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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  November 2012

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Subject:

Fw: TMR 12.11.02 Simpson, Under the Hammer (Schildgen)

From:

Rosemary Hayes-Milligan and Andrew Milligan <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 3 Nov 2012 15:41:08 -0000

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text/plain

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "The Medieval Review" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Thursday, November 01, 2012 2:30 PM
Subject: TMR 12.11.02 Simpson, Under the Hammer (Schildgen)


Simpson, James. <i>Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American
Tradition</i>. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 222.
$45. ISBN-13: 9780199591657.

   Reviewed by Brenda Deen Schildgen
        University of California, Davis
        [log in to unmask]


In early July 2012, alleged al-Qaida-linked Moslems, who had seized
control of the African medieval center of learning, Timbuktu, Mali,
along with the rest of northern Mali, destroyed shrines they
considered idolatrous and attacked historic and religious landmarks in
the city. These fundamentalist hardline attacks on Timbuktu's ancient
and medieval mausoleums, mosques, and manuscripts echo a similar
assault against England's medieval (read Roman Catholic) culture and
heritage of images that occurred between 1538 and 1643. James
Simpson's provocative, learned, and elegant little book <i>Under the
Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition</i>, continues from
Simpson's earlier work on late medieval iconoclasm and image
controversy, <i>Images, Idolatry and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval
England: Textuality and Visual Image</i> (Oxford University Press,
2002). <i>Under the Hammer</i> makes an important correction to the
West's misperceptions that condemn others as iconoclasts, i.e. the
Taliban who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, while ignoring the
fact that iconoclasm is a major feature of Anglo-American modernity.
Simpson argues further that the iconoclastic urge is always an
unfinished business, and as he demonstrates, it reemerges in
unexpected forms.

Fundamentalism, as an effort to return to purer origins, informs
iconoclastic movements, but as Simpson shows, it is not a return to
what we label "medieval" practices. It is rather an attempt to erase
that earlier period as a distorted and corrupt descent from the
simplicity of the biblical word, while forcing a return to the simple
truth, and is in fact a revolutionary attempt at renewal. Jürgen
Habermas in <i>The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political
Theory</i> (MIT, 1998) wrote that "As a reaction to an overwhelming
push for modernization, fundamentalism is itself a thoroughly modern
movement of renewal" (223). Simpson's book confims this assessment,
showing that "iconoclasm is not 'somewhere else'. Instead, it lies
buried deep within Western modernity, and especially deep within
Anglo-American tradition" (11-12). That this brand of iconoclastic
modernism is coupled with intolerance is painfully evident in the most
egregious case of Western iconoclasm that Simpson singles out for
discussion, the case of England's massive destruction between the
1530s and the 1640s, the longest stretch of iconoclastic fervor that
has occurred historically, not just in Europe, but as far as is known,
world-wide. After HenryVIII's dissolution of the monasteries, his son
Edward VI, informed by his clerical advisors, set out to destroy the
medieval iconic symbol system represented in visual form in frescoes,
statuary, stained glass, altar pieces, and illuminated books. What was
not destroyed, or came out of hiding after the first wave of
destruction, was demolished when Oliver Cromwell and his supporters
came to power in the following century.

Simpson's beautifully written and illustrated book is divided into
four chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction
begins with the story of the Bamiyan Buddhas to argue that the
Taliban's act of destruction, rather than constituting a "medieval"
regression, shows they "are in their iconoclasm, at least, Early
Moderns; legislated iconoclasm in England for example, was unknown in
what came  to be called 'medieval' England" (4). From this opening
Simpson develops the thesis that "Focus on that century of early
modernity [1530-1640] transforms our understanding of two histories,
that of Anglo-American painting, and that of English poetry" (5). The
main task of this modernity was to centralize power and to violently
repudiate alternative forms of power, earlier sacralized in religious
ritual (and images) and lines of authority that led to Rome. Simpson's
brilliant assessment of Early Modern iconoclasm links it to the
invention of the idea of the "aesthetic" in the Enlightenment, when
the museum became the space where the image lost its sacral power to
become an object for inquiry and asethetic appreciation.  Rather than
examining the invention of the medieval period that transpired in the
nineteenth century, he turns to the Enlightenment and to twentieth
century abstract art, to prove how crossing over so-called period
boundaries can elucidate the recursive nature of Western iconoclasm,
and particularly in the Anglo-American tradition.

Chapter 1, "Iconoclasm in Melbourne, Massachusetts, and the Museum of
Modern Art," argues that twentieth-century abstract painting, itself
an example of the spirituality of <i>via negativa</i> is in fact also
a continuation of the inevitable iconoclastic drive to erase the
image. Chapter 2, "Learn to Die: Late Medieval English Images Before
the Law," is an erudite cultural history, what Simpson calls a
"cultural etymology" (49). It traces the discourse and fate of the
image from the early fifteenth century, in other words, before the
Tudor assault, to the end of the sixteenth century, examining the role
of the Bible, particularly the new engagement with Deuteronomy and
Exodus, by Lydgate, Wyclif, Reginald Pecock and Thomas More, John
Bale, <i>the Book of Homilies</i>, and Thomas Hoccleve . Simpson
demonstrates that the image was already in a defensive position, long
before legislation sought to eradicate it. Chapter 3 "Statues of
Liberty: Iconoclasm and Idolatry in the English Revolution" examines
seventeenth-century Puritan iconoclasm while singling out John Milton,
who begins his epic poem "with a vigorous but knowingly doomed
campaign of idol breaking" (108). The campaign against the image is a
losing battle, Simpson argues, recalling Edmund Spenser's failure to
rout Archimago, the spinner of doubles and deceptions. "Under the
Hammer: Iconoclasm and the Enlightenment," Chapter 4, demonstrates
something that Simpson had not sought to prove, but it reveals a
feature of the book and its methodology from which those who profess
to study the Middle Ages can applaud and profit. The chapter explores
how the discovery, notion of, or invention of the autonomy of art
contributed to a modern brand of iconoclasm in which the power of the
image is disciplined and confined to the museum. Here he concludes
once more that iconoclasm is a "dynamic part of our own traditions of
both literature and the visual arts" (154). Profound study in a so-
called pre-modern period makes these kinds of scintillating
discoveries possible, but also, breaking out of the narrow confines of
particular period studies allows for this kind of intellectual
insight. Simpson's conclusion returns to the main argument, that the
"history of Liberty turns out, in part, to involve histories of 'idol'
destruction" (155). Furthermore, while the museum, a repository to
sort, tame, and discipline the image might have repressed it, in fact
"it cannot help but replicate the sacral conditions it was designed to
repress" (158).

This is a splendid book from which anyone trained in medieval or early
modern literature, art history, religious studies, theology, or
philosophy, could certainly profit. I have some quibbles on some
topics, but it would have been difficult to address them in a book
whose claim is "Anglo-American tradition." But the link between Anglo-
American tradition, iconoclasm, and modernity does pose a problem in
that it implies that while modernity and iconoclasm as Anglo-American
are coterminous, it neglects other versions of modernity that are
decidedly iconophilic. One thinks of the "modernist" movement to
restore the ancient city of Rome and its artifacts that began in 1400
when the study of archeology began in earnest; or of the Vatican
Library, a certain sign of modernity, where by the sixteenth century
one could find books from China, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, and
Mexico, as well as all the Christian writers of the previous
centuries. Both of these developments predate both the iconoclasm of
the sixteenth century and the emergence of the museum in Enlightenment
England and France. Could there perhaps be competing versions of
modernity--some iconoclastic while others are and continue to be
iconophilic? The former is in a constant state of revolution and
change, whereas the latter builds on converging cultures of
continuity, syncretism, and recycling. It contrasts with an idea of
modernity that always starts from scratch with some idea of its pure
non-idolatrous and obscured origins and in which the more recent past
becomes separate and alien.

Quite by chance, perhaps, Simpson's brilliant and provocative book
actually becomes an insight into a profound "absence" in Anglo-
American modern culture. It is built on a rupture from a past that is
not dead, which has the energy to return, and whose revival requires
suppression. The museum and "abstract" art are among the means for
emptying the past and its images of their power.





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