An image, Albrecht Dürer said, is “no more responsible for superstitious abuse than a weapon is responsible for a murder.” It is somewhat startling to find, in the controversy over the power of images in the early years of the Reformation in Germany, the familiar argumentation of the National Rifle Association.
Admittedly, Dürer had the same vested interest as a purveyor of images that a manufacturer of handguns has in arguing that the point is not to control weapons but to re-educate their users. The analogy nevertheless stands as evidence for the felt danger of images in Dürer’s world. Indeed, the image would be far more dangerous than a mere weapon, since it exposes worshipers to the danger of eternal punishment in case they find themselves, as often happened, worshiping the image instead of whatever the image represents. Better to rid the churches of images altogether than to trust the pious not to believe that Jesus or Mary, or a particularly well-disposed saint, was mysteriously present in their effigies. The power of the image was in effect the power of the being that occupied it–which struck the enemies of the image as idolatry, or the worship of finite things. This had the consequence of driving images underground, in the form of doll-sized objects of private adoration. Even today, after all, lovers kiss the snapshots of their beloveds, as though the relationship between the two were metaphysically intimate. Iconoclasm did not always entail that images (read: “idols”) should be burned like heretics. They could be shrouded or stored in cellars or otherwise quarantined. But image control was the order of the day under militant Lutheranism–not least of all because the church issued indulgences to those who prayed to particularly powerful images, like the Virgin of the Apocalypse, or the Virgin of the Rosary. Protestants could do little better to register doctrinal difference than to purge their churches of likenesses. Catholicism retaliated by crowding its churches with images for the benefit of those who sought the concrete presence of the beings they worshiped. Aesthetic contemplation was not really a concept in the sixteenth century. Churches were not museums of fine art.
It is ironic that iconoclasm should have erupted with such virulence in the golden age of German sculpture, bringing it in effect to an end. The great achievement of the so-called limewood sculptors of the late Gothic period was the elaborate altarpiece, or retable, which served to render visible the object of devotions enacted on the altar just below. It was very much as if the saint conferred upon her celebrants the immense benefit of her virtual presence in the charged space where masses were performed. The architecture of the retable contributed to the awe in which the image was held. It was, for example, equipped with doors, which would be opened only on auspicious religious occasions but otherwise were kept closed. It had to have been a pretty powerful experience to behold one’s special saint under candlelight, as the priests in elaborate robes intoned indispensable prayers in a language farmers and merchants no longer understood (conducting services in the vernacular belonged to the same agenda as iconoclasm). The space of the retable was a space within the space of the church, and when the doors stood open, an extraordinary bond united the persons within and without that encapsulated space. It would have been difficult to believe with Dürer that the images were merely neutral. Everything in the setting cried out against such a reduction.