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

It was an ignominious end. Its arms and lower legs were hacked off, the top of its head removed, and then it was buried under the floor, possibly to protect it from further damage.

This was the fate of the Statue of the Dead Christ, found in 1954 underneath the chapel of the Worshipful Company of Mercers in the City of London during the clearance of bomb damage. It is to be shown in an exhibition for the first time at Tate Britain this autumn as part of Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, a show which explores the history of attacks on artworks in the UK.

The statue will form the centrepiece of a section of the exhibition exploring attacks on religious art at the hands of religious reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a graphic portrayal of Christ removed from the cross with limbs shown stiffened by rigor mortis, his mouth ajar and carved blood flowing from his wounds. This powerful depiction exemplifies the immense power and hold over people that images could, and still can, possess. It was images such as this that reformers found dangerous and wished to eradicate.

Other highlights include fragments of monuments destroyed in Ireland during the 20th century, paintings attacked by suffragettes in 1913 and 1914, and Allen Jones’s Chair 1969, damaged in a feminist attack in 1986. As well as public actions against art the show will also consider artists such as Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono and Jake and Dinos Chapman who have used destruction as a creative force.

Close-up of the Statue of the Dead Christ
Close-up of the Statue of the Dead Christ c.1500–20

The exhibition’s curator, Tabitha Barber, said:

We are delighted that the Mercers’ Company is able to lend this unique work to the exhibition. Confronted by the statue today, its emotional impact is still such that the danger of such images feared by 16th century reformers – the confusion between the real and the represented, or the sinful worship of an image instead of God – is near enough to be imagined. This incredible loan will help us to explore the methods and motives behind attacks on art in Britain over 500 years.

Art under Attack runs 2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014 at Tate Britain