Two images haunt me from Tate Britain's survey of attacks on art in Britain since the Reformation. One is a painfully realistic, lifesize stone figure of the dead Christ, eyes closed, chest emaciated, body taut. This terrifying portrait of death is a radical and dangerous work of art. It was carved by an unknown sculptor in the early 16th century then apparently buried, as an idolatrous object, just a few years later when Henry VIII rejected the Pope and dissolved Britain's monasteries....
Tender depictions of the Virgin Mary and harrowing visions of the sufferings of Christ abound in the first few galleries of this show, in stone and wood and stained glass. All have been damaged, many almost beyond recognition. There are illuminated manuscripts with pages torn out. A painting of the inside of Canterbury Cathedral in 1657 looks innocuous until you see little Puritans patiently, precisely smashing out its stained glass windows.
These rooms offer a truly eye-opening revelation of how much great art was lost when the Protestant Word erased the Catholic image – sometimes literally, as when a painting of the Man of Sorrows had a Biblical text written over it.Share
But none of this has anything to do with the studiously ambivalent, pretentious way the rest of the show explores modern attacks on art. The casting down of Catholic art in the Reformation did not make that art more "interesting": it is loss, pure loss. Countless things have gone forever. Others survive as battered husks. Their destruction is tragic, to be mourned. (Read more.)