Editorial: Subruit Haec Aevi Demoliturque Prioris Robora
The Romans called it damnatio memoriae. When we deface or destroy an image of a leader, we reject his rule as illegitimate and call for the ending of his memory. One thinks of the people of the former Soviet Union pulling down of statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Dzerzhinski or the U. S. Marines pulling down of the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In destroying the statue, people publicly judge the person guilty of a heinous crime. The act of destruction can be likened to the execution of a criminal, expressed through symbolically hanging, decapitating, or desecrating the statue.
Historically, the violent overthrow of one country by another often led to the victor erasing the loser’s symbols, with the victor replacing not only statues but the flag and the public buildings. The Germanic tribes who pillaged the city of Rome gave us the term “vandalism.”
The French and then the English did this in Malta. After conquest, Islamic regimes either converted churches into mosques or destroyed them altogether. In Spain, Christians converted mosques into churches.
This isn’t necessarily classical iconoclasm. Iconoclasts reject images of the human body because they think such images lead us into false thinking, whether religious or political. The Protestant Reformation destroyed statues, paintings, and stained glass to undo the honor that the Church gave to Mary and the Saints.
Damnatio memoriae isn’t iconoclasm. It’s not done from a hatred of images, but a hatred of particular people the images honor. The modern vandals will tear down statues of St. Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus, but they leave a lot of the statues standing—and they love Che Guevara t-shirts.
An Act of War
The destruction of images is an act of war. It’s an act of war that leads to violence against people. Those who destroy an image often then try to destroy the person portrayed.
During the French revolution, the new government first demanded the destruction of sacred images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints, and of all images of the monarchy. After that was accomplished, they executed the King and Queen and their family as well as much of the clergy and religious. This led to the reign of terror in which anyone could be executed, because anyone could represent the old world they wanted to remake.
The revolutionaries began by destroying the artistic symbols of the old order. They then destroyed the personal symbols. They were iconoclasts dedicated to ridding of the world of the icons of the past. The couldn’t be satisfied with destroying the icons made of stone and paint. They had to destroy the more powerful icons made of flesh and blood.
Today, we see mobs attacking statues of Christopher Columbus, often erected in the U.S. in support of Catholic immigrants from Italy. They claimed that he oppressed the peoples of the new world. He wasn’t a hero but a villain. They preferred destruction to discussion.
When civil authorities turns a blind eye to the destruction, sometimes even abetting it, we saw additional anti-Catholic acts. After all, no one but the Catholics and the Italians (two groups that overlapped) objected. More statues of alleged Catholic oppressors had to come down.
Junipero Serra, the apostle to California and founder of the missions, was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. This Franciscan friar and the missions he founded have long been seen as important parts of California history, faith, and culture. He and the other Franciscans were seen as having brought stability and peace to the land.
Naturally, this led to memorials being erected in public locations. In recent years public statues of the saint have been vandalized. This summer a number have been destroyed by mobs, and others removed from public places by peaceful protestors and even elected officials.
Violence Against the Faithful
If damaging a statue is also violence against the person personified, it is also violence toward what the person signified. In this case, violence against a great Catholic missionary and saint is violence towards Roman Catholicism in general.
Once vandalism is tolerated in the public realm, its promoters will attack images in the private realm. Statues of Serra on private church property have also been defaced and decapitated. If hatred of the person is embodied in violence towards that person’s image, then logically any image must be destroyed, wherever it is found.
The vandals do not discriminate between public and private property. They do not recognize the rights of others to honor those they deem worthy. We have seen attacks on statues of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary on Church property across the country, reminiscent of the attacks of the No Nothings in the 19th century.
Do the destroyers hate the image, or the person of Christ and his saints, or the Catholic Church? Perhaps it is a fusing of the three. In a secular country, Catholicism is rightly seen as a threat and must be tamed if not eradicated.
Violence towards statuary makes believers fear for their own safety. It tames them and makes them retreat from the public square. And this is intentional. Bullies and dictators use intimidation and fear to get what they want, and to force believers into cowering. Believers sense what history has shown: If someone attacks a people’s images, they will eventually attack the people.
People of good will agree that violence against the faithful is unacceptable. They must oppose the destruction of the images that express the faith.
Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.