Iconoclasm and the Protestant Reformation

Images as a gift of God or a Sinful use of God’s given freedom

By: Dahlia Labatte

Feb 23, 2023

Why do people destroy images? At what point is the line drawn between a representation of what is being worshipped and sinful worship of the image itself. According to Oxford Languages, iconoclasm is “the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical.” Protestants believed that any association of an image with Christ and God meant that idolatry had already begun, “the common denominator of beliefs and practices that attribute magical properties to images is that the distinction between the image and the person is to some extent eliminated,” (Iconoclasm 118).  The Protestant Reformation was at its core a contrast in the belief of to what man really had to do with worship and religion. Protestants held the belief that salvation happened through Christ and only through Christ, and so from there began the elimination of various structures held in the Catholic church, like  religious art and the adornment of places of worship. Because salvation only happens through Christ and cannot be affected by man, then images of Christ are inherently deceitful. The Reformation started in Germany with Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, which became a direct challenge to the system of the Catholic church. Over the 16th century the reformation spread to many other countries in Europe, like France and the Netherlands, among others. The spread of  the reformations ideals created more radical reformers and more radical actions, one of the consequences of that being iconoclasms. 

The primary documents used are Andreas Karlstadt’s On The Removal of Images and Hieronymus Emser’s response titled That One Should Not Remove Images of the Saints from the Churches Nor Dishonour Them and That They are Not Forbidden in Scripture. These texts serve to outline the position and main arguments of each side in the iconoclasms of the Protestant Reformation. Karlstadt was one of the more adamant and radical reformers, as he believed that any and all images of Christian narrative should be destroyed and any possibility for idolatry should be avoided. Whereas Luther was a bit more lenient and tolerated images that were purely narrative and/or historical. Emser frames his opposition to Karlstadt using the main arguments that images of God or religious figures have never been expressly forbidden in Scripture, and that images are no less subjective or educational than books, which Karlstadt argues adamantly. Using these two documents to outline each perspective of the iconoclasms this essay will be centered around the question of, why do people, specifically in the Protestant Reformation, destroy images? In an attempt to answer this question we will explore the iconoclasms of the Protestant Reformation through the social and political lens, the religious/theological lens and the feminist lens to gain a fuller picture, and at least partial response to the question. 


Covering the feminist lens first because it’s an interesting step into the reformation iconoclasm, and it adds a layer and dimension to the Protestant Reformation that if not often considered. Many women saw the Protestant Reformation as an opportunity to play more equal parts in marriage, their community, and in their faith, “stuck in their houses, wholly occupied by their little courtyards and inner world of family and children, these women no doubt found in religious movements a kind of liberation,” (Davis 67). Because Protestantism broke down a lot of the priestly order and hierarchy, it opened up space for women to begin reading and discussing Scripture. For women that did not have the ability to read, or the financial freedom to be allowed the free time required to join groups of women discussing Scripture or learning to read, another way to support the Protestant cause was to aid in the riots. This is where the feminist lens also links with the class focus, “and what could a city woman accomplish for the cause if she were not rich and powerful like a noblewoman? … She could smash statues, baptismal fonts, and destroy holy images,” (Davis 92). Because wealthier women were now able to discuss Scripture, even challenging priests and theologians, the riots and iconoclasms were an opportunity to contribute to the cause for those that did not have the ability to do much else. 

The Protestant Reformation gave women the chance to seize a little bit of the void of power that was left by removing a lot of the hierarchy in the religion, which gave them the chance to begin to fully discuss, teach, and be taught Scripture, “images were to the illiterate what the written word was to the literate; they were a source of education for the great majority of Europeans who were illiterate,” (Wandel 29). This is where class comes in; images can connect where words cannot, especially with a demographic that is majority illiterate. Although one can listen to Scripture being read, an actual connection with the words doesn’t happen, and the study and discussion of Scripture would have to be from memory. That makes it difficult to connect with something, whereas images can fill that gap very easily, “we must come to an understanding of the invisible through these visible things,” (Emser). However, Protestant women, like men, tended to come from families of professional men, not from the poorer and illiterate masses, “the Protestant path was not a way to express their new literacy but a way to finally associate themselves with that surge of male literacy already described,” (Davis 80). So for those that were not literate to begin with, a large part of that group being women, it was difficult to associate with a reformation that put even more of a focus on literacy. 

Dirk van Delen, Iconoclasts in a church, 1930

Beginning with the social and political lens. The two are grouped together because the concept being discussed is a social phenomenon but it is almost a reaction to the political environment of the time. Karlstadt and Luther believed that the images should be removed, and Luther that it should be done in an orderly fashion and carried out ultimately by the authorities. However, Luther being one of the less radical reformers meant that a large group believed that because the authorities would not do it, that meant it was up to the people. That because the secular authorities did not know or believe that the images were damaging and sinful then that means they must act in place of the authorities, “when the magistrate had not used his sword to defend the faith and the true church and to punish the idolaters, then the crowd would do it for him,” (Davis 161). If the Protestant faith is the one that will lead to salvation and happiness then logic would follow that it is in the good faith of the people to act according to that, but what that leads to is mass iconoclasm and religious violence, “In mid-sixteenth-century France… it was hard to tell a militia officer from a murderer and a soldier from a statue-smasher,” (Davis 153). 

The violence by Protestants were of a different nature than the Catholics, the Protestants more inclined to iconoclasm and the murder of clergymen whereas the Catholics attacked anyone they suspected of blasphemy. This shows their difference in motive and goal. Clergymen had taught the masses idolatry and so for the betterment of society should be killed, and icons should be destroyed as they were deceitful and tainted faith and worship. Even though the core of the Reformation iconoclasm and violence was religious conflict, it was still steeped in social and political context, “the Protestants had put themselves, by their religious choice, on the margin of the urban or village community whose rites, feasts and games they no longer accepted. All these activities, deeply rooted in medieval religion, were, for the Calvinist neophyte, tainted with idolatry,” (Estebe 130). Because the Protestant separated themselves from aspects of Catholic life that were very entrenched in community and culture there began a stark cultural difference and the opening for fear of the ‘different’.


Rounding off with the religious, as it’s impossible to leave out the religious aspect because at its core the Protestant Reformation was a religious event and the motivation behind the iconoclasms was religion, “the images represented more than social or political arrangements. They were one of the places where the laity looked to envision God’s presence in the world,” (Wandel 51). The Protestant Reformation was a direct disagreement and challenge to the Catholic Church, and the iconoclasms of the Reformation were one of the outcomes of that challenge. The full reasoning for that iconoclasm was that having images of Christ, the saints, Mary, or any other Christian figure would result in the worship of the image over the actual figure. For some reformers like Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, images that were purely narrative were okay, but to others like Karlstadt that still had the potential to shift the worship from God and Christ to the image. The iconoclasm was one of the ways that reformers were able to demonstrate their conflict with the Catholic church and method of worship, and going back to the social lens, a way for the people to do for themselves what they thought the government should be doing. 


Damaged relief statues in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrech

The argument by Catholics against iconoclasm was simply that religious images were never expressly forbidden in Scripture, “If our images should not be judged in any other way than they are in Scripture, then they would long ago have been left in peace, since Scripture has not touched on them with a single word, much less forbidden them,” (Emser). As well as the idea that images help people to connect with what or who they’re worshiping, that it gives a comprehensible physical form to something that is maintained generally to be something invisible. It is wrong to assume that the Catholic church were simply just victims of religious attacks by the Protestants. In terms of iconoclasm, however, the Protestants were a lot more successful because the Catholics had more items that assisted in their worship and ritual, so there was simply more to destroy. So in terms of iconoclasm there is more to discuss on the Protestant side of things. 


Iconoclasm is a phenomenon that seems to always be present during events like the Reformation – the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, among others. Humanities connection to art is so strong, either in favour of its existence or not, it always seems to bear the brunt of human conflict. Iconoclasm always exists in a larger societal context and so viewing it by itself makes it look like a crazed social phenomenon. Through this essay we can begin to uncover many of the circumstances that can create the societal tension that iconoclasm takes place in. 



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