Break It Down

An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by
Frans Hogenberg: The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566

In a dry landscape, men work. With axes, hammers, and other tools, they break stones. It is hard work, from the looks of it, but they do it seriously. They are enthusiastic, and work as a team. Something is being cleared away, perhaps in preparation for something else to be built. A small walled house, made of hardened mud bricks and just a little taller than human height, comes crashing down. When the dust settles, the men, finding the large chunks of rubble unsatisfactory, reduce them further. With a pick, one man hits a flat concrete slab on which inscriptions are visible. At first, the pick glances, unequal to the task. But soon the slab is crossed by hairline cracks and begins to split. Two other men wander near the wall that has just come down. In the sand around their feet are large clay pots, and with effortless little kicks, like bored boys, they break the pots. Stone, mud, clay: patiently they break everything down. And a little distance away, behind the safety of a metal gate, some people watch the men at work. The watchers let the work continue undisturbed. They do nothing, are able to do nothing, about the demolition in process, the demolition of old Sufi shrines. Between the workers and their watchers, there is a difference in power. An automatic gun, resting on some stones, ignored but unignorable, indicates that difference.

In August 1566, an angry Calvinist crowd in the Flemish town of Steenvoorde attacked the pilgrimage church of Sint-Laurensklooster, destroying its art and architecture, and killing several of its priests. In the weeks that followed, the violence spread to the major Flemish cities of Antwerp and Ghent. And though there had been periodic outbreaks of iconoclasm all through European history — in Byzantine times, and then with renewed frequency in the age of Reformation — there had never been anything quite like the “Beeldenstorm,” the Dutch “storm of statues” of the late 16th century. Sir Richard Clough, a Welsh merchant then living in Antwerp, was an eyewitness to the destruction, and in a letter to London, he wrote of that he saw:

"All the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed, being done after such order and by so few folks that it is to be marvelled at." He described the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp as looking “like hell with above 10,000 churches burning and such a noise as if heaven and earth had got together, with falling of images and beating down of costly works such sort that the spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church.

Images are powerful. They can bring people into such a pitch of discomfort that violence ensues, and iconoclasm carries within itself two paradoxical traits: thoroughness and fury. The men (they are in Timbuktu) in their hardworking but boyish ways, and with their automatic weapons, are a good example of this thoroughness, and this cheerful, impish fury.

In early 2001, in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, a pair of monumental statues of the Buddha, intricately carved into the sandstone of a cliff in the 6th century, were dynamited and reduced to rubble. The larger of the statues was 180 feet high. The destruction was not easy: it took weeks. This act of straightforward iconoclasm was done at the direct order of Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban. He had thought the Buddhas had some tourism value in 1999, but he changed his mind less than two years later, declaring them idols. And so the dynamite was laid, and where the Buddhas were, where they stood in their graceful embodiment of Gandhara art, in their fine blend of Greek and Buddhist artistic ideals, there now stands only silence, emptiness, a pair of monumental alcoves.

Iconoclasm is nominally about theology. Images which represent the wrong ideas must be expunged. But why be so furious about ideas? And, so, how are we to understand the ongoing destruction of Sufi shrines in the north of Mali? Ansar Dine, the rebel group that now controls Timbuktu, believes itself to be doing the will of God. The United Nations doesn’t matter, Ansar Dine has said, UNESCO is irrelevant, only God’s law matters. The locals are helpless, and horrified. Short of witnessing grievous bodily harm, few things are as astonishing as seeing the casual, physical destruction of what one holds sacred.

Surely, the Muslim piety of “the city of 333 saints” (as Timbuktu is known) should correspond to the Muslim piety of Ansar Dine, should it not? So far, eight mausoleums have been broken, many tombs destroyed, and the rebels are determined to continue the destruction. Their version of Islam — Salafist, fundamentalist — considers the syncretic practices of Malian Sufism, with its veneration of saints and incorporation of vernacular practices, haram. There is no direct Qur’anic proscription on image-making, but the Traditions of the Prophet, the Hadiths, object to using images to usurp God’s creative power. From those Hadiths come such narratives as the one in the 9th century “Book of Idols”:

When on the day he conquered Mecca, the Apostle of God appeared before the Ka’bah, he found idols arrayed around it. Thereupon he started to pierce their eyes with the point of his arrow, saying, ‘Truth is come and falsehood vanished. Verily, falsehood is a thing that vanisheth [Qur’an 17:81].’ He then ordered that they be knocked down, after which they were taken out and burned.

On French radio, Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, expressed their activity in strikingly similar terms: “When the Prophet entered Mecca he said that all the mausoleums should be destroyed. And that’s what we’re repeating.” And that is why, more than a thousand years after he died, the tomb of the saint Sidi Mahmoudou has, in this past week, been destroyed and desecrated.

A peculiarity of the Timbuktu iconoclasm is that these shrines are architectural rather than representationally sculptural. They are generally modest in size, and usually made of mud. There is little of the opulence that might have maddened the 16th century Flemish mob, and none of the lifelike mimesis of human form that offended sensibilities in the Bamyan Valley. In Timbuktu, a once wealthy trading city, in a place once fabled for its wealth and learning, now swallowed up by the Sahel, these mausolea are expressions of local practice: simple and old beliefs in a land of griots and marabouts, the kind of syncretism common to all the big world religions, owing as much to universal edicts as to what works for the people in their land, in their language, and according to their pre-conversion customs of veneration.

There is in iconoclasm an emotional content that is directly linked to the iconoclasts’ own psychology. The theological pretext for image destruction is that images are powerless, less than God, uneffective as a source of succour, and therefore disposable. But in reality, iconoclasm is motivated by the iconoclast’s profound belief in the power of the image being destroyed. The love iconoclasts have for icons is a love that dare not speak its name.

Iconoclastic hostility is complex. It expresses itself in different ways all through history. But what is generally true of iconoclastic movements is that they are never about theology alone. They include politics, struggles for power, the effort to humiliate an enemy, and a demonstration of iconoclasts’ own neuroses. Behind iconoclastic bravado is a terror of magic, a belief in dead saints no less than that of iconophiles and, crucially, a historical anxiety that, in the Timbuktu case, is about presenting the bona fides of Ansar Dine to its Wahhabi models in Saudi Arabia and to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

That which doesn’t speak dumbfounds. After all, who can tell what such objects are thinking? Best to destroy the inscrutable, the ancient, if one is to truly usher in a pure new world. So, the invaders continue their work in Timbuktu with enthusiasm and good cheer, smashing pots, breaking bricks, rattling at the doors of the mosque. It takes a lot of work to silence silent objects. But already it is clear that not only the people watching from behind the gate are consumed with fear.