring giving way to a hot summer, unrest was widespread throughout Flanders.

The growth of the Calvinists

In the Low Countries, converts to Protestantism included Anabaptists, Lutherans and Calvinists. The Calvinists were the most outspoken, and their clandestine churches had been growing despite repression. In 1565, Calvinist congregations emerged from underground to hold open-air assemblies. The following spring, about 50 Calvinist preachers, mostly refugees from England, France, Switzerland and Germany, appeared. Their sermons included repeated offensives against the ancient church.

Tension simmered throughout the summer, until it boiled over on 10 August in the Westhoek, the highly industrialised textile centre of the Low Countries. At the end of a pilgrimage from Hondschoote to Steenvoorde, Protestants entered the chapel of the Saint Lawrence monastery, defaced and plundered it.

Destruction spreads north and south

As the itinerant preachers moved throughout the land in the coming weeks, so did the accompanying image-breakers. Ghent witnessed its first attacks on 22 August. By the end of the month, the destruction had spread to Antwerp and then further north to Utrecht and Amsterdam, while Valenciennes and Tournai in the south were also affected.

The iconoclasts came from every layer of society. Rich and poor, male and female, young and old stormed shrines, churches, cloisters, chapels and even hospitals. They destroyed images of saints and other works of art, plundered monasteries’ stores, drank communion wine and trampled consecrated wafers. They burned or otherwise destroyed altars, baptismal fonts, monstrances, organs, benches, books, choir stalls and tombs.

Their objective was to rid these Catholic symbols of their mystical value and purify the Catholic Church of “papist superstitions”. In doing so, the Calvinists believed they were restoring ties with the earlier, purer, Christians and washing away centuries of corruption and the worship of false saints. Their desire was to see purified churches that could be used for reformed services in which the Word of God was the focal point.

Philip II acts

The burgher militia remained mostly inactive, except in a few cities such as Bruges. Eventually, Philip II dispatched a large army from Spain to the Low Countries under the command of Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva, who was appointed governor-general. His objective was to punish the rebels and root out heresy once and for all.

The Duke of Alva instituted the Council of Troubles, a tribunal with powers to try and sentence all suspects, irrespective of rank or position. It was soon dubbed the “Council of Blood” because of the death sentences it dealt out. Alva’s appearance marked the start of the Eighty Years’ War.

The destruction caused by the 1566 iconoclasm was immense. In the Westhoek alone, 400 churches and convents were attacked. Ghent saw one cathedral, eight churches, 25 cloisters, 10 hospitals and seven chapels ransacked.

The 1581 iconoclasm in Antwerp

There was a further period of iconoclasm in Antwerp in 1581. A Calvinist city council was elected and they purged the city’s clergy and guilds of Catholic office-holders. As opposed to the 1566 iconoclasm, in 1581 the removal of images was carried out by the institutions they belonged to: the city council, the churches and the guilds. Some images were sold rather than destroyed, but most seem to have been lost.

Above image: Print of the iconoclasts at work in in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, the “signature event” of the Beeldenstorm, 20 August 1566, by Frans Hogenberg.

14 thoughts on “The 1566 iconoclasm in the Low Countries”

  1. Throughout history there have been repeated destructions of all kinds of artifacts, books, sculpture, etc…
    With understanding for the destruction of political ornaments of tyrants and despots to complete incomprehension for the destruction of historical and religious ornaments.
    Difficult to comprehend destroying or burning books, simply barbaric.

    A few years ago I started as a volunteer at the ‘Dienst Erfgoed – Stad Leuven’ as a photographer to capture religious artifacts.

    I like the vision of Martin Luther:
    Protestant Christianity was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther taught the “importance of images as tools for instruction and aids to devotion,” stating: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” Lutheran churches retained ornate church interiors with a prominent crucifix, reflecting their high view of the real presence of Christ in Eucharist. As such, “Lutheran worship became a complex ritual choreography set in a richly furnished church interior.” For Lutherans, “the Reformation renewed rather than removed the religious image.”

    Lutheran scholar Jeremiah Ohl writes:
    Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all plastic art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more conservative, would have all the arts to be the servants of the Gospel. “I am not of the opinion” said [Luther], “that through the Gospel all the arts should be banished and driven away, as some zealots want to make us believe; but I wish to see them all, especially music, in the service of Him Who gave and created them.” Again he says: “I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible.… But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in We therefore kindly beg these fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?

  2. Indeed. It reminded me of one or two things the Talaban and ISIS have done. And of course Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. UK’s National Gallery had an exhibition of Spanish Polychromic ie painted religious statues a few years ago. My take away from that that they were the Catholic Church in Spain’s response to he spread of northern European Protestantism, their hope being that the statues would be a distraction and give the faithful something to venerate.

    1. Yes I recall the word iconoclasm being bandied around re ISIS. So easy to destroy something in seconds that has been around for centuries. Doesn’t seem right.

  3. this was a great read! I think everyone needs to read objective sources about the Vatican’s history and its lingering effects on the world as we know it.

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