Statue of the Dead Christ
Statue of the Dead Christ c.1500–20
Stone on a limestone plinth

Religion: Reformation

During the sixteenth century England experienced iconoclasm on an unprecedented scale. The largely state-sponsored destruction affected every community as parish churches and cathedrals were stripped of their religious images.

The issue of images and the role they played in worship was central to the Protestant Reformation. Reformers feared that people were adoring statues and paintings instead of God by praying to them, making offerings, kneeling before them and kissing them – the very definition of the sin of idolatry. Removing images also removed the temptations and dangers they posed.

Under Henry VIII church images were mostly still permitted but the government of Edward VI in the mid-sixteenth century was more radical. A regime of systematic iconoclasm was implemented. Orders were given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. Religious images were accordingly removed, defaced, whitewashed or obliterated to prevent people’s engagement with them.

The English Reformation was an on-going and turbulent process of reform. Church images reappeared in the reign of the Catholic Mary I (1553–8) but were removed again under Elizabeth I. The result was a comprehensive dismantling and eradication of centuries-worth of medieval art and religious and cultural tradition.