Medusa Head in the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul, Turkey
Artillery Row

Assaulting statues

The history of iconoclasm offers deeper lessons than are on display in the current statue-toppling craze

In March 2001, the Taliban announced itself to the world by destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, two colossal statues that had been carved into a sandstone cliff in the sixth century. Bamiyan, which is today in Afghanistan, sat at an intersection of ancient routes linking China and Persia, India and Byzantium, all cultures with well-developed statue habits. Bamiyan fell under Muslim control, ostensibly aniconic, in the ninth century, but the Buddhas survived the interest of Genghis Khan, the Mughal emperors Babur and Aurungzeb, and the eighteenth-century Persian, Shah Nader. It was not until the turn of twenty-first century, when Mullah Omar saw the political capital to be made from a systematic policy of iconoclasm, that the statues were obliterated.

As Peter Frankopan observed in his magisterial The Silk Roads, this was “an act of philistinism and cultural savagery that stands comparison with the destruction of religious artefacts in Britain and northern Europe during the Reformation”. It was also the action of a political movement intensely aware of western liberal sensibilities and local suffering and resentment. In the weeks that followed the destruction, the Taliban spun the line that western governments, through the various UN agencies they funded, cared more for Buddhist idols than for starving Muslim children.

The destruction of a statue is an intensely political act, which is opposite but unequal to the act of creation and dedication. Destruction attracts far more attention than creation, it cannot be ignored like much public art for most of its existence. When a twelve-metre high statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003 it had only been standing for a year. The placement of the statue was of little moment outside Baghdad, but its destruction attracted attention worldwide and remains a touchstone.

When rioters in sixth- and seventh-century Constantinople tore down statues of a living emperor and his family, they demonstrated that his authority was contingent, that they could take it back and destroy him, burning his body to deny him a Christian burial. They might also mutilate his sons and daughters, or exile them to monasteries or distant outposts of empire, where they might be killed or die more quietly slightly later. The statues and the people they represented, the fates of the objects and prototypes, were intimately linked. For that reason, once and future rioters raised no objections when new statues were erected, dedications to their next rulers and future victims. The statue habit died hard in the imperial capital, long after it had faded in the further reaches of a vast empire. However, almost no imperial statues have survived from late antiquity.

Political acts of destruction are more obviously also religious acts when a statue is understood to be an idol and worshipped in violation of the religious preferences of others. At times like the Reformation, it seems especially hard to disentangle politics and religion. Most of us who study the past closely come to realise the folly of seeking at any time to untwist strands of the rope. It results in a messy pile of disjointed fibres, none securely attached, none able to bear any weight on its own. So it is when seeking to understand the modern predilection for destroying statues.

Advocates for removing statues they find offensive cite the many cases where statues of Lenin and Stalin have been removed from former Soviet republics and satellites. Their removal was not an urgent need nor in most cases was it immediate. Over time, there was a coordinated effort to remove symbols of a repressive ideology. It is in this light that we must understand the desire to American public spaces of statues dedicated to political and military leaders of the Confederacy, the greatest number of which were erected in 1890-1920, up to half a century after their defeat in the Civil War. Setting aside the reason for their erection, each community might wish to ask, “is this someone we wish still to honour? If not, what shall we erect in its place? Who will pay for its removal? Who will pay for its replacement? If the state or municipality will pay, then is it a pressing need, to be prioritised over hungry local children?” The Taliban posed similar questions at Bamiyan.

The toppling of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the defacement of Winston Churchill’s statue in London are not equivalent acts. However, they do both point to the privileging of one strand of history over all others. In Colston’s case, the strand of the historical rope they attached to the bronze is able to bear some strong tugs. Nobody has denied that the successful international merchant, philanthropist and MP was enriched by the slave trade. His good acts and public service do not erase that great stain, and protests have attended to the Colson statue for years. Many of those protests have been strikingly creative and far more likely to raise historical awareness and engage the public with the protesters’ cause than clumsy spray painting and taping generic cardboard signs onto the bronze.

It is also the case that owning and trading other humans was an historical constant until, in the century after Colston, principled women and men from Bristol (Hannah More) and Wisbech (Thomas Clarkson), Durham (Granville Sharp) and Hull (William Wilberforce), decided it should be otherwise. As David Starkey has noted in The Critic, “at the height of its wealth and power and after an agonised process of soul-searching, political debate and hard-nosed financial bargaining, Britain decided that slavery should be abolished in the British Empire and the international slave trade extinguished.” The magnificent 68-foot-high monument at Wisbech to Thomas Clarkson, by Sir George Gilbert Scott, puts John Cassidy’s little erection for Colston to shame.

Banal scribbles, the laziest forms of protest, have often appeared on the plinth on which Churchill’s statue stands in Parliament Square. The latest – “Churchill was a racist” ­– disentangles one flimsy fibre of historical polemic from a hawser, woven over decades by writers that have valourised or excoriated a towering historical figure, who was also a complex, brilliant, flawed man.

Ivor Roberts-Jones’ most famous creation interprets a photograph of Churchill touring the bombed Palace of Westminster as Rodin’s Balzac. An old man walking with a cane, slightly stooped in a military greatcoat, Churchill the parliamentarian has attracted protest since it was placed in 1973. Alas, daubing with paint is the regular form of protest. In 2000, the plinth was sprayed far more extensively than in 2020 and Churchill’s mouth picked out with bloody red paint. At his trial, the vandal who also placed a “turf Mohican” on Churchill’s head, could not think of any reason for his actions. In 2007, once again red paint was splashed across the statue and its plinth, a more aggressive and anonymous allusion to the blood spilt in colonial enterprise and foreign wars. During student protests in 2010, those “kettled” in Parliament Square once again directed their spray cans at the plinth.

In 2012 the statue, which has been a grade II listed building since 2008, was decked out in a straitjacket by Channel 4, to raise awareness of Churchill’s “black dog”. This was six years after a mental health charity had commissioned its own bronze of Sir Winston straitjacketed.

Projecting a living concern onto an object in bronze or marble, in effect animating the inanimate, is an action as old as simple destruction. The same Byzantines who tore down statues of Anastasius and Justinian, Maurice and Phocas, from their high pedestals also understood the intimate connection between images and their prototypes, whether that be a painted icon of a saint or martyr, or an emperor or god in the round. The possibility that a god might enter into a cult statue is suggested in one of the older Greek words for statue, hedos, “dwelling place”. Pausanias, in his second-century tour of Greece, pointed out statues that were chained down, not so that they would not be stolen – “The feet of Saturn’s image at Rome were fastened with woollen bands, which were only taken off at the Saturnalia” – but in order to prevent them from running away. From his time, if not certainly earlier, rites were performed with the specific intention of animating statues, although these were not considered necessary by most, who understood that the gods could move at will between heaven and earth.

Among the protesters descending on statues today, there may be quite a few angry historians of art and culture, including those of antiquity. Most will advocate for a critical art history that sees statues as valid sites of protest and resistance. But many will also observe that protest can be far more creative than destructive and resistance to oppression should not lead inexorably to the destruction of an opponent or his symbols.

dangerous art should be confronted with something more than a can of paint.

In this vein, Banksy has contributed a suggestion as to what might replace the fallen Colston statue. It is banal to propose that every work of art that offends be sequestered in a “museum” – presumably those many museums with vast empty halls that already display everything in their storerooms – where we can choose to encounter it. Removing statues to a safe space for reinterpretation is a method valid only for rendering them insignificant. It makes viewers powerless, recipients of bromides rather than creators of stimulants. Public space is historical space, and it is there, in the context that it was placed for historical reasons, that dangerous art should be confronted with something more than a can of paint.

The offensive antique statues in Constantinople were not all destroyed or removed to safe spaces as times and regimes changed (although some were). While the skills to reforge bronze remained, the most common reason to destroy a statue was to make another. Marble sculpture could be recarved or creatively reused too, like the head of Medusa that helps to hold up the roof of a huge water tank, today known as the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici, Istanbul). The head was inverted for magical, not practical, reasons. Some statues were branded with the sign of the cross, not as an attempt to Christianise an idol, but rather as a mark to prevent demonic forces from entering or exiting.

When knowledge of the historical past was lost, statues were reinterpreted as harbingers of things to come, foretellers of the End Times, and as talismans offering protection against various ills, including snakes, snails and foreign invaders. Many of Constantinople’s offensive statues – nude gods and demigods, heroes of pagan mythology, emperors who committed atrocities – stood in place, constantly reinterpreted. That is, until they were torn down, hacked apart or shipped off to Venice by an intolerant gang of thugs, the Fourth Crusade.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover