Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel

By Eire, Carlos M. N. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel


Eire, Carlos M. N., The Catholic Historical Review


Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel. By Lee Palmer Wandel. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995. Pp. xii, 205. $39.95.)

Do actions speak louder than words, or at least as loudly as words? Are symbols and rituals a key to understanding the Reformation? This is what Lee Wandel attempts to prove in this imaginative study of the ritual revolution effected by Protestants in three key cities. Viewing iconoclasm from below, from the perspective of the image breakers, Wandel adds texture to an already well-known history. By analyzing the way in which iconoclasts "spoke" through their destructive acts, Wandel brings us closer to understanding the political and social dimensions of lay participation in the Reformation during the turbulent 1520's. Wandel is correct in arguing that previous studies of iconoclasm in these cities have focused attention on the ideology of the elites--mostly ecclesiastic--and have neglected the "meaning" that the destruction of sacred objects may have had for the laity. Wandel's judicious use of sources has enabled her to make a twofold contribution to our understanding of iconoclastic acts: (1) she has shifted the focus of the narrative to include new voices as principal characters (though this is not evenly achieved in each of the three chapters); (2) she has reconfigured the analytical framework of iconoclastic study, placing a greater emphasis on specific, localized socio-political contexts. This shift in focus is the book's greatest strength.

Another strong point in Voracious Idols is the way in which Wandel attempts to come to terms with the hermeneutics of "idolatry" on both the theological and the socioeconomic levels. Wandel brings us much closer to understanding why iconoclasts assigned so radically different a value on religious artwork, and why they could no longer see it as sacred. The key seems to be not only a change in epistemology brought about by a renewed interest in scriptural purity, but also a heightened awareness of the social dimensions of Christian faith and piety, and a new understanding of the meaning of Christian charity. …

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