Tate Britain’s Art under Attack show, opening in October, tells the dark stories of British art that was deliberately harmed. As the exhibition’s poster is unveiled, its co-curator shares the intriguing tale behind its image…
My name is Ruth Kenny and, together with curators Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick, I’m working on Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, which opens at Tate Britain in October. At the moment we’re putting the finishing touches to the show, exploring the history of attacks on art in Britain - but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you the story behind our newly finished poster (see above).
One of the highlights of the show, Christ before Pilate c.1400–25 is kindly being lent to us by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It once belonged to a much larger panel, showing scenes from the passion of Christ, but was sawn into equal parts after the prohibition of such images in the 16th century, probably during the reign of Edward VI. He was a staunch Protestant who wanted to eradicate the worship of such religious “idols”.
Wooden panels like these would be reused as table tops, cupboard doors and for many other purposes after being torn down - but to ensure they couldn’t be returned to their former use, they had to be defaced before sale. Here we can see the evidence of this in a network of deep cuts and scratches across the image.
But what I find particularly moving about this attack is that there appears to have been some clash between the zeal of the state and individual conscience. The careful avoidance of Christ’s face and the concentration of damage to less significant areas of the painting suggest an iconoclast who was reluctantly doing what he was told; obeying the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
In the show we’ll be exploring the diverse motives behind these sorts of attacks, divided broadly into three groups: religious, political and aesthetic. This panel falls within the religious category, and you’ll see it in Room 2, exploring iconoclasm (the deliberate destruction of icons, symbols or monuments) that took place during the Reformation. It will hang alongside stone fragments from the destroyed Great Screen in Winchester Cathedral and a defaced rood screen from St Mary’s Church, Gressenhall in Norfolk, amongst other works.
Look out for more posts on the show and its stories between now and the exhibition’s opening in October.
Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is at Tate Britain from 2 October 2013 - 5 January 2014