A Statue of the Dead Christ (c.1500-20) from the collection of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, will be on loan to an exhibition for the first time since its discovery. This extraordinary example of pre-Reformation sculpture will be a key highlight of Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, an exhibition exploring the history of attacks on art in Britain, opening 2 October 2013.
The Statue of the Dead Christ is unique in Britain and is recognised as one of the most important examples of sculpture to survive the violent destruction of religious reformers in the 16th century. It was discovered in 1954 buried beneath the floor of the Mercers’ Chapel during the clearance of the site following bomb damage. The crown of thorns, arms and lower legs of the sculpture are missing, most probably the result of a brutal attack at the hands of Protestant iconoclasts. The statue may have been buried to conceal it and protect it from further damage.
The work will form the centrepiece of a section of the exhibition exploring attacks on art motivated by religious change in the 16th and 17th centuries. The sculpture is a graphic portrayal of Christ removed from the cross with limbs shown stiffened by rigor mortis, his mouth ajar and carved blood flowing from his wounds. This powerful depiction exemplifies the immense power and hold over people that images could, and still can, possess. It was images such as this that reformers found dangerous and wished to eradicate.
Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm will be the first exhibition exploring the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day. Iconoclasm describes the deliberate destruction of icons, symbols or monuments for religious, political or aesthetic motives. The exhibition will examine the movements and causes which have led to assaults on art through objects, paintings, sculpture and archival material from 2 October.
Highlights of the exhibition include Thomas Johnson’s Interior of Canterbury Cathedral 1657– the only painting documenting Puritan iconoclasm in England – exhibited for the first time alongside stained glass removed from the windows of the cathedral. Edward Burne-Jones’ Sibylla Delphica 1898 and Allen Jones’ Chair 1969, damaged by suffragettes and feminists will be on display, as well as evidence of statues destroyed in Ireland during the 20th century. The show will consider artists such as Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono and Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have used destruction as a creative force.
Religious iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries will be explored with statues of Christ decapitated during the Dissolution, smashed stained glass from Rievaulx Abbey, fragments of the great rood screen at Winchester Cathedral and a book of hours from British Library, defaced by state-sanctioned religious reformers. These will be accompanied by vivid accounts of the destructive actions of Puritan iconoclasts.
Examples of attacks on symbols of authority during periods of political change will include a portrait of Oliver Cromwell hung upside down by the staunch monarchist Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (1868 – 1926). It will also show fragments from statues of William III and Nelson’s Pillar destroyed by blasts during political struggles in Dublin in 1929 and 1966 respectively.
Suffragettes’ targeted attacks on cultural heritage are illustrated with works by Edward Burne-Jones’ Sibylla Delphica 1898, attacked in 1913 in Manchester, the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst, as well as John Singer Sargent’s Henry James 1913, slashed at the Royal Academy in 1914. These are accompanied by archival descriptions of the actions carried out and police surveillance photography of the militant Suffragette protagonists.
Assaults on art stimulated by moral or aesthetic outrage will include those on Carl Andre’s Equivalent III 1966, and Allen Jones’ Chair 1969, damaged on International Women’s Day in the 1980s. The show will reveal how for some modern artists destruction has been utilised as a creative force. The piano and chair destroyed by Ralph Ortiz during the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposiusm will be on public display for the first time, alongside audio recordings of this action and works by Gustav Metzger, John Latham and Yoko Ono. Portraits from Jake and Dinos Chapman’s One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved series, Mark Wallinger’s Via Dolorosa 2002 and Douglas Gordon’s Self-portrait of you and me 2008 will also be included.
Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is curated by Tabitha Barber, Curator 1550-1750, Tate Britain and Stacy Boldrick, Curator of Research and Interpretation at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, with Ruth Kenny, Assistant Curator 1750-1830, Tate Britain and Sofia Karamani, Assistant Curator, Contemporary British Art, Tate Britain. It is accompanied by a catalogue from Tate Publishing and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.
Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm Tate Britain, Linbury Galleries 2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014 (Press view: 30 September 2013)