Introductory thoughts

This introductory post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Tara is an Art Historian by training and has published widely on the impact of the reformation on visual and material cultures, for example in her monograph Decorating the Godly Household.  Here she reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Why are we here? We’re here to acknowledge, celebrate and reconsider Patrick Collinson’s seminal lecture ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’.  This hugely influential paper (published in 1986) which also informed chapter 4 of his book of 1988, The Birthpangs of Protestant England, has shaped a generation of scholarly enquiry into the impact of religion on culture, and of culture on religion, in post-reformation England.

My main interest, of course, is the visual arts – or to use Collinson’s term, pictorial arts, and especially the so-called ‘decorative’ arts in a domestic context. I want to offer, therefore, a few brief thoughts on how scholarship has tended to categorise sources and spaces, and the implications of these compartmentalised groupings for our understanding of Protestant attitudes to the image.

Categories of Image


‘Joshua’, one of a set of painted panels with Old Testament figures, c.1600.  Victoria and Albert Museum. Copyright V&A, London

Since its publication 30 years ago, new work across disciplines on visual and material culture has uncovered a wealth of extant physical evidence that challenges the notion and process towards ‘iconophobia’ as established by Collinson. And yet, in the main, scholarship has tended to retain his basic framework, but point out that iconophobia couldn’t have extended to certain kinds of artwork in certain kinds of setting. Yet this newly noticed visual material has remained marginal. One of the reasons Collinson’s framework has survived the pressures placed on it by studies engaged with categories of surviving visual culture is that these artworks are deemed to be, well, not very good. Vernacular English art is judged rather embarrassing in its crude, awkward quality and this, together with an association with low culture and ‘lesser’ settings such as ‘cheap print’ or private houses, has allowed it to continue to pass relatively unrecognised. It has not been incorporated within the canon of early modern cultural forms.

A comparison could be made with the impact of feminist approaches to the discipline of art history. Female scholars have identified and celebrated the work of significant female artists in order to critique the exclusion of women from the canon, but some critics have felt uncomfortable that these newly recognised artists and works have simply been slotted in to the existing canon, rather than disrupting or dismantling the gender-specific/biased basis on which the canon was formed.

In other words, since Collinson’s influential article (and book) has assumed the status of a canon, in that it established specific categories of post-Reformation cultural production, we might wonder whether, rather than expanding or modifying his definitions and categories, it is time to revisit and reformulate the critical frameworks on which the ‘iconoclasm to iconophobia’ paradigm is based. The three broad categories of drama, ballads and pictorial art might need reformulating to allow for the circulation of motifs and the practical intervisuality of the period.

One of the things I hope will come out of our discussions in this symposium and beyond is new ways of talking about, describing and valuing the artworks of this period on their own terms, without the need to excuse their poor quality and awkward execution. I’ve suggested that what might be judged as ‘crude’ pictorial images, lacking detail and realism, could be a deliberate strategy to encompass the essentials of a particular biblical story or episode, as ‘synoptic images’ that condensed the narrative into a summary scene – to cut to the chase, in other words, and express with as much visual economy as possible the key doctrinal message.[i] In this I’m rejecting the assumption that post-Reformation art was simply or straightforwardly didactic in character but, following contemporary justifications of the image, perfectly suited to act as reminders to reinforce understanding and promote piety. Putting aside aesthetic judgment allows us to assess the form and style of an image as part of its function.

Categories of Space

Alongside projects to recover neglected visual and material evidence from the period, we might revisit the question of Protestant discourse around the image. There is a tendency to take some of the – admittedly rather limited – comment on imagery at face value and I wonder if closer attention to early modern terms and definitions could yield greater insight into contemporary notions of the acceptability and utility of imagery.

For example, taking William Perkins oft-quoted comment from A Reformed Catholike (1598) as an example…

“We hold the historical use of images to be good and lawful: and that is, to represent to the eye the acts of histories, whether they be human or divine; and thus we think the histories of the Bible may be painted in private places”. (p.172).

This is a quotation I have used many times over to establish the acceptability of biblical imagery in domestic houses. Specificity of location is certainly a key consideration in Protestant commentaries on the Second Commandment; these point out that images in churches and chapels used for worship are most at risk of being treated as idols. But the phrase ‘private places’ is often understood simplistically in the sense of being withdrawn, less conspicuous and personal. There is an implication within the historiography that a ‘private place’ is less important than other ‘public’ places, such as the church. I worry that falling back on Perkin’s phrase ‘private places’ to establish how contemporaries justified the having and making of religious images draws too sharp a distinction between contexts or spheres of experience. In my work on the household it is quite clear that domestic houses were not considered private in experiential terms – they were social spaces, acknowledged as little churches, schools and training grounds for service to the state.[ii]

In another treatise, Perkins explained that one of the lawful uses of images was “when images are made for the beautifying of houses either publike or private, that serve only for civill meetings”.[iii] This places emphasis squarely on social function and I think there is more to say about the importance of social meaning and function, which can bridge the traditional binary divide between the secular and the sacred; so, thinking about the intersections between these functions in various kinds of space.

I wonder also if it is necessary to probe the meanings of the term ‘private’ in this period, not just in relation to place but also to person. Perkins might mean to evoke the idea of private initiative as against collective enterprise. A few years later, in one of his biblical commentaries, Perkins discusses Sarah’s role in the dismissal of Hagar and uses the word private in this sense of individual initiative. He explains that in asking Abraham to dismiss his servant, Sarah:

“speakes this not as a private woman, but as the voice and mouth of God, and that (no doubt) by instinct from God. And therefore the words shee uttereth, are to be esteemed as the commandement of God. Thus her case is extraordinarie and not to be followed”.[iv]  


English embroidered picture with the story of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.  MId-late 17th century.  Victoria and Albert Museum.  Copyright V&A, London

Thinking about the acceptability of images in relation to individual initiative, or private commission, might help open out the contexts where imagery was considered permissible beyond the domestic sphere of so-called ‘private places’ to embrace the idea that imagery was justified if created by an individual person operating according to godly instinct and for social benefit. Thus, the emphasis in defining the legitimacy of images is as much about impetus and intention as it is about location.

If William Perkins, writing in the years either side of 1600, could confirm the validity of images, it seems improbable that artworks would not be produced over this period, slap bang in the middle of Collinson’s single generation of iconophobia, between 1580-1630. But it has proven frustratingly hard to find artworks dated definitively within this supposed iconophobic period (certainly in the earlier decades up to 1610) so it will be interesting to see how the papers and discussions stemming from this workshop produce ‘hard’ evidence for a quantity of dated works to refute the iconophobia thesis.

[i] Tara Hamling, ‘Visual Culture’ in Andrew Hadfield, Matthew Dimmock and Abigail Shinn (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2015), pp.75-101.

[ii] In, for example, William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (1622) and William Perkins, Christian oeconomie (1609).

[iii] William Perkins, A Warning against the Idolatry of the last times. And an instruction touching religious or Divine Worship (Cambridge, 1601), p.58.

[iv] William Perkins, A commentarie or exposition, upon the five first chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians (London, 1604), p. 363.


10 thoughts on “Introductory thoughts

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  2. Perhaps not public/private space, but perhaps official culture and other culture (whatever you want to call it-and I’d perhaps avoid ‘popular’ as it might well have been marginal).

    • Tara will have her own view on this I’m sure, but I think finding a new terminology for talking about and describing different realms of culture is essential. Public/private doesn’t have anything like the same meaning in the early modern period as now. I like the idea of ‘official’, but as you say, what would you oppose it to? Or should we not be seeking binary models at all? It’s one of the broader questions that the debate invites, but I don’t have any neat answers yet!

    • Hi Dave, Yes these terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ are misleading. ‘Popular’ too is inaccurate in a strict sense though I think the understanding of popular culture as everyone’s culture (following Peter Burke) can be especially useful in relation to the visual arts. As Jonathan says, finding a new terminology is essential – but it is also extremely difficult! The idea of ‘official’ culture is useful, as is the distinction between corporate and individual commissions, but finding neat alternatives to long-established binary models – and catchy terms like ‘iconophobia’ – is a real challenge!

  3. I found this very interesting indeed, Tara. I had never thought about using Perkins in this way before – it is very refreshing to have something so familiar made unfamiliar.

    • I agree, I’d never really thought in detail before about the difference in impact of something that was ‘privately’ or corporately sponsored, for example, and to think not only about the space but the commission. It touches on Dave’s idea of ‘offical’ versus ‘?’ (above).

    • Thanks both! Working with Catherine Richardson on material culture in the domestic context has made me much more sensitive to language, but this sort of approach is still very new to me. The credentials of the patron were clearly important in determining acceptable or idolatrous images but commentators don’t seem to say this explicitly. I wonder why.

  4. Perhaps also there was an element of collecting involved in this period, rather than commissioning? I’m still thinking elite art really, but are these justification for religious art stemming more from a growing fashion for collecting the more highly-regarded pictoral arts from abroad, than for home-grown commissions?

    I am also really looking forward to hearing about the hard evidence, and to the rest of this series! Thanks for putting this together.

    • I’ll leave somebody more qualified (such as Tara!) to answer the first point about collecting versus commissioning, which is really interesting, but I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the series so far!

    • Hi Sarah, Thanks for this. Yes, you are right about collecting at the elite level – on this see the excellent chapter by Richard L. Williams in Edward Chaney (ed.) The Evolution of English Collecting (Yale, 2003). That volume is concerned with reception of Italian art, whereas I’m interested in the commissioning of new images from native craftsmen post-Reformation. Interestingly, while these new commissions are part of a vernacular tradition, the style and subject matter is often informed by continental prints (see Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Yale, 1997). So in this way an awareness and appreciation of pictorial arts from abroad extends beyond elite groups to the gentry and middling sorts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s