WHEN age-old buildings or long-loved images are destroyed, we often feel pain and grief. Where once there was beauty and presence, now there is only debris.
As the roof of Notre Dame burned, people watched in tears. CNN called it “a stab in our collective soul.” When ISIS militants’ sledgehammers pulverized ancient sculptures in Iraq’s Mosul Museum, across the world there was outrage, anger, a sense of irreversible loss. A local professor of archaeology put it this way: “With the destruction of these artifacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul’s civilization.”
On the one hand, breaking expensive and treasured things can provide a cheap, vandalistic thrill. Yet throughout history, destruction has often been carried out with a strong whiff of virtuousness, something far more meaning-laden than mere vandalism. Moral obligation would drive people to pick up axes, knives, torches—whatever came to hand—to slash, burn, and smash.
Sometimes, they would destroy with the methodic calm of artisans; at other times they would run wild, a heady mix of alcohol and rebellion veiling their fear. But whether they were carrying out their wrecking legally or surreptitiously, they did more than just take away visual splendor. As the clouds and smoke dissolved like a magic trick—poof!— these great disappearing acts created their own kind of wonder.
Beacons of Righteousness
Why would you attack a beautiful work of art or building? In most cases, the clue is an urge to purify—a physical and spiritual decluttering beyond Marie Kondo’s wildest dreams. Take Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, the tremendous and often incendiary late fifteenth-century preacher. Attracting a large following in Florence, he attacked everything and everyone, from the powerful Medici family to the pope, pointing out the corruption festering in church and society. Although he adhered to strict notions of an honest, pure life, Savonarola didn’t shy away from the grand gesture. His sermons were apparently so powerful that decadent attendees, wracked with guilt, would rip the jewels from their throats while crying, singing, and even fainting.
But Savonarola had more in mind than humbling a bunch of wealthy citizens. He was preparing for the swiftly approaching apocalypse, declaring “the hour of fulfillment is near.” Thus, on Shrove Tuesday 1497, during the carnival, Savonarola organized an enormous eradication of the tools of decadence, setting fire to a giant pyramid layered with false beards, mirrors, perfumes (“lascivious odors”), books, costumes, as well as many works of art. Not only “obscene” images were burned, but also depictions of profane or heretical subjects, possibly including (though historians disagree) some canvases willingly surrendered by Sandro Botticelli.
Accounts differ as to whether people gave up these objects eagerly to a throng of children who weaved through the streets encouraging them to absolve themselves, or whether the items were gruffly collected by armed guards. So valuable were the works of art that a Venetian dealer offered to buy them for a hefty sum. (Needless to say, he was rejected.) Crowning the pyre was an effigy of Satan, possibly with the facial features of said dealer.
This occurrence was not simply an elimination of images. It was also a dazzling performance. Trumpets sounded, and crowds ritualistically danced and chanted around the flames. The pyramid was divided into stepped levels and covered in pitch and gunpowder, so that the crowd waited in suspense for the flames to reach each new level. The moment the flames touched the gunpowder, thundering explosions drew gasps from the audience.
However briefly, the mound of luxuries became a blazing beacon of righteousness, burning away the sins of the population in a cathartic blaze. Audience participation was an essential component of Savonarola’s approach: the public provided the kindling for and became the spectators of the fire, turning it into a tremendous event. Little did Savonarola know that just over a year later, his own execution would provide a similar spectacle, when he himself would provide the tinder for a large pyre in the same spot.
Destruction can be just as dramatic when it takes place out of sight. The Swiss theologian and Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) had much in common with Savonarola. Another outstanding preacher who rapidly attracted a large following, he too saw certain images as symptoms of immorality—but where Savonarola had attacked images that were not religious enough, Zwingli condemned those that were too religious.
For Zwingli, praying before a sculpture of the Virgin or standing in awe of a particularly well-executed altarpiece was not true piety; devotion aimed at a man-made object rather than directly at the heavens was idolatry. Zwingli believed that the lure of beauty was irresistible: any viewer would be seduced into admiring a sculpture or painting rather than what it represented. And so, it became a fundamental part of his church reforms to make them disappear.
Still, how to go about this? These sculptures, paintings, and carvings had until recently been among the most treasured possessions of his community. Congregants had contributed financially to their creation, and they had long and often personal histories: that spot on a sculpture’s head or foot made shiny by touch might have been where your great-grandparents always placed their hands.
Unlike Savonarola, Zwingli did not want to sweep up the population in a euphoric purge of previously beloved objects. There was to be no singing, clapping, or fainting. In fact, there was to be no watching. Instead, a professional demolition squad of seventeen men, including a stonemason and carpenter, went into the churches, closed the doors behind them, and set out to dispassionately smash, burn, and whitewash. Once loved religious images had become dirt to be professionally pressure-cleaned out.
Still, when the doors were finally opened to the public, the sight must have been overwhelming. Churches were not simply emptied; they were turned into shining, open spaces. Where previously you may not have been able to look further than a few feet before your eye hit a screen, curtain, or sculpture, now the beautiful bare bones of the church were visible, full of air and light. The very absence of images made for a dazzling sight. The silence—choir books had also been cleared away—must have been deafening.
And Zwingli made sure to leave some traces of the previous destruction as another poignant visual statement: out of the ripped-out altar stones of Zürich’s churches, a preaching tower was constructed in Grossmünster Cathedral. Standing at its very top, a victor on his pedestal of subjugated debris, Zwingli inaugurated the structure. He, like Savonarola, must have been aware that stacks of reviled objects make excellent moral pillars.
Although the official removal of religious images in Zürich had been cool, calm, and collected, riots did occur during the Reformation. In Zürich and other cities, adherents of Protestant reforms would break into churches, chapels, and monasteries and attack religious images, sometimes quietly, sometimes in mob scenes. These events must have provided an electrifying sight.
Iconoclasts could turn the destruction of images into a rowdy show. They would hold “interrogations” of sculptures and subsequently “execute” them, hanging them from gallows or throwing them in the water to see if they would float, like witches. That, or they would simply be burned. Once, an iconoclast in Neufchâtel filled a statue with gunpowder as a prank. The explosion apparently so terrified his comrade that he immediately converted back to Catholicism.
And though the whole idea behind iconoclasm was that religious images were devoid of holy powers, legends circulated among Protestants of statues joining the iconoclasts in solidarity, marching alongside them and throwing themselves into the flames.
Illogical Temples of Reason
Both the raucous and orderly aspects of attacks on religious images would come together puzzlingly during the French Revolution. During the Terror, the attitude towards religion was erratic: the church was one of the revolutionaries’ principal enemies, yet some embraced the idea (dating back to early Christianity) that Jesus Christ was “the first sans-culotte” or plebeian revolutionary. Confusingly, you could land under the guillotine for being either an atheist or a priest—all while the revolutionaries proudly declared freedom of religion.
Meanwhile, the revolutionaries instated their own belief systems in Reason and the Supreme Being, mixing spirituality with the veneration of rationality and liberty. Rather than starting a new cult from scratch, it could be said that the revolutionaries wanted to have their cake and eat it. They didn’t so much want to eradicate Christianity as to claim its symbolism and power for their own. And so there were civic baptisms, processions in which the people carried models of the Bastille or busts of republican martyrs. Once, shops had to be closed as the bust of Marat was passing, and “altars to the fatherland” popped up in parks and before town halls. The sheer scale and speed of this transformation of France’s visual landscape was itself a spectacle.
Many churches and cathedrals, including Notre Dame, were converted into so-called “temples of Reason.” Busts of republican heroes replaced images of saints. Or, even more efficiently, a revolutionary red bonnet might be placed on the head of the Virgin Mary. And of course there were the straightforward destructions: the burning of Christian and aristocratic symbols was a regular highlight of revolutionary fêtes. A pyre would be lit, and the citoyens would celebrate, the desecration of one worldview providing the pyrotechnics for the celebration of a competing ideology.
Upcycling the Foundations
You could accuse the revolutionaries of plagiarism, but perhaps they were simply frugal. Rather than getting rid of all traces of Christianity and starting from scratch with a new visual and ritualistic system, why not upcycle the old one? Why throw out everything indiscriminately when you can harness the power of a centuries-old tradition?
Leaving a few traces of destroyed structures is also a powerful visual statement of your victory. Keeping some of your enemy’s imagery and merging it with your own can be like putting a snarling lion’s head on your wall: like a hunting trophy, it signals both the power of your opponents and their utter subjugation. In this manner, some iconoclasts would scratch out the eyes of paintings of the Virgin Mary or break off the noses of sculptures of saints. The maimed images served as gruesome memorials to their own destruction, an admonition, like a head on a pike.
In a similar vein, even after you raze a structure, you can still make it meaningful: when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Cuzco, Peru, in the sixteenth century, they broke down Coricancha, the Incan sun temple, then built their own cathedral on the foundations, although they did leave a few walls which they integrated into the design. In Mexico, Spanish invaders forced indigenous people to break down their own Aztec Templo Mayor, then used the debris to construct their cathedral. They could have chosen any location, but again they reused the foundations and materials of the revered buildings of their enemies. They also captured the hallowed aura of the place, breaking down what was once sacred to literally and figuratively bolster their own sacrality.
It is a strategy that has been used again and again, all over the world and across religions—from the maimed Shiva and Buddha statues at Angkor Wat to the transformation of a Christian palace into the Khanqah Mosque in Jerusalem. Such ruination hardly ever means simply wiping the old things away and starting over with a clean slate. Instead, the destruction is a fundamental ingredient in the creation not just of new ideologies but also new imaginaries: a profound visual and spiritual experience made out of the broken-down world of your enemies.
Burn Your Darlings
Perhaps the most self-contradictory kind of spectacular destruction is used within works of art themselves. So far we have looked at works of art that have been attacked by outsiders, but in a number of cases, the artist himself is creator and destroyer rolled into one. Russian artist Nikolai Polissky was certainly not the first to destroy his own work in the name of art, but his Flaming Gothic caused such a controversy in 2018 that he felt compelled to beg both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for forgiveness.
For several years, he worked on a large structure to be burned at the end of a festival at Nikola-Lenivets, an artists’ community 140 miles south of Moscow that he co-founded. The hundred-foot structure, painstakingly constructed of twigs and debris, was burned—and it looked an awful lot like a cathedral. The action went viral. The artist was attacked from all sides of the ideological spectrum, accused of both fascism and blasphemy, among other things. Though Polissky denied that his building had anything to do with religion, calling it “simply a bonfire built in the style of a Gothic building,” his explanation was made less plausible by the presence during the burning of masked figures in priest-like robes. Nevertheless, the artist said—remorsefully—that if representatives of the churches found “anything sacrilegious” in his work, he would “relegate this project into oblivion to the extent that this is possible in the modern world.”
It’s hard to tell whether this statement was authentic or made under duress—or was simply based in a canny knowledge that the internet never forgets. What we do know is that the burning became a spectacle—both in person and online. And not a short one. The viral video shows a destruction that goes on, hypnotically, for hours: a drawn-out performance of obliteration. Many of the bystanders are smiling, their clothes colorful against the backdrop of snow. Even after centuries of destruction, we are still in awe at the sight of something beautiful, something made with attention and care, being engulfed in flames. And because Polissky’s action was captured in a deftly edited video that also includes spectacular drone shots from above the burning structure, it is an erasure that, at least in digital form, will live on forever.
Polissky is certainly not the only artist aware of the visual magnetism of destruction. Many have gone before him, particularly in the 1960s: In 1960 Jean Tinguely put a machine called Homage to New York in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art that was basically a sculpture that destroyed itself. Niki de Saint Phalle would shoot a gun at bags full of paint—hidden by layers of pristine white plaster—for her Shooting Pictures. The results of this carnage—gooey, colorful explosions—are arguably more interesting than the intact pieces. On London’s South Bank in 1961, Gustav Metzger painted on nylon sheets with acid: bystanders could see how the very act of painting ate away the canvas, only leaving a few shreds.
Today, destruction continues to fascinate audiences and artists alike: during his 2017 TED talk, “Can Art Amend History?”Titus Kaphar painted over a reproduction of a seventeenth-century group portrait, erasing everyone except a young black boy. In 2018 at a Sotheby’s auction, a work by Banksy shredded itself just after it was sold for 1.4 million dollars—an action that may have doubled its market value. There is not only aesthetic value in destruction, but also, if you play your cards right, lots of money.
Whether part of a religious battle or simply artistic whimsy, the obliteration of images can be mesmerizing, beautiful, and sometimes—confusingly—preserved for ever. Obliteration can still enthrall us, at times perhaps more than the original objects ever could.
Nausikaä El-Mecky is a tenure-track professor in the history of art and visual culture at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She specializes in censorship and destruction of art from the Stone Age until today.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.