The Mindless Iconoclasm of Our Age

Galla Placida, the regent for her young son, the emperor Valentinian III, was shocked when Saint Augustine died in 430 on August 28, three months into the siege of his city Hippo by the Vandals. He may have died of malnutrition, if not stress, because the wheat crop had not been harvested. As destroyers go, the Vandals were not as bad as some of the other sackers of Roman civilization, and when they burned Hippo they preserved Augustine’s cathedral and library, but they certainly were energetic: in a short space they had made their way from home in southern Scandinavia all the way to North Africa. Physically, they fascinated the sultrier races and, a bit like Pope Gregory who called the fair Angles angels, the sixth century Byzantine chronicler Procopius said that the Vandals “all have white bodies and fair hair, and are tall and handsome to look upon.” Vandalism has come to be an unflattering sobriquet, much like the customs of the Thugs of India and the Buggers of Bulgaria. The three of them combined would resemble the platform of some contemporary progressives.

As the Vandals had a conflicted social history, not to mention their heretical Arianism, they were amenable to contracts and concessions. That is a roundabout way of saying that nobody is totally perfect, and even if no one seems to have been inspired to erect monuments to the Vandals whose eccentric perfection was their skill at toppling statues, it would be hard to think of any historical figures who did not warrant criticism one way or another. Even George Washington’s greatest admirers, who justifiably were and remain legion, snickered when Horatio Greenough exhibited his colossal statue of the Father of our Country bare-chested in the toga and pose of Zeus. Charles Bullfinch, the third architect of the Capitol said: “I fear that this statue will give the idea of Washington’s entering or leaving a bath.” It stood in the Capitol Rotunda from 1841 to 1843 and then was removed to the East Lawn of the Capitol, eventually all twelve tons of it ending up in the National Museum of American History. In an hour of ill-advised passion after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, a mob from New York stormed down to Bowling Green and destroyed the statue of King George III, which the people of the city themselves had erected in gratitude for the monarch’s tax concessions. This infuriated George Washington who, fully clad, berated them for such an indignity.

Thomas Jefferson was not perfect, as his many uncompensated employees would attest; Franklin Roosevelt was not laureled by victims of his Yalta Agreement; and, among the most commemorated modern figures, Martin Luther King was not morally unblemished in the instances of his problematic use of sources and strained conjugal life. But heroes are such because of acts of heroism, and not necessarily for the kind of heroic virtue that constitutes sanctity. Those who desecrate statues of real saints do not understand the difference or, worse, they do not understand heroic virtue. Theodore Roosevelt knew he was not a saint but he knew who were, and so you can still see in his library at Oyster Bay in places of honor, engravings of Thomas More and John Fisher. There are some historical figures who made big mistakes because they also took big risks. Roosevelt grinned as he said in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…” But in recent times, dilettantes who have never ventured into the arena actually want to pull down the statue of Teddy in front of the Museum of National History. There were pianists who performed more perfectly than Arthur Rubenstein, but as one critic who did not mind the stumbling wrote: “A couple of wrong notes from Rubinstein told more about Brahms or Chopin or Beethoven than could a whole evening of right notes from less authoritative hands.”

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In 1501, the torso of an ancient statue was uncovered in Rome and, nicknamed “Pasquino.” It became the billboard for scribbled jokes and rhymes, often caustic and even treasonous, which came to be known as “pasquinades.” While the Christians melted lots of architectural marble for lime, pagan temples were consecrated as churches, and even pagan memorials were preserved, such as the Arch of Titus with its depiction of the spoliation of the Jerusalem Temple, and Hadrian’s Column. Long after, Napoleon replicated that column in the Place Vendome to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz. Recently, The New York Times sustained its reputation for obliviousness to history by saying that the statue of Napoleon on top of it remained untouched through the vicissitudes of France’s anxious generations. In fact, it was pulled down in 1816, and again during the Commune at the instigation of the painter Gustave Courbet who was fined and forced into Swiss exile. It was replaced a couple of times, by Louis-Philip and Napoleon III. The Grey Lady’s copy editors are not what they used to be.

Protestant iconoclasts did much damage to art in the sixteenth century, and Puritans did worse in the Cromwellian period like a battalion of post-Vatican II liturgists, smashing some of the world’s most glorious windows, and leaving the cathedrals pockmarked with their contempt. The Eleanor Cross erected in London in the thirteenth century and destroyed in 1647, had its second restoration in 2010—but at considerable cost. Not content with beheading their own king, French revolutionaries decapitated the twenty-eight stone kings of Judah on the west façade of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Islamic iconoclasm has been international, conspicuously in the several invasions of India. Explosives have made it a more efficient job, as in Iraq and the Levant, Mali, and the Taliban dynamiting of statues in Afghanistan.

Erecting statues can be a risky business, as in the ancient instances of the golden one, ninety feet tall, that Nebuchadnezaar wanted everyone to worship with unblinking vigils (Daniel 3). The Bar Kochba Revolt began when Hadrian erected on the Temple Mount, of all places, statues of Jupiter and himself. This is recorded by the historian Cassio Dio who also claimed that the Iceni and Trinobantian tribes of Britain rebelled with an army of 100,000, chiefly for economic reasons, when Seneca called in some loans that they owed. It was a powerful show of force, but one doomed, not unlike the Confederate Army. The Victorians were fascinated with the queen of the Iceni, Boudica, and erected Thomas Thornycroft’s tremendous statue of her in a chariot along the Thames in 1850. It would be foolish to remove that statue now to avoid offending Italians. It would be foolish, too, to tear down the Saint-Gaudens statue of General Sherman in Central Park. He burnt a lot of things but he also built a lot of things, and the provocative iconography of his horse trampling on Georgia pine cones, is mitigated by the allegorical figure of Peace leading the horse: a lovely young girl whose model was an African-American, Harriette Anderson. In a final analysis, whether statues are of stone or bronze, all of them have feet of clay like the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, because all people do.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, son of one of Washington’s generals, urged that no monuments be erected to figures however noble, so as to smooth the way to peace. It was only on the fiftieth anniversary of that war, that monuments appeared on a big scale. When a freed black slave stunned the congregation in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond by kneeling at the communion rail, General Lee caused more of a stir when he knelt beside him. Descriptions vary, but there seems solid substance to the story and its image in words is better than any in bronze. Lee did not even want a statue of himself at his Washington College where he spent his last years promoting the liberal arts and classical virtues. In one letter, Lee wrote: “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.”

These days the latest hysteria is the toppling of statues by immoderate and ignorant people. Someone as bereft of a knowledge of history as some media pundits and politicians, has even vandalized a statue of St. Joan of Arc in the city of St. Louis, apparently under the impression either that she was a transgendered Confederate general, or a symbol of that ultimate scourge of the vandals of culture: the Catholic Church. It is not the boast of Catholics that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the Dred Scott decision found his position on slave ownership consistent with his Catholicism, but he had called slavery “a blot on our national character” and emancipated his own slaves. His statue has been removed by night without notice or respect for his reasons and judicial distinction. Archbishop John Hughes of New York shoulders the mantle of veneration by many despite his own prejudices. Having delivered himself of pro-slavery sermons in the 1850’s he said about rumors of Emancipation which he opposed: if it were true, Irishmen “will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.” He was not alone. In the elections of 1860 and 1864, New Yorkers voted against Lincoln two to one.

The vandalism by those who would plant themselves on moral pedestals is highly selective. There have been no protests about a statue of Lenin on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, or one on Norfolk Street in Seattle, or one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, notwithstanding the more than 60 million humans whose deaths he engineered, and the pall of misery with which he blanketed much of the world. As for race, there are untouched statues of Margaret Sanger whose eugenic symbiosis with the National Socialists set in motion the annihilation of millions of African-American babies. Some have proposed that the Capitol receive a bust of Justice Harry Blackmun whose opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision was the American equivalent of the protocol of the Wannsee Conference. Paraliptically, one need not mention the much heralded and memorialized Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, Senator Robert C. Byrd who said during World War II that he would refuse to fight with a Negro by his side and who was the only senator to refuse to confirm the nomination of the only two black nominees for the Supreme Court. There was also the institution of Jim Crow in federal departments by that favorite of the Klan, Woodrow Wilson.

These are facts and the problem with facticity is that it is a menace to theory and an obstacle to policy. Like the old Soviet Encyclopedia, inconvenient people must be eliminated from the next edition, making them “non-persons.” Imperial Romans ritualized the obliteration of ancestors in their abolitio memoriae, which ceremoniously smashed images and inscriptions of antecedents. Even much earlier, soon after the death in 1457 BC of the Egyptian female pharaoh Hatshepsut, her epitaphs were chiseled out and statues of her were torn down. In his novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, George Orwell described the sterile world of the New Man shorn of dignity conferred by God and natural law: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

The architects of that kind of mindless and soulless dystopia have one statue left to tear down, and it must be toppled if statists are to smash the Image of God in men, and it is Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Robert E. Lee statue that was removed from the Duke University campus last week after it was vandalized.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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