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.