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Angela Tilby: Why I don’t like statues in churches

03 July 2020

istock

A statue of Jesus inside the Basilica Del Sacro Cuore Di Gesu, Rome

A statue of Jesus inside the Basilica Del Sacro Cuore Di Gesu, Rome

THERE has been much discussion of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remark in a radio interview that statues in churches and cathedrals of those involved in oppression would have to come down. There has been predictable support from those who think that the removing of them would help to cleanse our history, and opposition from those who think that history should stand, with all its warts.

As it happens, I am not a fan of statues in churches, but not for the reasons given by today’s iconoclasts. My objections are more theological than ideological, and they apply particularly to free-standing statues mounted on indoor plinths.

The root of my objection is in an instinct which partially survives in Orthodoxy, that free-standing statuary violates an important principle of religious representation. No image should be, as the Orthodox might put it, “circumscribed”. You should not be able to walk round an image of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or one of the saints. You should not be able to appraise them from all angles, because to do so diminishes the mystery of their presence and makes them potentially idolatrous.

If this is so with religious statues, it is even more so with the great and the good. Such statues draw you away from the sacred present to the past, away from the living presence of God to the deeds and achievements of the one being commemorated.

Icons, of course, are a different matter. Painted images of saints and angels are intended to draw you in. They are portals of prayer, not artefacts to be admired. On these grounds, I see no objection to carvings that are embedded in the architecture of churches and cathedrals, especially when they are of biblical figures, saints, and martyrs. I think of the sculptured images of Chartres, or the fine screen in St Albans Cathedral, or the ten modern martyrs above the west door of Westminster Abbey (although one dreads the fallout if safeguarding issues were to be raised about any of them).

I regret the Puritan iconoclasm that tore out, beheaded, and defaced the images in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, (although the exultant contemporary statue of Mary might suggest that vengeance has, indeed, been taken). I would give the benefit of the doubt to tomb effigies, because at least the deceased are shown at prayer. A sound religious instinct often ensures that, where there are modern statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, they are set against walls and pillars in such a way as to prevent their being easily seen from the back.

But those monuments that stand in aisles and chapels demanding attention, those bishops (however godly), poets, scientists, explorers, generals, let alone slave traders and imperialists — I really don’t see why they should be represented in church at all.

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