A sad reminder of the art lost in the years after the Reformation


A new exhibition at Tate Britain highlights the scale of destruction to artworks in the Tudor period – a staggering amount of books and music were also destroyed


'We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning'

‘We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning’

The slashed and broken medieval images displayed in the new Art Under Attack exhibition at the Tate are a reminder of what we lost in the hundred and fifty years after the Reformation. Even now there is denial about the scale of the erasing of our medieval past. The Tate estimates we lost 90% of our religious art. It was probably even more than that. The destruction was on a scale that far outstrips the modern efforts of Islamist extremists. And it was not only art we lost, but also books and music.

We think of Henry VIII and the destruction of the monasteries, but that was not the end of the destruction, it marked the beginning. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, hailed the reign of his son, the boy king Edward VI, as that of a new Josiah, destroyer of idols. After his coronation an orgy of iconoclasm was launched. In churches rood screens, tombs with their prayers for the dead, and stain glass windows, were smashed. The Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow complained, some of this Christian Taliban “judged every image to be an idol”, so that not only religious art, but even the secular thirteenth century carvings of kings in Ludgate were broken.

Books too were burned on a vast scale. Earlier this year Melvyn Bragg was on TV telling us about William Tyndale during the reign of Henry VIII, and the forces of Catholic conservatism blocking publication of his English bible with its attached Lutheran commentaries. But conservatives were not alone in wishing to suppress books that contained ideas they did not agree with. When the monasteries were suppressed, their libraries were either pillaged or destroyed. How many works as great as the Lindisfarne gospels must have been lost? Out of six hundred books in the library of Worcester Priory only six remain. Three survived the destruction of the Augustinian Friars of York out of a total of six hundred and forty six volumes. And during the reign of Edward VI it was Tyndale’s ideological heirs and supporters who reduced almost every book in the Oxford university library to ashes.

Music in church was also disapproved of. Since it was largely then recorded in manuscripts, much of our early music vanished when libraries were burned. Organs were torn out of churches, and while in Elizabeth’s royal chapel you had the wonderful music of crypto Catholics like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, there were few opportunities for other such composers to find employment or be heard.

The civil war, and the further destruction it brought, took place two generations after England had gone through what has been described as a “cultural revolution designed to obliterate England’s memory of who and what she had been”. There was not much of that past left. In our cultural history the Reformation is nearly always depicted as a force that opened up England from a closed minded past. But it was our knowledge of that past that was closed and if one future opened to us, we will never know what might have been, not least in art.

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16 Responses to A sad reminder of the art lost in the years after the Reformation

  1. Toadspitttle says:

    The history of the world is an ever-thickening catalogue of insanity, war and destruction.
    More often than not in the name of God.
    Gods come and go, but the madness goes on, regardless.
    There seems no particular reason it should ever stop.

    There’s a cheerful start to a Wednesday October 9.(Nice and sunny, though.).

    On which day, for example, in 1635 – “Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was banished from Massachusetts because he had spoken out against punishments for religious offences and against giving away land that belonged to the Indians. Williams had founded Providence, Rhode Island as a place for people to seek religious freedom. “


  2. golden chersonnese says:

    Toad, I hope rebrites has hidden all the ropes and/or noxious substances at the Peaceable Kingdom.


  3. Toadspitttle says:

    Not necessary, Golden. Toad is not the suicidal type.
    Always amused, and keenly interested, to see what imbecility the human race will dream up next.


  4. golden chersonnese says:

    I was concerned there for a brief spell.


  5. Frere Rabit says:

    When we read of the lost Catholic art and liturgy of 16th century England it is very saddening because there is nothing we can do about it. When I first read Professor Duffy’s now classic text on the subject I was overwhelmed with a sense of impotence at the stark presentation of what immense losses the country had suffered to its religious and artistic heritage.

    On the other hand, we might easily miss the lessons for today. At this very moment – with the change of popes – the Catholic Church seems poised between one historic movement and another. The famous remark of Pope Francis (whether true or apocryphal) epitomised the change: “The carnival is over!” After the Benedictine years of careful recovery of the Catholic liturgical heritage, Pope Francis seems to have launched a new period of modernising. It is based on a rather one-dimensional message of Franciscan simplicity and humility.

    We would do well to remember that the movement Saint Francis began was an important element in building up the rich art and liturgy of 13th and 14th century Italy. Francis himself was no opponent of the elaborate papal ritual and traditional liturgical practices of his time. (The idea of a “humble” pope would have seemed absurd to him!) The place of St Francis and his followers in the story of Italian art has been well established. A good introduction can be read here: http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/21582/sample/9780521821582ws.pdf

    Let’s hope that the present one-dimensional “Franciscan” spirit that is sweeping through the corridors of Rome does not have a similar vandalising effect to Henry VIII’s destruction of the Catholic liturgy of England.


  6. Toadspitttle says:

    Then, when we consider the deliberate massive destruction of Greek and Roman art and literature, often for ‘philosophical’ reasons – the destruction of Church art during the Napoleonic and Civil Wars in Spain, the ravaging of Pre-Columbian art in the Americas for the gold and silver it was made of, not even considering the ‘collateral’ destruction of art, buildings and books during ‘modern’ wars –
    (any wars, actually) I suppose we should be grateful there’s still anything worth looking at left at all.
    But we won’t be satisfied until we have destroyed it all.
    I’m minded of the Muslim “Kaliff,” or whatever, who ordered all books, apart from the Koran, burned (the Alexandria library?) on the grounds that, “…If they agree with the Koran, they are unnecessary: if they disagree, they are wicked.” And I suspect there’s a bit of that in most religions. Only suspect, mind you. So I won’t mention the Index. Doh! Just did!
    (Not that any of us would burn, “The God Delusion,” would we?)


  7. golden chersonnese says:

    Brother Lapin, I don’t know about others, but I am wallowing in an enormous sense of déjà vu.

    In the mid seventies, when I was an undergraduate, the Jesuit scholastics on campus were talking in a way that resembled greatly Pope Bergoglio’s current style. It’s like going back 40 years to the time just when Jesuits held their 32nd General Congregation in 1975. Some of these scholastics were trying to close the Catholic students society down, telling us that we were much too inward looking – “self-referential” I suppose they meant. We ought only be going out to the “peripheries”, that’s all.

    Déjà vu, as I said, occasioned by a man who was a 38 year-old Jesuit provincial in South America in 1975..


  8. Toadspitttle says:

    …By “inward-looking,” and “self-referential,” I suppose the Jesuits thought you were thinking too much about God. Although, thinking about God can lead to all manner of conclusions. As we know.


  9. golden chersonnese says:

    Toad, are you suggesting that the Christians of late antiquity destroyed classical Greek and Roman art? I’m sure we would have heard a lot more about that if that were seriously so. I recall that Justinian is said to have closed the Academy in Athens in 529, but that is disputed. I am not aware he destroyed any literature there. Anyway, the pagan Romans destroyed the original Academy long before that in about 86 BC.


  10. Frere Rabit says:

    “…a 38 year-old Jesuit provincial in South America in 1975..”

    Well – 1975 – that puts it in some perspective. The Jesuits in England were running liberation theology workshops in Loyola Hall at that time, were they not?


  11. Toadspitttle says:

    No, Golden. I’m merely suggesting that a lot of Greek and Roman art and writing was destroyed deliberately by several different ‘groups,’ not necessarily Christian at all – barbarians in general.
    Often, as with any ‘sacred’ works – the reason for the vandalism boils down to a difference of opinion. Destroying ‘false gods.” And all that.
    As I said, I had the library at Alexandria in mind, rightly or wrongly.
    Might be wrongly in that case. Must research today.
    Can’t have you doing it all.
    Today, the oafs content themselves by spraying graffiti on the exterior walls of 11th century churches.


  12. The Raven says:


    This is an amusing listen on the library at Alexandria.

    I suspect that the story that you relate about the Moslem bibliophobe is about the library at Baghdad – the library at Alexandria was gone before the Arabs started their conquests.


  13. kathleen says:

    @ Toad,

    But the destruction of so much beautiful and irreplaceable art and culture “in the Tudor period” was perpetrated by the descendants of those very same men who had helped build them! In other words, these wanton heinous acts were not done by barbarians from outside, but by those from within…. the so-called Reformers (who would be better named “Deformers”).
    It was like spitting at and mocking one’s very own ancestors.

    As St. Edmund Campion said to his executioners: “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England – the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.”


  14. Toadspitttle says:

    Kathleen, you make a very pertinent point.
    But, when we think about it, many countries seem to delight in obliterating their own past – or attempting to.
    Presumably on the premise that their past was no good.
    Look what the ‘planners” did to London after 1945. Just took over from Hitler, really.


  15. golden chersonnese says:

    Brother Lapin, it was very probably Fr Bergoglio’s task to convey the decrees of the Jesuit General Congregation of 1975 to his brethren back in Argentina, including the 4th decree.

    To be fair, it is said that Fr Bergoglio was opposed in many ways to decree 4, as were other sections of Jesuits (including many in Spain), but he must have agreed with its emphasis on social justice.

    You can get a clear idea of what the leaders of the Jesuits were about in the 70s in Fr Pedro Arrupe’s 1973 address to Jesuit alumni in Valencia.


    This all seems still to be humming around in the Jesuit Parallel Universe nowadays too, as here at the Ateneo de Manila, the main Jesuit university in the land of our neighbours, the Philippines.

    Although it was nice to hear Fr Arrupe saying ” . . quite clearly, the mission of the Church is not coextensive with the furthering of justice on this planet . . .”, just wait for all the “buts”.


  16. Toadspitttle says:

    1; Thanks for running the 4th Decree link. Which was, I thought – regardless of content – remarkably well, and clearly, written.
    It put me in mind of Brecht (Marxist, alas, or should that be ‘Marxist, naturally’?) saying something similar – but rather more concisely : “Grub first, then ethics.”


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