Protestants and Images in the Late-Seventeenth-Century

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Laura Sangha, fellow monster-head and Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Exeter.  Laura’s first monograph was on Angels and Belief in England 1480-1700, and she is currently working on the pious Leeds antiquarian and diarist Ralph Thoresby. Here she reflects upon the relationship between Protestants and Images in the latter part of the seventeeth century.

In this blog post I draw on Patrick Collinson’s article to reflect on my own research into the life and times of the devout antiquarian, Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725), posing a series of questions for readers. In particular the post considers what happens after iconophobia, in the context of the ‘long Reformation’, and it reconsiders the functions of images in post-Reformation England.

Sangha - Thoresby

1) The Second English Reformation/ and the rest

In ‘iconoclasm’, Patrick Collinson made the continuing development of religious cultures and the aging of the evangelical movement a headline. He wrote about what he termed the ‘second Reformation’ of the 1580s, as Protestantism moved into middle age and lost its more popular character. The idea of different stages of reform is one that I have found enormously useful when considering how and why the forces unleashed by the Reformation continued to reverberate across decades. The concept of generational change was explored by Norman Jones in relation to the sixteenth century, but there is scope for expanding the approach into the seventeenth century.

If the mid sixteenth century was a moment of peculiar turbulence, can the seventeenth be seen as one of momentum and persistence, incorporating a direct and enduring engagement with the anxieties and controversies of the earlier century?

Collinson thought that by the 1640s iconophobia was ‘thoroughly seasoned’, but we could pay much closer attention to the afterlife of iconophobic ideas and the extent to which they might have continued to hold the English people in their grip. In the context of the excessively fraught atmosphere of the 1640s it is not surprising to find attitudes towards images hardening, but casting the net wider suggests that it would be wrong to see the decade as representative.

To what extent did iconophobia come in waves or cycles, becoming more or less intense depending on prevailing circumstances?

2) Iconoclasm to Iconophobia

Collinson argued that the Elizabethan period saw a move from iconoclasm to iconophobia, from hostility to false art to hostility to anti-art. Yet in the longer term, we now know that even hotter sort of Protestants continued to have a complicated relationship with cultural artefacts. This is where Ralph Thoresby comes in. Thoresby was from a middling, trade background, he was brought up as a moderate dissenter, and he adhered strictly to a puritan style of piety throughout his life. Thoresby therefore gives us a sense of how a late-seventeenth century puritan navigated his way through religion and cultural forms.

Yet Thoresby had a far from straightforward relationship with visual culture. It would not be accurate to describe him as ‘iconophobic’, but Thoresby himself acknowledged the tension between the dangers of misusing images, and his own responses to them. In the catalogue for his museum, he included a statue of Christ, about a foot high. He described it as:

‘an excellent statue of our Blessed Saviour, as bound to a Pillar in order to be scourged, so admirably express’d, that I confess, I cannot look upon it without Concern, and yet dread not the Scandal of Superstition.’ p. 488, Ducatus Leodiensis.

To me, the ambiguous phrasing here represents Thoresby’s own equivocation on the subject. It appears that the image of Christ prompted an emotional response in Thoresby – his ‘concern’ when he looked on the statue. But the next phrase is much harder to interpret. Was Thoresby reassuring the reader that the concern he feels when he looks at the statue is not superstitious? Or was he saying that when he felt concern, this was accompanied by the dread of superstition?

Our understanding of the passage is further complicated by the way that Thoresby has categorised the statue in his museum catalogue. The statue appears in the section headed: Artificial Curiosities, yet Thoresby might easily have included the statue of Christ in his next section, which was titled ‘Matters relating to the Romish Superstition’. In the latter section Thoresby listed a ‘surprising representation of the Trinity’, medals relating to the Immaculate Conception and saints; relics, madonnas and crucifixes. This classification demonstrates that Thoresby made a distinction between the more obviously ‘popish’ objects in his collection, particularly things connected with saints or elements of human invention in Catholicism, and the statue of Christ, which was less objectionable, though still associated in Thoresby’s mind with superstition. Puritans of the latter part of the seventeenth century were quite capable of differentiating between ‘abused’ and ‘acceptable’ images, but still the boundaries between the two were not clear, even to one of the ‘hotter’ Protestant persuasion.

3) Protestant pictorial language

My final section continues to probe why particular images were acceptable to Thoresby. In the last paragraphs of his article, Collinson referred to what he described as an ‘established Protestant pictorial language’. Subsequent scholars have done much to sketch out which images were most acceptable to Protestants, filling in the details of how this language functioned. Tessa Watt led the way here by drawing attention to both ‘a hierarchy of the sacred’, as well as the significance of the context (whether domestic or ecclesiastical) in which the image appeared.

How and why did later Protestants continue to find engagement with images useful?

In his diary Thoresby referred to producing pictures with a religious subject matter. When he was nineteen, in October 1677, he wrote that he spent the day at home ‘imitating a Picture’ of ‘Joseph and his mistress’, and this must have given him a taste for drawing, for on subsequent days he imitated the pictures of Huss and Jerome of Prague; Luther and Zwingli; Calvin and Bucer; Knox; and Beza.

Robert Scribner’s work on the images of reformers in Germany might help us to interpret this artistic activity. Was Thoresby imitating these pictures because they were symbolic or allegorical, serving as witnesses to reformed doctrine and confessors of the True Church? Can Thoresby’s images be read as commemorative – the mortal features of these men were a reminder of the struggles and development of the reforming movement – a sort of history of Protestantism? Might the images be emblems, symbolising a particular mode of faith and functioning as models that Thoresby could identify with, compare himself to, and imitate? Was the physical imitation of their likeness intended as a prompt to the spiritual imitation of their lives?

I want to finish by noting that beyond the symbolic and exemplary functions of images, on occasion Thoresby was not averse to attaching spiritual significance to pictures. For in his memoir, Thoresby related ‘a pretty odd accident’ that happened one night in 1684 or early 1685. The antiquarian’s brother had heard a ‘sudden great noise’ in the great Chamber (or dining room) of Thoresby’s house. When the siblings opened the door to the room they discovered that ‘amongst al the Pictures’ in the room:

those only of K. Charles 2d & the duke of Monmouth were singled out, & faln flat upon their faces (without any visible occasion) from the places they had been fixed in many years before. part of the Dukes head was taken of. We could not tel what to think of it at the present, but the event seemed to make it ominous.

Thoresby was very clear that the pictures had fallen before death of Charles II and the execution (by beheading) of the duke of Monmouth after his failed rebellion. He evidently thought that this was a providential event, the demise of the images prefiguring the demise of the men themselves. Though Thoresby does record the event with caution, saying ‘it might perhaps be looked upon as trifling if communicated to other than my own children’, the passage quite obviously invites the reader to interpret the fate of the images as a providential sign of future events.


The conversation about the place of images in religious devotion persisted throughout the seventeenth century. It is apparent that neither concept – iconophobia or iconoclasm – is adequate to encompass the complexity of the visual afterlife of reform. I would half seriously suggest that ‘iconfusion’ might replace them, since this allows icons to remain, but also suggests the fusion of traditional and reformed beliefs and practice that underpinned Protestant visual cultures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Further Reading

  • Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (1991).
  • Robert Scribner, For the sake of simple folk: popular propaganda for the German Reformation (1994).


5 thoughts on “Protestants and Images in the Late-Seventeenth-Century

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

  2. Thank-you for this, Laura. I found the material from Thoresby fascinating. It seems to me that we need to think about the post-Restoration period more seriously in light of the debates about the earlier period as they have the potential to cast new light on the various ‘legacies’ of the Reformation(s).

    • Thanks Adam. Yes, I know that the mix of continuity/change is something that you are interested in too, and I hope we can pursue ‘legacies’ more in the future. It will be great to see what the ‘Remembering the Reformation’ project has to say about this as well.

  3. Forgive for being so emphatic, but I still think that we need to factor in natural philosophy – a new way of seeing the world microscopically without denying providence – and ‘toleration’ such as it was in its limited terms. I don’t think that the late-17th-century ‘world’ was the same as in the early 17th century, despite Bacon et al. (and the work at CRASSH).

    • Thanks for drawing attention to this Dave. I agree that the late-seventeenth-seventeenth-century world wasn’t the same and it will be useful for me to think about whether and how those bigger developments shaped Thoresby’s own outlook. I suspect the answer may also vary according to his own stage of life – early on his education comes from his father and local acquaintances, but later in life he is mixing in elite intellectual circles, where he is more exposed to new developments in natural philosophy.

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