Curator of Art under Attack at Tate Britain, Tabitha Barber, tells the story of how specific figures came to be removed from Canterbury Cathedral’s iconic stained glass windows
In 1644, in Cathedrall newes from Canterbury, the iconoclast Richard Culmer described with relish the cleansing of the cathedral that took place in December 1643. Unlike iconoclasm that had taken place the year before, his was an orderly reformation, he said, officially commissioned by the city authorities to execute Parliament’s ordinance against images. It had been a fight against the cathedral idols, he said, such as altars, altar rails, ‘greasie’ service books, surplices, organs and tempting images, which had been hewed and ‘slasht’ to pieces. Such action was necessary as the cathedral was in a corrupt and rotten condition.
Canterbury Cathedral’s ancient glass windows were its glory and the cathedral authorities had been worried that the ‘spoiling’ of them was the city corporation’s design. They were right to have been anxious, for as well as attacking sculptures of Christ, the apostles and bishops (that fell on their heads and broke their necks) and the praying hands of tomb effigies, it was idols in glass that preoccupied the iconoclasts.
Culmer’s description of himself high up a ladder wielding a pike is vividly brought to life in Thomas Johnson’s painting (below) of the interior of Canterbury Cathedral showing iconoclasts at work.
An assessment of Johnson’s evidence, Culmer’s own written account of his actions, and the glass panels themselves (what within them is original, and what is restoration) suggest that the breaking entailed the elimination of whole panels but also, as occurred with official iconoclasm elsewhere in the country, the precise targeting of specific images within others.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and Christ Leading the Gentiles away from Pagan Gods are two panels from the famous medieval typological windows commissioned by the Benedictine monks of Christ Church following a fire in 1174. Both show evidence of precise attack. In the first, the figures of the Virgin and St Simeon are restorations, as is the head of Christ; in the second, the cross on the altar, the figure of Christ and the pagan deity’s altar frontal are replacements. The history of the restoration of the cathedral’s glazing is a complicated and badly documented one. Glass was being restored, moved and replaced from the 1660s, and in the early nineteenth century a systematic restoration campaign began which continued until 1952 and which was at times aggressive. Old glass was cut, repainted and reused for different parts of the cathedral and original panels were removed and replaced with modern replicas.
The destruction of the windows was vigorously opposed (the doors of the cathedral had to be locked so the iconoclasts could continue uninterrupted) and Culmer’s 1644 description of events provoked anger as it reduced, it was argued, the extremities of what had occurred. Culmer had addressed his Cathedrall newes to Parliament, and proving to them that he had strictly enforced the 1643 ordinance and its list of what was proscribed would have been important. The evidence within the two panels illustrated here, however, where the symbolism of what has been lost is striking, suggests that the official iconoclasm of Canterbury Cathedral’s windows was indeed specific and precisely targeted against offensive images and idols.
This is an extract from the essay ‘Puritan Iconoclasm: Monuments of supersition and idolatory’ by Tabitha Barber in the exhibition catalogue ‘Art Under Attack: Iconoclasm’
‘Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’ is on display at Tate Britain from 2 October 2013 to 5 January 2014, tickets available now