Remember middle school? When you’d have a crush on someone and, because preteens have wacky hormones, that someone might adore you one day and ignore you the next? Finally, this someone would make you so furious that you took it to that shrine of school memories, the yearbook. You may have scratched the face off their picture, or possibly have drawn devil horns and a goatee on it.
There! That showed ’em. Didn’t you feel better? Well, probably not.
It was this kind of hurt and rage that spurred Henry VIII on to the four-year tirade known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. From 1536-1540, over 800 holy houses in England were destroyed, Henry VIII’s version of drawing goofy glasses and demon eyebrows on the Pope’s picture to show him he didn’t need no stinkin’ sacrament.
For those of us who love the link to the past that historical sites offer, the destruction of these buildings is heartbreaking. My home in England was five minutes down the road from gorgeous, massive Ely Cathedral, which dates from the 11th century. Sweet, right? Especially for an American like me. If we have any buildings that go back even 300 years, that’s a stretch. I grew up in a house that was built in 1898 and I always thought that was really old! Anyhoo, I was overwhelmed to be so close to this medieval treasure. Cueing the new-world nerd in me, I’d press my hand to the stone walls and marvel at how much history they’d seen.
Inside Ely Cathedral is a small wing called the Lady Chapel, a common feature of medieval churches in England and mainland Europe. The “lady” is, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary. For those of you who aren’t Catholic, let me clarify that Catholics do not worship Mary over Christ (a common misconception)! We just greatly respect her as His mother. And in the medieval church, these chapels were built in her honor. The one in Ely Cathedral is peaceful and lovely, although with some interesting omissions if you are paying attention.
Heads. Of the statues carved into the walls. There are no heads.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many statues of saints in religious houses were defaced, removed, or just smashed there on the spot. In the case of Ely’s Lady Chapel, the figures on the wall had their noggins crushed into oblivion. That in itself carries history with it, but at the same time I feel pretty resentful about the loss of the past that this event created. Ely Cathedral still has its walls, but some places were not so lucky. Reading Abbey, for instance, was reduced to ruins. Fortunately, it’s finally on the mend but the original structure is of course lost forever.
Why all the destruction, Hal? Well, parts of buildings and their decorative elements could be sold to finance the government instead of Rome. Besides that, the physical act of treating statues like The Who or Nirvana treated their guitars was a way of saying “no thanks” to icon worship.
Even today, there are people who believe that the Church worships actual statues and paintings, another myth I’d like to dispel. Afer all, do you think photographs of loved ones in your home are really those people? Or just a reminder of those people? Right. That’s how we approach our icons. Like the middle schooler who destroys the yearbook pic, Henry found satisfaction in ordering the destruction of statues because it got rid of the visual reminder. But it was also a symbolic gesture: We don’t need your idol worship — It’s forbidden by God. We’ve got the right idea and here’s what we think of yours.
Henry’s über-tantrum was not the only one of its kind. Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example, also expressed their anger by wiping out the Church’s influence in their own countries. In any case, there’s no way to recover those stones and statues that witnessed so many centuries of history. Although Henry eventually came back to his original beliefs in all but name, his switcharoo can never bring back what he ultimately trashed.