09 Apr

Ann Kibbey, “Iconoclastic Materialism” (1986)

“Iconoclastic Materialism” examines Protestants’ discourse and iconoclasm during the Reformation to understand how they thought about things. Kibbey argues that although Protestants destroyed images, they did not categorically oppose all images or icons.


Historians, according to Kibbey, have misunderstood Protestants’ reactions to images. Kibbey argues that “Puritan iconoclasm no less than Puritan rhetoric, granted substantial importance to material shapes” (42). Protestants iconoclasm was about the right use of material objects. Puritans recognized themselves as images of God, or living icons. Moreover, Kibbey argues that Puritans’ opposition to images was “actually a devoted, if negative, act of reverence, and a very self-conscious one at that” (42). Puritan iconoclasts “believed very deeply in the power of icon” (42).  In other words, Protestants did not see icons and images as empty and meaningless. Images, even if they were bad images, held power over Protestants. Puritans recognized that idols compelled humans to believe in them. Visual figures were a threat to humans because they seemed like they could speak, walk, and act. Puritans felt threatened by idols. Idol invoked fear in viewers. According to Kibbey, “Calvin’s reasoning implies that Protestant iconoclasts believed it necessary to attack the visual images in church sculpture, glass, and painting not because they disbelieved these images but rather because they believed quite strongly in their power” (47).  Protestants believed in the power of icons and idols.


Kibbey’s chapter is important to studies of Protestant material culture. 1) Kibbey recognizes that Protestants held a negative reverence for images. Idols held power over iconoclasts and they instilled fear in humans. Protestants did not recognize idols as dead and meaningless. Idols could act on humans. This is important for understanding 19th century Protestant missions in the United States and missionaries’ infatuation with idols. 2) Kibbey also recognizes that Puritans recognized themselves as living images of God, or icons. This is important for future work on Puritan portraits and gravestones which imaged individual Protestants. Scholars have not yet recognized Puritan gravestones as icons. They were images of living icons and worked in a way similar to other icons.  3) Kibbey also recognizes that Marx’s commodity fetish is deeply rooted in Protestantism. Kibbey suggests that Calvin’s analysis of sacramental bread is a precursor to Marx’s commodity fetish. Both have power that resides outside the material thing. According to Kibbey, “Both Calvin and Marx perceive a contradiction between the ordinary use of an object and the value (spiritual or exchange) that it acquires upon consecration/circulation” (52). Marx’s critique of capitalism is also a critique of Protestantism.  Kibbey’s work is significant because it calls scholars to consider Protestant materialism. Contemporary scholars are still hesitant to recognize the power that things have and had over Protestants.

20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard” (2010)

“Skeletons in the Cupboard” explores the “afterlife of relics in the wake of the English Reformation.” Walsham argues that relics were a part of the “confessionalization of material culture in post-Reformation society” and that they became embroiled in the “politics of religious identity formations.”[1]


Protestants decried Catholics’ reverence and use of relics during and after the English Reformation. They argued that Catholic relics were unscriptural inventions of the Papacy and Catholic clergy. Nevertheless, the veneration of relics continued among Catholics in post-Reformation England. Some Catholics recognized the power of the reliquaries of destroyed relics. Others hid relics in their homes. Walsh recognizes that “A significant side-effect of the Reformation was to transfer relics from the custodianship of monasteries and churches into private hands and domestic settings.”[2] Moreover, new relics were formed during this time as priests and believers were martyred for their faith. By the seventeenth-century, relics became confessional badges and markers of the Catholic faithful.

At the same time, a reformed relic culture emerged. Protestants also kept the body fragments and possessions of people who had been martyred for their faith. Many of these acted as memorials that carried “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.”[3] For many Protestants, these objects were signs or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. For many other Protestants, relics still carried divine powers that could act in the world and on people. Protestants also infused other objects, like the Bible, with powers that could heal and ward off evil. Relics and material objects became badges of adherence to the Protestant faith, just as they had for Catholics. Protestants also incorporated relics into their own religious practices by defining proper burial practices and displaying relics in cabinets of curiosities. Relics carried multiple meanings for Catholics and Protestants in post-Reformation England.


Walsham’s main contribution is her recognition that Protestants continued to use and revere objects in post-Reformation England. This was not due to any syncretism, popular religion, or failure of the Reformation. To the contrary, many Protestants, despite their abhorrence of relics, participated in their own material culture. This material culture often looked like that of Catholics’ devotion to relics as Protestants revered body fragments of martyred clergy and believers. At other times, this material culture was different in that it “remained commemorative in character.” Walsham suggests that this material culture tells us about “a Protestant culture of memory and identity centered as much on material objects as on distinctive dogmas and rituals.”[4] Walsham’s insight are significant in that they recognize the development of a Protestant material culture in post-Reformation England. Protestants did not stop employing things in religion, but they redefined how this material culture worked.

Despite this insight, Walsham’s distinction between relics and memorials in the explanation of this Protestant material culture is unclear. To be sure, some Protestants stopped using material objects as relics. But, I am not convinced that Protestants who employed body fragments of martyrs understood these objects to function as signs, memorials, or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. What would this didactic purpose be? The recognition that good Protestants are willing to die for their religion? Moreover, what exactly is a memorial? And, how is it different from a relic? In “Introduction: Relics and Remains” Walsham suggests that “relics can also be memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. In this article, memorials do not seem to function as relics. Walsham suggests that memorials have “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.” But, these memorials were particularly material; they were body parts. And, their emotional and spiritual character does not exclude their power or relation to the divine. So, what is the difference between a relic and a memorial? These body fragments as memorials likely worked in some way to connect living Protestants to martyred Protestants in some material way. This seems to be one of the definitions of a relic, not just a sign of remembrance. Perhaps, further studies of this Protestant material culture can examine how Protestants employed memorials to get a better sense of the powers and functions of these material items, and how Protestants came to understand them as didactic objects, not relics, over time.

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard: Relics after the English Reformation,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 122, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq015.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 143.