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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 11 — The image-breakings

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The Confederate Envoys – Philip's Cruel Purpose – -The Image-Breakers – Their Character – Their Devastations – Overspread the Low Countries in a Week – Pillage of 400 Churches – Antwerp Cathedral – Its Magnificence – -Its Pillage – Pillage of the Rest of the Churches – The True Iconoclast Hammer-The Preachers and their People take no part in the Image-Breakings – Image-Breaking in Holland – Amsterdam and other Towns – What Protestantism Teaches concerning Image-Breaking – The Popular Outbreaks at the Reformation and at the French Revolution Compared.

We have seen the procession of the 300 noblemen who, with Count Brederode at their head, on the 5th of April, 1566, walked two and two on foot to the old palace of Brabant in Brussels, to lay the grievances under which their nation groaned at the feet of Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands. We have also heard the answer which the regent returned. She promised to send their petition by special envoys to Philip, with whom alone the power lay of granting or withholding its request; and meanwhile, though she could not close the Inquisition, she would issue orders to the inquisitors to proceed "with discretion." The noblemen whom Margaret selected to carry the Confederate Petition to Spain were the Marquis de Berghen and the Baron de Montigny. They gladly undertook the mission entrusted to them, little suspecting how fruitless it would prove for their country, and how fatally it would end for themselves. The tyrant, as we shall afterwards see, chose to consider them not as ambassadors, but as conspirators against his Government. Philip took care, however, to keep the dark purpose he harboured in connection therewith in his breast; and meanwhile he professed to be deliberating on the answer which the two deputies, who he purposed should see the Netherlands no more, were to carry back. While Philip was walking in "leaden shoes," the country was hurrying on with "winged feet."

The progress of the movement so far had been peaceful. The psalms sung and the prayers offered at the field-preachings, and above all the Gospel published from the pulpits, tended only to banish thoughts of vengeance, and inspire to amity and good-will. The consideration of the forgiveness of Heaven, freely accorded to the most enormous offenses, disposed all who accepted it to forgive in their turn. But numerous other causes were in operation tending to embroil the Protestant movement. The whole soil of the Netherlands was volcanic. Though the voice of the pulpit was peace, the harangues which the Confederates were daily firing off breathed only war. The Protestants were becoming conscious of their strength; the remembrance of the thousands of their brethren who had been barbarously murdered, rankled in their minds – nay, they were not permitted to forget the past, even had they been willing so to do. Did not their pastors preach to them with a price set upon their heads, and were not their brethren being dragged to death before their eyes? With so many inflammable materials all about, it needed only a spark to kindle a blaze. A mighty conflagration now burst out.

On the 14th of August, the day before the fete of the Assumption of the Virgin, there suddenly appeared in Flanders a band of men armed with staves, hatchets, hammers, ladders, and ropes; some few of them carried guns and swords. [1] This party was composed of the lowest of the people, of idlers, and women of disreputable character, "hallooed on," says Grotius, "by nobody knows whom." [2] They had come forth to make war upon images; they prosecuted the campaign with singular energy, and, being unopposed, with complete success. As they marched onwards the crosses, shrines, and saints in stone that stood by the roadside fell before them. They entered the villages and lifted up their hammers upon all their idols, and smote them in pieces. They next visited the great towns, where they pulled down the crucifixes that stood at the corners of the streets, and broke the statues of the Virgin and saints. The churches and cathedrals they swept clean of all their consecrated symbols. They extinguished the tapers on the altars, and mounting the wall of the edifice with their ladders, pulled down the pictures that adorned it. They overturned the Madonnas, and throwing their ropes around the massive crosses that surmounted altars and chapels, bore them to the ground; the altars too, in some cases, they demolished; they took a special delight in soiling the rich vestments of the priests, in smearing their shoes with the holy oil, and trampling under foot the consecrated bread; and they departed only when there was nothing more to break or to profane. It was in vain that the doors of some churches and convents were hastily barricaded. This iconoclast army was not to be withstood. Some sturdy image-hater would swing his hammer against the closed portal, and with one blow throw it open. The mob would rush in, and nothing would be heard but the clang of axes and the crash of falling pictures and overturned images. A few minutes would suffice to complete the desolation of the place. Like the brook when the rams descend, and a hundred mountain torrents keep pouring their waters into it, till it swells into a river, and at last widens into a devastating flood, so this little band of iconoclasts, swelled by recruits from every village and town through which they passed, grew by minutes into an army, that army into a far-extending host, which pursued its march over the country, bursting open the doors of cathedrals and the gates of cities, chasing burgomasters before it, and striking monk and militia-man alike with terror. It seemed even as if iconoclasts were rising out of the soil. They would start up and begin their ravages at the same instant in provinces and cities widely apart. In three days they had spread themselves over all the Low Countries, and

in less than a week they had plundered 400 churches. [3] To adapt to this destroying host the words of the prophet, descriptive of the ravages of another army – before them was a garden, clothed in the rich blossoms of the Gothic genius and art, behind them was a wilderness strewn over with ruins.

These iconoclasts appeared first in the district of St. Omer, in Flanders, where they sacked the convent of the Nuns of Wolverghen. Emboldened by their success, the cry was raised, "To Ypres, to Ypres!" [4] "On their way thither," says Strada, "their number increased, like a snowball rolling from a mountain-top into the valley." [5] They purged the roads as they advanced, they ravaged the churches around Ypres, and entering the town they inflicted unsparing demolition upon all the images in its sanctuaries. "Some set ladders to the walls, with hammers and staves battering the pictures. Others broke asunder the iron-work, seats, and pulpit. Others casting ropes about the great statues of Our Savior Christ, and the saints, pulled them down to the ground." [6] The day following there gathered "another flock of the like birds of prey," which directed their flight towards Courtray and Douay, ravaging and plundering as they went onward. Not a penny of property did they appropriate, not a hair of the head of monk or nun did they hurt. It was not plunder but destruction which they sought, and their wrath if fierce was discharged not on human beings, but on graven images. They smote, and defaced, and broke in pieces, with exterminating fury, the statues and pictures in the churches, without permitting even one to escape, "and that with so much security," says Strada, "and with so little regard of the magistrate or prelates, as you would think they had been sent for by the Common Council, and were in pay of the city." [7]

Tidings of what was going on in Flanders were speedily carried into Brabant, and there too the tempest gathered with like suddenness, and expended itself with like fury. Its more terrific burst was in Antwerp, which the wealth and devotion of preceding ages had embellished with so many ecclesiastical fabrics, some of them of superb architectural magnificence, and all of them filled with the beautiful creations of the chisel and the pencil. The crowning glory of Antwerp was its cathedral, which, although begun in 1124, had been finished only a few years before the events we are narrating. There was no church in all Northern Europe, at that day, which could equal the Notre-Dame of the commercial capital of Brabant, whether in the imposing grandeur of its exterior, or in the variety and richness of its internal decorations. The magnificence of its statuary, the beauty of its paintings, its mouldings in bronze and carvings in wood, and its vessels of silver and gold, made it the pride of the citizens, and the delight and wonder of strangers from other lands. Its spire shot up to a height of 500 feet, its nave and aisles stretched out longitudinally the same length. Under its lofty roof, borne up by columns of gigantic stature, hung round with escutcheons and banners, slept mailed warriors in their tombs of marble, while the boom of organ, the chant of priest, and the whispered prayers of numberless worshippers, kept eddying continually round their beds of still and deep and never-ending repose.

When the magistrates and wealthy burghers of Antwerp heard of the storm that was raging at no great distance from their gates, their hearts began to fail them. Should the destructive cloud roll hither, how much will remain a week hence, they asked themselves, of all that the wealth and skill and penitence of centuries have gathered into the Church of Our Lady? It needed not that the very cloud that was devastating Flanders should transport itself to the banks of the Scheldt; the whole air was electrical. In every quarter of the firmament the same dark clouds that hung over Flanders were appearing, and wherever stood Virgin, or saint, or crucifix, there the lightnings were seen to fall. The first mutterings of the storm were heard at Antwerp on the fete-day of the Assumption of the Virgin. "Whilst," says Strada, "her image in solemn procession was carried upon men's shoulders, from the great church through the streets, some jeering rascals of the meaner sort of artificers first laughed and hissed at the holy solemnity, then impiously and impudently, with mimic salutations and reproachful words, mocked the effigies of the Mother of God." [8] The magistrates of Antwerp in their wisdom hit upon a device which they thought would guide the iconoclast tempest past their unrivalled cathedral. It was their little manoeuvre that drew the storm upon them.

The great annual fair was being held in their city; [9] it was usual during that concourse for the image of the Virgin to stand in the open nave of the cathedral, that her rotaries might the more conveniently offer her their worship. The magistrates, thinking to take away occasion from those who sought it, bade the statue be removed inside the choir, behind the iron railing of its gates. When the people assembled next day, they found "Our Lady's" usual place deserted. They asked her in scorn "why she had so early flown up to the roost?" "Have you taken fright," said they sarcastically, "that you have retreated within this enclosure?" As "Our Lady" made them no reply, nor any one for her, their insolence waxed greater. "Will you join us," said they, "in crying, 'Long live the Beggars'?"

It is plain that those who began the iconoclast riots in Antwerp were more of Confederates than Reformers. A mischievously frolicsome lad, in tattered doublet and old battered hat, ascended the pulpit, and treated the crowd to a clever caricature of the preaching of the friars. All, however, did not approve of this attempt to

entertain the multitude. A young sailor rushed up the stairs to expel the caricaturist preacher. The two struggled together in the pulpit, and at last both came rolling to the ground. The crowd took the part of the lad, and some one drawing his dagger wounded the sailor. Matters were becoming serious, when the church officers interfered, and with the help of the margrave of the city, they succeeded with some difficulty in ejecting the mob, and locking the cathedral-doors for the night. [10]

The governor of the city, William of Orange, was absent, having been summoned a few days before to a council at Brussels; and the two burgomasters and magistrates were at their wits' end.

They had forbidden the Gospel to be preached within the walls of Antwerp, having rejected the petition lately presented to that effect by a number of the principal burghers; but the gates which the Gospel must not enter, the iconoclast tempest had burst open without leave of the Senate. Where the psalm could not be sung, the iconoclast saturnalians lifted up their hoarse voices. The night passed in quiet, but when the day returned, signs appeared of a renewal of the tempest. Crowds began to collect in the square before the cathedral; numbers were entering the edifice, and it was soon manifest that they had come not to perform their devotions, but to stroll irreverently through the building, to mock at the idols in nave and aisle, to peer through the iron railings behind which the Virgin still stood ensconced, to taunt and jeer her for fleeing, and to awaken the echoes of the lofty roof with their cries of "Long live the Beggars!" Every minute the crowd was increasing and the confusion growing. In front of the choir, sat an ancient crone selling wax tapers and other things used in the worship of the Virgin. Zealous for the honor of Mary, whom Antwerp and all Brabant worshipped, she began to rebuke the crowd for their improper behavior.

The mob were not in a humor to take the admonition meekly. They turned upon their reprover, telling her that her patroness' day was over, and her own with it, and that she had better "shut shop." The huckster thus baited was not slow to return gibe for gibe. The altercation drew the youngsters in the crowd around her, who possibly did not confine their annoyances to words. Catching at such missiles as lay within her reach, the stall-woman threw them at her tormentors. The riot thus begun rapidly extended through all parts of the church. Some began to play at ball, some to throw stones at the altar, some to shout, "Long live the Beggars!" and others to sing psalms. The magistrates hastened to the scene of uproar, and strove to induce the people to quit the cathedral. The more they entreated, the more the mob scowled defiance. They would remain, they said, and assist in singing Ave Maria to the Virgin. The magistrates replied that there would be no vespers that night, and again urged them to go. In the hope that the mob would follow, the magistrates made their own exit, locking the great door of the cathedral behind them, and leaving open only a little wicket for the people to come out by. Instead of the crowd within coming out, the mob outside rushed in at the wicket, and the uproar was increased.

The margrave and burgomasters re-entered the church once more, and made yet another attempt to quell the riot. They found themselves in presence of a larger and stormier crowd, which they could no more control than they could the waves of an angry sea. Securing what portion they could of the more valuable treasures in the church, they retired, leaving the cathedral in the hands of the rioters. [11]

All night long the work of wholesale destruction still went on. The noise of wrenching, breaking, and shouting, the blows of hammers and axes, and the crash of images and pictures, were heard all over the city; and the shops and houses were closed. The first object of the vengeance of the rioters, now left sole masters of the building and all contained in it, was the colossal image of the Virgin, which only two days before had been borne in jewelled robes, with flaunt of banner, and peal of trumpet, and beat of drum, through the streets. The iron railing within which she had found refuge was torn down, and a few vigorous blows from the iconoclast axes hewed her in pieces and smote her into dust. Execution being done upon the great deity of the place, the rage of the mob was next discharged on the minor gods. Traversing nave and side-aisle, the iconoclast paused a moment before each statue of wood or stone. He lifted his brawny arm, his hammer fell, and the image lay broken. The pictures that hung on the walls were torn down, the crosses were overturned, the carved work was beaten into atoms, and the stained glass of the windows shivered in pieces. All the altars – seventy in number – were demolished; [12] in short, every ornament was rifled and destroyed. Tapers taken from the altar lighted the darkness, and enabled the iconoclasts to continue their work of destruction all through the night.

The storm did not expend itself in the cathedral only, it extended to the other churches and chapels of Antwerp. These underwent a like speedy and terrible purgation. Before morning, not fewer than thirty churches within the walls had been sacked. When there remained no more images to be broken, and no more pictures and crucifixes to be pulled down, the rabble laid their hands on other things. They strewed the wafers on the floor; they filled the chalices with wine, and drank to the health of the Beggars; they donned the gorgeous vestments of the priests, and, breaking open the cellars, a vigorous tap

of the hammer set the red wine a-flowing. A Carmelite, or bare-looted monk, who had languished twelve years in the prison of his monastery, received his liberty at the hands of these image-breakers. The nunneries were invaded, [13] and the sisters, impelled by fright, or moved by the desire of freedom, escaped to the houses of their relatives and friends. Violence was offered to no one. Unpitying towards dead idols, these iconoclasts were tender of living men.

When the day broke a body of the rioters sallied out at the gates, and set to work on the abbeys and religious houses in the open country. These they ravaged as they had done those of the city. The libraries of some of these establishments they burned. The riotings continued for three days. No attempt to put them down was made by any one. The magistrates did nothing beyond their visit to the cathedral on the first day. The burghal militia were not called out. The citizens kept themselves shut up in their houses, the Protestants because they suspected that the Roman Catholics had conspired to murder them, and the Roman Catholics because they feared the same thing of the Protestants. Though the crowd was immense, the actual perpetrators of these outrages were believed not to number over a hundred. A little firmness on the part of the authorities at the beginning might easily have restrained them. "All these violences, plunderings, and desolations," said those of the Spanish faction, "were committed by about a hundred unarmed rabble at the most." The famous Dutch historian, Hooft, says: "I do not think it strange, since there are good and bad men to be found in all sects, that the vilest of the [Reformed] party showed their temper by these extravagances, or that others fed their eyes with a sport that grew up to a plague, which they thought the clergy had justly deserved by the rage of their persecutions." "The generality of the Reformed," he adds, "certainly behaved themselves nobly by censuring things which they thought good and proper to be done, because they were brought about by improper methods." [14] In an Apology which they published after these occurrences had taken place the Reformed said: "The Papists themselves were at the bottom of the image-breaking, to the end they might have a pretext for charging those of the Religion with rebellion: this, they added, plainly appeared by the tumult renewed at Antwerp by four Papists, who were hanged for it next day." [15]

It is light and not axes that can root out idols. It is but of small avail to cast down the graven image, unless the belief on which the worship of it is founded be displaced from the heart. This was not understood by these zealous iconoclasts. Cast images out of the breast, said Zwingle, and they will soon disappear from the sanctuary. Of this opinion were the Protestant preachers of the Low Countries. So far from lifting axe or hammer upon any of the images around them, they strove to the utmost of their power to prevent the rabble doing so. The preacher Modet, in an Apology which he published soon after these disorders, says "that neither he himself nor any of his consistory had any more knowledge of this design of destroying images when it was first contrived than of the hour of their death." It was objected against him that he was in the church while the mob was breaking and defacing the images. This he owns was true; but he adds that "it was at the desire of the magistrates themselves, and at the peril of his own life, that he went thither to quiet the mob, though he could not be heard, but was pulled down from the pulpit, and thrust out of the church; that, moreover, he had gone first to the convent of the Grey Friars, and next to the nunnery of St. Clara, to entreat the people to depart; that of this matter fifty or sixty nuns could testify. That was all the concern he had in that affair." A written address was also presented to the burgomaster by the ministers and elders of the Dutch and Walloon congregations, in which "they called God to witness that what happened in the taking away and destroying of images was done without either their knowledge or consent; and they declared their detestation of these violent deeds." [16]

This destroying wind passed on to Breda, Bergen-op-Zoom, and other towns of Brabant. Eight men presented themselves at the gates of Lier, and said they had come to ascertain whether the idols had been taken down. The magistrates admitted two of them into the city, led them from church to church, and removed whatever they ordered, without once asking them by whose authority they had come. [17] At Tournay the churches were stripped to the very walls; the treasures of gold and silver which the priests had buried in the earth, exhumed; and the repositories broken into, and the chalices, reliquaries, rich vestments, and precious jewels scattered about as things of no value. At Valenciennes the massacre of the idols took place on St. Bartholomew's Day. "Hardly as many senseless stones," says Motley, "were victims as there were to be living Huguenots sacrificed in a single city upon a Bartholomew which was fast approaching. In the Valenciennes massacre not a human being was injured." [18]

The storm turned northward, and inflicted its ravages on the churches of Holland. Hague, Delft, Leyden, the Brill, and other towns were visited and purged. At Dort, Gouda, Rotterdam, Haarlem, and other places, the magistrates anticipated the coming of the iconoclasts by giving orders beforehand for the removal of the images. Whether the pleasure or the mortification of the rioters was the greater at having the work thus taken off their hands, it would be hard to affirm. At Amsterdam the matter did not pass off

so quietly. The magistrates, hearing that the storm was travelling northwards, gave a hint to the priests to remove their valuables in time. The precaution was taken with more haste than good success. The priests and friars, lading themselves with the plate, chalices, patens, pyxes, and mass-vestments, hurried with them along the open street. They were met by the operatives, who were returning from their labor to dinner.

The articles were deemed public property, and the clergy in many cases were relieved of their burdens. The disturbances had begun. The same evening, after vespers had been sung, several children were brought for baptism. While the priest was performing the usual exorcisms one of the crowd shouted out, "You priest, forbear to conjure the devil out of him; baptise the child in the name of Jesus, as the apostles were wont to do."

The confusion increased; some mothers had their infants hastily baptised in the mother tongue, others hurried home with theirs unbaptised. Later in the evening a porter named Jasper, sauntering near that part of the church where the pyx is kept, happened to light upon a placard hanging on the wall, having reference to the mystery in the pyx. "Look here," said he to the bystanders, at the same time laying hold on the board and reading aloud its inscription, which ran thus: "Jesus Christ is locked up in this box; whoever does not believe it is damned." Thereupon he threw it with violence on the floor; the crash echoed through the church, and gave the signal for the breakings to begin. Certain boys began to throw stones at the altar. A woman threw her slipper at the head of a wooden Mary – an act, by the way, which afterwards cost her her own head. The mob rushed on: images and crucifixes went down before them, and soon a heap of pictures, vases, crosses, and saints in stone, broken, bruised, and blended undistinguishably, covered with their sacred ruins the floors of the churches. [19]

It does not appear from the narratives of contemporary historians that in a single instance these outrages were stimulated, or approved of, by the Protestant preachers. On the contrary, they did all in their power to prevent them. They wished to see the removal of images from the churches, knowing that this method of worship had been forbidden in the Decalogue; but they hoped to accomplish the change peacefully, by enlightening the public sentiment and awakening the public conscience on the matter. He is the true iconoclast, they held, who teaches that "God is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit." This is the hammer that is to break in pieces the idols of the nations.

Nor can the destruction of these images, with truth, be laid at the door of the Protestant congregations of the Low Countries. There were fanatical persons in their ranks, no doubt, who may have aided the rioters by voice and hand; but the great body of the Reformers – all, in short, who were worthy of the name, and had really been baptised into the spirit of Protestantism – stood aloof from the work of destruction, knowing it to be as useless as it was culpable. These outrages were the work of men who cared as little for Protestantism, in itself, as they did for Roman Catholicism. They belonged to a class found in every Popish country, who, untaught, vindictive, vicious, are ever ready to break out into violence the moment the usual restraints are withdrawn. These restraints had been greatly relaxed in the Low Countries, as in all the countries of Christendom, by the scandals of the priesthood, and yet more by the atrocious cruelty of the Government, which had associated these images in the minds of the people with the 30,000 victims who had been sacrificed during the three or four decades past. And most of all, perhaps, had Protestantism tended to relax the hold which the Church of Rome exercised over the masses. Protestantism had not enlightened the authors of these outrages to the extent of convincing them of its own truth, but it had enlightened them to the extent of satisfying them that Popery was a cheat; and it is of the nature of the human mind to avenge itself upon the impositions by which it has been deluded and duped. But are we therefore to say that the reign of imposture must be eternal? Are we never to unmask delusions and expose falsehoods, for fear that whirlwinds may come in with the light? How many absurdities and enormities must we, in that case, make up our minds to perpetuate! In no one path of reform should we ever be able to advance a step. We should have to sternly interdict progress not only in religion, but in science, in politics, and in every department of social well-being. And then, how signally unjust to blame the remedy, and hold it accountable for the disturbances that accompany it, and acquit the evil that made the remedy necessary!

Modern times have presented us with two grand disruptions of the bonds of authority; the first was that produced by Protestantism in the sixteenth century, and the second was that caused by the teachings of the French Encyclopedists in the end of the eighteenth century. In both cases the masses largely broke away from the control of the Roman Church and her priesthood; but every candid mind will admit that they broke away not after the same fashion, or to the same effect. The revolt of the sixteenth century was attended, as we have seen in the Low Countries, by an immense and, we shall grant, most merciless execution of images; the revolt of the eighteenth was followed by the slaughter of a yet greater number of victims; but in this case the victims were not images, but living men. Both they who slew the images in the sixteenth century, and they who slew the human

beings in the eighteenth, were reared in the Church of Rome; they had learned her doctrines and had received their first lessons from her priests; and though now become disobedient and rebellious, they had not yet got quit of the instincts she had planted in them, nor were they quite out of her leading-strings.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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