23 September 2016

Iconoclasm: The Struggle for Ownership of Symbolic History

Strictly speaking, iconoclasm refers to the destruction wrought on images by
believers who think that members of their own faith have strayed from some ur-prohibition, for example the injunction against “graven images” of the Ten Commandments, or Islam’s prohibition of depictions of Mahomet and other visual taboos spelled out in the hadith.1 In practice, most destruction of artefacts that have a religious or political significance is loosely regarded as iconoclasm, though often also referred to as vandalism. This is bad luck on the Vandals, who were not necessarily any more destructive than other tribes invading an enfeebled Roman Empire in the period of the so-called Völkerwanderung,2 although apparently they did make a point of defacing statues when they overran Rome in 455 AD. Recently there has been some support for vandalism (particularly graffiti), which has been seen by some who should probably know better as legitimate social protest. For example, in 1974 the writer and exhibitionist Norman Mailer lauded urban artistic vandalism in an essay entitled The Faith of Graffiti,3 where he likened tagging in New York City to the work of Giotto and Rauschenberg [sic]. The New York Authorities responded by coating subway walls with Teflon and jailing taggers.

The motive for mass cultural destruction in war is presumably to strike at the heart of a cultural identity and humiliate the enemy, so that he is damaged in the very core of his being. This surely lay behind the Persian rampage on the Athenian Acropolis, when they finally took it in 480 BC, smashing all the iconic monuments of the cult of Athena. It was as if they had wanted to show how impotent was such a cult, not to mention the people that had embraced it, when compared to the mighty Persians. The Athenians, on their return after the Persian defeat at Salamis, reacted with interesting logic by carefully burying the smashed statues, not recycling them,4 and in due course (under Pericles) re-building the great symbolic edifices of the Acropolis even more magnificently than before. To this act of pious preservation (“the Persian debris”) we owe the fact that the Acropolis museum today features remnants from the Persian devastation still with their pigment intact.

The Acropolis is thus both palimpsest and a place of multiple iconoclasm. In 267 AD the East Germanic Heruli smashed it up again; then, under the aegis of Byzantium, the Parthenon became a church, the building’s patroness mutating under some duress from Athena to the Virgin Mary. Later, when the crusaders held the city as the Duchy of Athens, the Parthenon became their Latin cathedral. Under Christian ownership “pagan” idols fell victim to Christian zeal or, as the online Encyclopaedia of Ancient History delicately puts it, “in keeping with the church’s common practice, all pagan images were destroyed and modifications made to the temples to bring them into alignment with Christian sensibilities”. Oddly, this is not a phase of iconoclasm much stressed in the relevant tourist literature.

The Parthenon’s metamorphosis progressed under the Turks, who turned it into a mosque and also stored their gunpowder in it. This ammunition dump blew up after receiving a direct hit from a Venetian mortar in 1687, the first serious reduction of the building in modern times before the depredations of Lord Elgin in 1801. Admittedly Elgin preserved what he looted, but as there is now a state- of-the-art museum in situ for the Parthenon frieze to be preserved, this unctuously claimed justification for his action can only be deemed sincere if the marbles are returned to their rightful owners. Meanwhile the archaeologists have also piously performed their own architectural lustration, unceremoniously demolishing Acropolis remnants from Byzantine, Latin and Turkish times in order to restore our sense of pristine awe for the site. For example, in 1874 Heinrich Schliemann5 took one look at the huge tower (the Frankopyrgos) built on the western end of the Acropolis under the Latin Duchy and ordered it to be knocked down…

Théophile Gautier (among others) was strongly critical of this demolition of an “integral part of the Athenian horizon”, while the historian of Frankish Greece William Miller called it “an act of vandalism unworthy of any people imbued with a sense of the continuity of history”.

Although the most famous iconoclasm, from which the practice takes its name, is that instituted by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian in 730 AD (apparently he thought that the devastating consequences of a volcanic eruption at Thera [Santorini] were a judgement of God on images), the ill-tempered and ill-mannered destruction of religious symbols is as old as religion itself. Early Jewish communities destroyed rival idols, early Christians did the same to pagan idols and Christian colonists from Europe set about the visual religious heritage of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Polynesia. In the Reformation, Protestants set out to eradicate much visual culture associated with Popery, notably in the Beeldenstorm (“Statue Storm”) that began in the Netherlands in 1566. Of course the opponents of Christianity (or other religions) had always done the same. Hadrian built a Temple of Venus on the supposed tomb of Jesus, and around 280 AD a Zoroastrian high priest ordered massive destruction of temples and icons pertaining to all rival beliefs (Jews, Buddhists, Christians and Manichees). The Chinese Emperor Wuzong is said to have razed 4,600 Buddhist monasteries. In modern times gratuitous destruction has been carried out with zest by French revolutionaries, Maoist Red Guards,6 Hindu fanatics and most recently and indiscriminately Islamists wanting to found a new caliphate.

The Vandals may have got a bad press but their actions hardly seem worse than those of the hypocritical and violent Christians who set out on the fourth Crusade. Ostensibly their aim was to regain the Holy Places of Palestine, but looting their fellow Christians in Constantinople proved to be more fun, not to mention more rewarding financially. In 1204 the Crusaders and Venetians destroyed or carried off most of the treasures of Byzantium in a prolonged orgy of destruction and robbery that stripped the veil for ever from the supposed religious and moral justification for crusades. A modern account by a Greek historian gives some idea of the Christian barbarism involved:


The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Fourth Crusade and the crusading movement generally thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.7

Some iconoclasm falls into the category of damnatio memoriae, which was the Roman expression for the practice of obliterating the memory of persons whose legacy the new ruling powers wished to remove from public consciousness. This practice lived on into our times, for example in the toppling of the mega-statues of Joseph Stalin in Hungary’s 1956 Revolution and the removal of the Prague statue of Stalin in 1962, not to mention the fate of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq. For the brief period that it existed, the Prague Stalin statue was the biggest in Europe at 15.5 metres high and 22 metres across. It was made of reinforced concrete and faced with 235 granite blocks weighing 17,000 tons. However Stalin’s personality cult had already fallen into disfavour by the time it was ready and it was ominous that the principal sculptor, Otokar Švec, killed himself the day before the unveiling. An embarrassed Czech Communist Party decided seven years later to get rid of it, but it required 800 kg of explosives to do so. There are some similar more recent examples of tyrant demolition. For example a huge gilded statue of Mao Tse Tung erected in China’s rural Henan province is “quietly being demolished” according to a recent report in the Financial Times, although of course it is difficult to demolish something 36 metres high “quietly”. It is supposed to have cost half a million dollars to erect and Chinese bloggers disobligingly pointed out that it had been erected precisely in an area where millions died from famine in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” during the 1950s.

An Ozymandian fate might have been better as warning to hubristic tyrants. A halfway house solution between Ozymandias and total destruction is to “museumise” monuments that no longer speak to the Zeitgeist. The Communist statues and monuments of Budapest (some of them made by gifted sculptors) were removed (intact) to a “statue park” outside the city after 1990. The material of the Budapest Stalin statue broken up in 1956 was re-used, just as the statue itself had originally been partly constituted by using remnants of monuments to Hungarian patriots broken up by the Communists. More recently Hungary’s conservative Fidesz governments have been more active than most in reversing or revising the monumental legacy of Budapest in the 20th century. In particular the area around the Parliament has been ideologically cleansed by the removal of Imre Varga’s statue (1975) of Mihály Károlyi, Hungary’s first President in 1919. Károlyi, known as the “Red Count”, is held responsible by the Hungarian right for opening the door to Communism and conservatives give him little credit for extending the suffrage, introducing the secret ballot and establishing freedom of the press and assembly. In place of Károlyi, the Fidesz government has re-instated the massive and aesthetically questionable monument to István Tisza, which had been removed in 1948. The original intention may have been that this vast and ponderously symbolic monument should double as a memorial to Hungary’s dead in World War I (Tisza, Prime Minister of Hungary before and during the war, was in fact assassinated by soldiers returning from the front). The controversial leader is represented standing before a huge lion attacked by a snake symbolising betrayal.

Another blast from the past re-emerging on Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament is the pathos-ridden monument celebrating Lajos Kossuth. This is a reinstatement of a work dating from the Horthy period to replace the “new dawn” type of Kossuth monument put up under Socialism. The square also saw two totally new statues (not reinstatements), no doubt as a gesture to the Smallholders’ Party that was in coalition with the Fidesz in its first period (1998–2002): a statue to their former leader, Béla Kovács, was raised to the south of the Parliament in 2002. Under Kovács the party had achieved its greatest electoral success in 1945 with 57 per cent of the votes, but he was subsequently arrested and sent to the Soviet Gulag in 1947. Kovács is celebrated for a quotation from a speech he made on joining the cabinet of Imre Nagy in 1956, namely: “No one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!” As Budapest chronicler Bob Dent drily points out, by the time of the erection of his statue, the world of bankers and capitalists had certainly returned, though perhaps not that of aristocrats. However that may be, the monument to him enjoyed but a few years of not much glory (few passers-by seemed to know who Kovács might be) and subsequently disappeared from Kossuth Square. The area on the south side of Parliament where it stood has been remodelled to provide maximum impact for the equestrian statue of Gyula Andrássy, the distinguished Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This fine work by György Zala, the sculptor of the historical pantheon on Heroes’ Square, had originally been erected here in 1893, but again fell victim to the iconoclasm of Communism as Marxist ideologues worked to obliterate the memorials of what was regarded as the ancien régime. Yet, despite the ideological fervour of the Communists, today’s official, historical narrative still finds room for a “good” Communist, universally regarded as a patriot: in 1996, Imre Nagy, the Communist leader deposed by the Russians in 1956, was honoured with a rather touching statue south-east of the Parliament, 40 years after the Revolution. This was seven years after his rehabilitation and the reburial with honour of his remains. Also to the south of Parliament is László Marton’s splendid tribute to the poet Attila József, complete with a quotation from his great poem By the Danube on an adjacent stone tablet. József too was a Communist for a while, with anarchist leanings, but was eventually denounced by the party leadership.

The rehabilitations and exclusions of Kossuth Square are of course controversial and clearly an attempt to establish an ideological narrative of “the real Hungary”, but North Korean they are not. A left-wing radical, regarded by Conservatives as a disaster for the country, has been excluded; a dissident erstwhile Communist poet remains, as does the reform Communist of 1956; on the other hand, the reactionary Calvinist leader of the Liberals through the First World War has been rescued from the past and the Kossuth statue from the Horthy period reinstated. Probably the only monument that is now almost completely uncontroversial is the massive neo-Baroque equestrian statue (1937) of Ferenc Rákóczi II, the Transylvanian leader of the War of Independence (1703–1711) against the Habsburgs. Of the others, the reversion to the 1927 Kossuth statue is particularly interesting, since it replaces an upbeat work of “socialist realism” erected in 1952, therefore at the height of Stalinism in Hungary, when the Communists were at pains to identify themselves with the reputation of the hero of 1848. József Révai, the Minister for Culture, gave a rousing speech at the unveiling, explaining that Kossuth was a patriot who had been abandoned by the propertied classes and betrayed by the ruling elite. He ended by saying “We, only we, have the right to the inheritance. No one else!... Lajos Kossuth is ours. He belongs to the Hungarian people who are building socialism.”8 All this is in striking contrast to the elegiac atmosphere of the 1927 monument, erected at a time of deep national pessimism, the disaster of Trianon seeming, if anything, an even greater tragedy than the defeat of 1849.

The solutions chosen for Budapest are of considerable interest when compared with Vienna, particularly in view of the ongoing outbursts of self-righteous indignation against Hungary’s conservative government to which Austrian politicians and intellectuals are prone. After many years of agitation by students and academics, the stretch of the Ringstrasse running in front of the Burgtheater and the University ceased to be called after Karl Lueger, Vienna’s most famous mayor, and is now “Universitätsring”. The left were triumphant, the right outraged. However the point made by the lobby for change was th at Lueger, a populist moderniser of the city, was also the founder of modern anti-Semitism. He was moreover not always too complimentary about the university, which he once described as “Brutstätten der Religions- und Vaterlandlosigkeit” (“a breeding ground of irreligion and unpatriotic sentiment”). Hitler (who lived in Vienna for extended periods between 1906 and 1913) was one of his greatest admirers, though he felt Lueger was not sufficiently serious about his anti-Semitism.

The moderate Socialist Stadtrat (Andreas Mailath-Pokorny) who ushered in the name change, said he was responding to a long-standing request of the University of Vienna, but stressed that he was not intending to set a precedent. “The assigning of names”, he added, “reflects the history of a city – and we should not behave as if there were no dark sides [to that history].” Moreover Lueger, deprived of one street designation, hardly remains inadequately honoured in the city, having two substantial public monuments, three plaques, the Dr.-Karl-Lueger- Gedächtniskirche in the Zentralfriedhof and an oak tree (!) named after him in the Rathauspark. Meanwhile a rather imposing monument to Georg Coch remains on the Ringstrasse in front of the Post Office Savings Bank which he founded on the English model. The point of this in itself excellent project, as he frequently stressed, was to provide for the lower classes a counterweight to the extremely corrupt Jewish-dominated banking sector. As Carl Schorske, the greatest historian of Vienna, once ironically remarked to me, the Georg-Coch-Denkmal was the first great tribute to an anti-Semite to be raised on the Ringstrasse…

The questions raised by monuments to Lueger and Coch are even more pertinent to the case of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Students in South Africa succeeded in having his statue removed from the University of Cape Town, which was founded on land bequeathed to South Africa by Rhodes. The battle then moved to Oxford where a four-foot-high Rhodes statue is located above an internal portal of Oriel College, commemorating that Rhodes was one of the college’s most generous benefactors. The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign required this statue’s removal on the grounds (inter alia) that Rhodes was a white supremacist whose legislation as Premier of the Cape Colony laid the ground for apartheid. This grievance was adroitly linked to accusations that Oxford has failed to come to terms with its colonialist past and allegedly failed to revise its curricula in a way acceptable to anti-racists, proponents of diversity and discriminated racial or other minorities. In other words, the entire action was a Student Union’s dream, keeping the college continually on the back foot through effective agitprop with the media in full cry. With remarkable chutzpah one of the campaign’s leaders, who was himself the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, was able to deal with charges of hypocrisy by saying that he was only taking back a fraction of what Rhodes had looted. While the University adopted a clear and uncompromising stance (Lord Patten, the Chancellor, said students who objected to their surroundings in Oxford, and to the university’s traditional freedom of thought and discussion, should consider studying somewhere else), Oriel showed signs of wobbling. It removed a plaque to Rhodes and initiated a dialogue with the protesters. In the end it said the statue should stay, a decision that many believe was not unconnected to the fact that wealthy donors to the college said they would rescind their decisions to donate, or cut Oriel out of their wills, if Rhodes was removed. This threat was estimated as potentially losing the college more than a 100 million pounds in future donations.

Officially the college justified its decision by saying that the Rhodes statue was “an important reminder of the complexity of history and the legacies of colonialism still felt today”. Whether this was really more important to it than the avalanche of furious communications from alumni and potential donors is open to question. Left unanswered is the question of whether the statue is there in honour of Rhodes or as a reminder of the unfortunate legacy of imperialism – because, of course, it is both. As benefactor and founder of the Rhodes Scholarships from which 8,000 overseas students have benefited, it presumably celebrates him. But as a “reminder … of the legacies of colonialism still felt today” it holds him up as a reprehensible exploiter, at least to those who know their history. More or less unspoken, even in the University’s more robust stance, was the feeling that Oxford should not be dictated to by a pressure group consisting substantially (but not exclusively) of foreign students. Rightly the University saw it as the thin end of an enormous wedge – a sister movement to RMF (Rhodes Must Fall) was already demanding the removal of a statue of Queen Victoria at Royal Holloway College in London and other monuments and institutions were in its sights. Who decides over the monuments of British history in Britain? The answer is the British themselves (which, mutatis mutandis, would entirely justify the South Africans’ decision to remove Rhodes from the campus of Cape Town University). Should every ruler or soldier who behaved in a way that we dislike or deplore today have their monuments removed? RMF evidently thought so, but even liberal, even politically correct, Americans baulk at having statues of some of their most revered presidents knocked down on the grounds that they endorsed segregation (Woodrow Wilson) or owned slaves (Jefferson). And should we destroy all the surviving statues of more or less tyrannical rulers all round the world from ancient times to the present?

Lueger, Coch and Rhodes all did some very beneficial things, but also (particularly in the case of Rhodes) some things that we now regard as pretty bad. The same could be said of Napoleon, the fate of whose monuments have their entertaining side, given the amour-propre of the French and their Rhodes-like conviction that Napoleon was only bringing civilisation and good governance to the grateful states he conquered. The fate of the large statue of Napoleon in Venice is such a case. This was apparently the great man’s generous quid pro quo for the treasures that his army had robbed from the city (the soldiers perambulated Venice with guidebook in hand to select artefacts, just as Napoleon had promised them in a speech to his army before the Italian campaign – a speech which French historians are curiously disinclined to highlight).9 The Venice statue of Napoleon disappeared during the subsequent Austrian occupation, but mysteriously re-appeared many years later in California and was returned to a perhaps not overjoyed Venice. According to a recent account, it is now in a locked broom cupboard in the Correr museum to keep it safe from … er… possible vandalism…10 But should not Napoleon, whom the French regard as a national hero, be exhibited by the Correr curators as a figure relevant to Viennese history, which could easily be done with an explanatory panel?

National identity is closely involved in this debate, but of course the understanding of that identity can itself change. For example, there have been times when it could be risky to back the public mood for damnatio memoriae too enthusiastically – witness the fate of the painter Gustave Courbet. In 1871, during the Paris Commune, he proposed disassembling the great statue of Napoleon atop a Corinthian column on the Place Vendôme, which disassembly subsequently occurred after a decision by the Communards. However, when the Commune had collapsed, Adolphe Thiers ordered that the column and statue be re-erected in 1874. Courbet was held to be largely responsible for its removal and ordered to pay the cost of restitution, which was 320,000 francs. (Perhaps it had been a little rash of the artist also to have advocated the demolition of Thiers’ house in Paris and the confiscation of his art collection.) Unable to pay, he went into Swiss exile, so the government seized his paintings and sold them for a meagre sum of cash. Poor old Courbet, “Citizen Courbet”, as he had styled himself during the Commune, died penniless in Switzerland in 1877. This is a cautionary tale for those who like knocking down statues, just as iconoclasm is a cautionary tale for those who like putting them up…



1 In August 2016, Ahmad al-Mahdi, the director of an al-Qaida vice squad, was the first person to be arraigned for destroying UNESCO-protected world heritage, and likewise the first defendant to plead guilty at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He apologised to Mali and to mankind for demolishing religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu in 2012. His squad razed nine mausoleums and destroyed a mosque door. All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct”, he said; “I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.” “In court”, reported The Guardian, “Mahdi did not renounce his formerly held belief, based on Islamic teachings, that tombs should not be higher than one inch above ground.” He also said that the destruction of a mosque door that should have remained closed until the end of the world was undertaken to combat superstition. These two clues to his behaviour suggest a leitmotif of puritanical iconoclasm, namely an arbitrary interpretation of scripture coupled with a fanatical need to destroy artefacts representing a past beyond the control of contemporary dogma.

2 Some scholars think they actually perpetuated, rather than destroyed, Roman civilisation in late antiquity.

3 Esquire, May 1974.

4 Architectural fragments however were incorporated into a new northern curtain wall.

5 The controversial German excavator of the ancient sites of Troy in Asia Minor and Mycenae in the Peloponnese.

6 In 1966 the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution smashed up the Confucian temple in the sage’s birthplace, Qufu. Thousands of manuscripts, ancient stone tablets and other “feudal property” were destroyed. Of 6,843 officially designated places of cultural and historical interest in Beijing, the Red Guards vandalised 4,992. Terrible though this is, it pales somewhat in retrospect by comparison with the number of people tortured, buried alive or simply executed by the Red Guards – and in some cases eaten. See a report in The Economist of 14 May 2016 (“The cultural revolution, 50 years on – It was the worst of times”), quoting Frank Dikötter’s grim documentation (The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History.)

7 Speros Vryonis: Byzantium and Europe (New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), p. 152.

8 Quoted in Bob Dent: Every Statue Tells a Story (Európa Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 2009), to which work I am indebted for information about some of the statues on Kossuth Square. This really excellent book is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the ideological and historical influences that are reflected by the monuments of Budapest.

9 See, for example, David Gilmour’s entertaining The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their People (Penguin, 2012, pp. 126–7).

10 Marie-Jose Gransard: Venice: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I. B. Tauris, 2016).

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