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Print of the destruction in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, the "signature event" of the Beeldenstorm, August 20, 1566, by Frans Hogenberg[1]

Beeldenstorm in Dutch, roughly translatable to "statue storm", or Bildersturm in German ("image/statue storm"), also the Iconoclastic Fury, is a term used for outbreaks of destruction of religious images that occurred in Europe in the 16th century. During these spates of iconoclasm, Catholic art and many forms of church fittings and decoration were destroyed in unofficial or mob actions by nominally Calvinist Protestant crowds as part of the Protestant Reformation. Most of the destruction was of art in churches and public places.

The Dutch term usually specifically refers to the wave of disorderly attacks in the summer of 1566 that spread rapidly through the Low Countries from south to north. Similar outbreaks of iconoclasm took place in other parts of Europe, especially in Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire in the period between 1522 and 1566, notably Zürich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), and Augsburg (1537).[2]

In England there was both government-sponsored removal of images and also spontaneous attacks from 1535 onwards, and in Scotland from 1559.[3] In France there were several outbreaks as part of the French Wars of Religion from 1560 onwards.


  • Background 1
  • Low Countries iconoclastic attacks in 1566 2
  • "Stille beeldenstorm" of 1581 in Antwerp 3
  • Artistic losses 4
  • Consequences 5
  • Images 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10


A German woodcut of 1530, showing orderly Lutheran destruction supervised by a magistrate or lord, leaving a plain altar.

In France unofficial episodes of large scale destruction of art in churches by Lutheran princes, lords or town councils. In Germany, Switzerland and England, conversion to Protestantism had been enforced on the whole population at the level of a city, principality or kingdom, with varying degrees of discrimination, persecution or expulsion applied to those who insisted on remaining Catholic.

The Low Countries, Flanders, Brabant and Holland,[5] were part of the inheritance of Philip II of Spain, who was a devout Catholic and self-proclaimed protector of the Counter-Reformation, and suppressed Protestantism through his Governor-general or Regent, Margaret of Parma the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V, who was herself more willing to compromise. Although Protestants so far represented only a relatively small proportion of the Netherlandish population, but including disproportionate numbers from the nobility and upper bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church had evidently lost the loyalty of the population, and traditional Catholic anti-clericalism was now dominant.[6]

The region affected was perhaps the richest in Europe, but still seethed with economic discontent among parts of the population, and had suffered a poor harvest and hard winter. However, recent historians are generally less inclined to see the movement as prompted by these factors than was the case a few decades ago.[7][8]

An outdoor sermon (The Preaching of St. John the Baptist) depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, apparently in 1565, the year before the Beeldenstorm movement began.

The Beeldenstorm grew out of a turn in the behaviour of Low Country Protestants starting around 1560, who became increasingly open in their religion, despite penal sanctions. Catholic preachers were interrupted in sermons, and raids were organized to rescue Protestant prisoners from jail, who then often fled into exile in France or England. Protestant views were spread by a large movement of "field sermons" or open-air sermons (Dutch: hagepreken) held outside towns, and therefore out of the jurisdiction of the town authorities. The first took place on the Cloostervelt near Hondschoote, in what is now the arrondissement of Dunkirk in French Flanders, very close to where the attacks later began, and the first one to be armed against disruption was held near Boeschepe on July 12, 1562, two months after religious war had broken out again over the (then) French border just nearby.[9]

These open-air sermons, mostly by Anabaptist or Mennonite preachers, spread through the country, attracting huge crowds, though not necessarily of those leaning to Protestantism, and in many places immediately preceded the iconoclastic attacks of August 1566. Prosecutions for heresy continued, especially in the south, although they were erratic, and in some places clergy of clearly heretical views were appointed to churches. By 1565 the authorities seem to have realized that persecution was not the answer, and the level of prosecutions slackened, and the Protestants became increasingly confident in the open.[10] A letter of July 22, 1566, from local officials to the Regent, warned that "the scandalous pillage of churches, monasteries and abbeys" was imminent.[11]

Low Countries iconoclastic attacks in 1566

Blue: The spread of the Beeldenstorm in the Low Countries. Brown: Within the independent Bishopric of Liège.

On August 10, 1566, the feast-day of Saint Lawrence, at the end of the pilgrimage from Hondschoote to Steenvoorde, the chapel of the Sint-Laurensklooster was defaced by a crowd who invaded the building. It has been suggested that the rioters connected the saint especially with Philip II, whose monastery palace of the Escorial near Madrid was dedicated to Lawrence, and was just nearing completion in 1566.[12] Iconoclastic attacks spread rapidly northwards and resulted in the destruction of not only images but all sorts of decoration and fittings in churches and other church or clergy property. However there was relatively little loss of life, unlike similar outbreaks in France, where the clergy were often killed, and some iconoclasts too.[13]

The attacks reached the commercial centre of the Low Countries, Antwerp, on August 20, and on August 22 Ghent, where the cathedral, eight churches, twenty-five monasteries and convents, ten hospitals and seven chapels were wrecked. From there, it further spread east and north, reaching Amsterdam, then a much smaller town, by August 23, and continuing in the far north and east into October, although the main towns were mostly attacked in August. Valenciennes ("Valencijn" on the map) was the most southerly town attacked. In the east, Maastricht on September 20 and Venlo on October 5 saw attacks, but generally the outbreaks were restricted to more westerly and northern areas.[14] Over 400 churches were attacked in Flanders alone.[15]

The eye-witness [16][17]

Nicolas Sander, an English Catholic exile who was a professor of theology at Louvain, described the destruction in the same church:

... these fresh followers of this new preaching threw down the graven [sculpted] and defaced the painted images, not only of Our Lady but of all others in the town. They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones, not sparing the glass and seats which were made about the pillars of the church for men to sit in. ... the Blessed Sacrament of the altar ... they trod under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it ... these false bretheren burned and rent not only all kind of Church books, but, moreover, destroyed whole libraries of books of all sciences and tongues, yea the Holy Scriptures and the ancient fathers, and tore in pieces the maps and charts of the descriptions of countries.[18]
Damaged relief statues in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht.

Such details are corroborated by many other sources. Accounts of the actions of the iconoclasts from eyewitnesses and the records of the later trials of many of them make it clear that there was often a considerable element of carnival to the outbreaks, with much mockery of the images and fittings such as fonts recorded as the iconoclasts went about their work. Alcohol features largely in very many accounts, perhaps in some cases because in Netherlandish law being drunk could be regarded as a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing.[19]

The destruction frequently included ransacking the priest's house, and sometimes private houses suspected of sheltering church goods. There was much looting of common household goods from clergy houses and monasteries, and some street robberies of women's jewellery by the crowd; after the images were smashed and the property occupied, "men fed their stomachs in a carnivalesque indulgence of beer, bread, butter and cheese, while women carted off provisions for the kitchen or bedroom".[20]

There are many accounts of rituals of inversion, in which the church sometimes stood for the whole social order. Children sometimes participated enthusiastically, and street games afterwards became play battles between "papists" and "beggars". One child was killed in Amsterdam by a stone thrown in such a game.[21] Elsewhere the iconoclasts seemed to treat their actions as a job of work; in one city the group waited for the bell rung to mark the start of the working day before beginning their work. The tombs and memorial inscriptions of the patriciate and nobility, and in some cases royalty, were defaced or destroyed in several places, although secular public buildings such as town halls, and the palaces of the nobility, were not attacked.[22] In Ghent, on the one hand the memorial in a church to Charles V's sister Isabel (and so Philip's aunt) was carefully left alone, but a statue in the street of Charles V and the Virgin was destroyed.[23]

The actions were controversial among Protestants, some of whom implausibly tried to blame Catholic agent provocateurs,[24] as it became clear that "the more popular elements of the dissident movement were out of control".[25] Protestant ministers and activists returning from exile in England and elsewhere played a significant role, and individual wealthy Protestants were widely suspected of hiring men to do the work in some places, especially Antwerp.[26]

In some rural areas gangs of iconoclasts moved across country between village churches and monasteries for several days.[27] Elsewhere there were large crowds involved, sometimes locals, and sometimes from outside the area. In some places the nobility gave assistance, ordering the clearing of churches on their estates. Local magistracies were often opposed, but ineffective in stopping the destruction.[28] In many towns the archer's guild, who had a function in controlling public order, took no steps against the crowds.[29]

In 1566, unlike the situation after the Eighty Years War and today, Protestantism in the Low Countries was mainly concentrated in the south (roughly modern Belgium), and much weaker in the north (roughly now the Netherlands), and iconoclasm in the north began later, after news of the events in Antwerp was received, and was more successfully resisted by local authorities in some towns, although still succeeding in most. Once again individually socially prominent laymen often took the lead.[30] In many places there were, or were later said to have been, false claims of official commissions from some local authority to perform the actions, and by the end of the outbreak some northern towns removed images by order of the local authority, presumably to prevent the disorder that would accompany a mob action.[31]

Analysis of the records of the later trials show a wide range of occupations, covering craftsmen and small tradespeople, especially in the textile trade, and also a variety of church employees, at a fairly low level. Where wealth and property are recorded, it is "modest at best".[32]

"Stille beeldenstorm" of 1581 in Antwerp

Following the 1566 attacks in Antwerp there was a further period of iconoclasm there in 1581, after a Calvinist city council was elected and purged the city's clergy and guilds of Catholic office-holders. This is known as the "quiet" or "stille" beeldenstorm, as the removal of images was carried out by the institutions they belonged to, the council itself, churches and the guilds. Some images were sold rather than destroyed, but most seem to have been lost. By the summer of 1584 Antwerp was besieged by the Duke of Parma's Spanish army, falling a year later.[33]

Artistic losses

The looting of the Churches of Lyon by Calvinists in 1562.

Rarely was any thought given to the artistic heritage of these cities in 1566, though families were sometimes able to protect the church monuments of their ancestors, and in Delft the syndics of the painters' Guild of Saint Luke were able to rescue the altarpiece by Maarten van Heemskerck, which the guild had commissioned only 15 years earlier.[34]

The van Eycks' Ghent Altarpiece, then as now famous as a supreme example of Early Netherlandish painting and already a major tourist attraction, just restored in 1550, was saved by dismantling it and hiding it in the cathedral tower. A first attack on August 19 was deterred by a small number of guards. When a larger attack was made at night two days later the iconoclasts had provided themselves with a tree trunk as a battering ram, and succeeded in breaking through the doors.[35]

By then the panels had been removed from the frame and hidden, with the guards, on the narrow spiral staircase up the tower, with a locked door at ground level. They were not detected and the crowd left after destroying what else they could find.[36] The panels were then moved to the town hall, and only returned to view in 1569, by which time the elaborate frame had disappeared.[37]

Despite militia guards, two of the three main churches in

  • Freedberg, David, Iconoclasm and painting in the revolt of the Netherlands, 1566–1609, 1988, Garland, ISBN 978-0-8240-0087-5

Further reading

  • Arnade, Peter J., Beggars, Iconoclasts, and Civic Patriots: the Political Culture of the Dutch Revolt, Cornell University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-8014-7496-5, ISBN 978-0-8014-7496-5
  • Charney, Noah, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece, PublicAffairs, 2010, ISBN 1-58648-800-7, ISBN 978-1-58648-800-0
  • Eire, Carlos M.N., War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, Cambridge University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-521-37984-9, ISBN 978-0-521-37984-7
  • Elliott, J.H., Europe divided, 1559–1598, many edns, pages refs from Blackwell classic histories of Europe, Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edn. 2000 (1st edn 1968), ISBN 0-631-21780-0, ISBN 978-0-631-21780-0
  • David Freedberg, "Painting and the Counter-Reformation", from the catalogue to The Age of Rubens, 1993, Boston/Toledo, Ohio, online PDF
  • Lesger, Clé, The rise of the Amsterdam market and information exchange: merchants, commercial expansion and change in the spatial economy of the Low Countries, c. 1550–1630, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006, ISBN 0-7546-5220-3, ISBN 978-0-7546-5220-5
  • Miola, Robert S., Early modern Catholicism: an anthology of primary sources, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-925985-2, ISBN 978-0-19-925985-4
  • Montias, John Michael. Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-691-00289-4, ISBN 978-0-691-00289-7
  • Petegree, Andrew. Emden and the Dutch revolt: exile and the development of reformed Protestantism, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-822739-6, ISBN 978-0-19-822739-7
  • Ramsay, George Daniel, The Queen's merchants and the revolt of the Netherlands: the end of the Antwerp mart, Part 2 of The end of the Antwerp mart, Manchester University Press ND, 1986, ISBN 0-7190-1849-8, ISBN 978-0-7190-1849-7
  • Spicer, Calvinist churches in early modern Europe, Manchester University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-7190-5487-7, ISBN 978-0-7190-5487-7
  • Vlieghe, H., Flemish art and architecture, 1585–1700. Yale University Press Pelican history of art, 1998, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-07038-1
  • Wagner, Roger, "Art and Faith", Ch. 10 in: Harries, Richard and Brierley, Michael W. (eds), Public life and the place of the church: reflections to honour the Bishop of Oxford, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2006, ISBN 0-7546-5301-3, ISBN 978-0-7546-5301-1
  • Wells, Guy, William of Orange and the Princely Virtues, in Mack, Phyllis and Jacob, Margaret C. (eds), Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honour of H. G. Koenigsberger, Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-521-52702-3, ISBN 978-0-521-52702-6


  1. ^ analysed in Arnade, 146 (quoted); see also Art through time
  2. ^ John Phillips, Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535–1660, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973.
  3. ^ John Phillips, Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535–1660, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973.
  4. ^ Eire, 279-280
  5. ^ What is now approximately Belgian Limburg was part of the Bishopric of Liège and ruled by the bishop (shown in brown on the map).
  6. ^ Elliott, 90-91
  7. ^ Arnade, 95-98, and 116, especially note 105 (where "reputation" is presumably a misprint for "refutation"). Elliott, 89-91, first written in 1968, reflects a version of the older view, for which the German Marxist historian Erich Kuttner was the standard-bearer.
  8. ^ Pollmann, 179-80.
  9. ^ Petegree, 74-75
  10. ^ Petegree, 82-86
  11. ^ Arnade, 97
  12. ^ Arnade, 103-104
  13. ^ Arnade, 116
  14. ^ See map with dates in Petegree, 118; Arnade, 90-91
  15. ^ Eire, 280
  16. ^ Spicer, 109 (spelling modernized); see also Arnade, 146-148
  17. ^ Eye-witness Account of Image-breaking at Antwerp, Universiteit Leiden
  18. ^ Miola, 58-59, 59 quoted
  19. ^ Arnade, 105-111
  20. ^ Arnade, 111-112 (quote from 112); 102 for women's jewellery robbed.
  21. ^ Arnade, 111-114; for the whole paragraph: 104-122
  22. ^ Arnade, 116-124
  23. ^ Arnade, 119-120
  24. ^ Petegree, 117-119
  25. ^ Wells, 91
  26. ^ Petegree, 116-117, and elsewhere, on returning exiles; Arnade, 146-147 on paid iconoclasts
  27. ^ Arnade, 101-102; 104-109
  28. ^ Petegree, 119-124; Arnade, 120-122
  29. ^ Arnade, 120
  30. ^ Petegree, 124-128
  31. ^ Arnade, 120-122
  32. ^ Arnade, 102
  33. ^ Freedberg, 133
  34. ^ Montias, 4
  35. ^ Charney, 72-73 - a populist account; when he says April he means August, and "The Lamb" refers to the altarpiece. Petegree, 118 has the Beeldenstorm reaching Ghent on August 22. See also Arnade, 118
  36. ^ Charney, 72-73 - a populist account; when he says April he means August, and "The Lamb" refers to the altarpiece. Petegree, 118 has the Beeldenstorm reaching Ghent on August 22. See also Arnade, 118
  37. ^ van Veen
  38. ^ Pieterskerk
  39. ^ notes to biography by Karel van Mander
  40. ^ Gustav Friedrich Waagen, [2]
  41. ^ Jacobs, Lynn F., review of Liesbeth M. Helmus, Schilderen in opdracht: Noord-Nederlandse contracten voor altaarstukken 1485–1570. Utrecht: Centraal Museum, 2010, ISBN 978-90-5983-021-9. Historians of Netherlandish art website. accessed 4 March 2011
  42. ^ Lesger, 110
  43. ^ Elliott, 91-93; Petegree, 132-134; Wells, 89-91; Arnade, 100
  44. ^ Luu, 106
  45. ^ Van Gelderen, 39-40
  46. ^ Luu, 106
  47. ^ Ramsay, 62-63
  48. ^ Ramsay, 50
  49. ^ Ramsay, 50-51
  50. ^ Ramsay, 48
  51. ^ Spicer, 110-118
  52. ^ Spicer, 116-124, and following pages
  53. ^ Vlieghe, 4, 13
  54. ^ Wagner (short quotes from Abrams), 131


See also


The bare and empty state of those churches left in Catholic hands after the hostilities eventually ended prompted a large programme of restocking with Catholic art, which had much to do with the vigour of Northern Mannerism and later Flemish Baroque painting, and many Gothic churches were given Baroque makeovers.[53] In the north, now very largely Protestant, religious art largely disappeared, and Dutch Golden Age painting concentrated on a wide range of secular subjects, such as genre painting, landscape art and still-lives, with results that might sometimes have surprised the Protestant ministers who initiated the movement. According to one scholar, this "was not only a dramatic change in the function of art, it was the context in which our present concept of art, what the literary critic M. H. Abrams called "art as such", first began to take shape", replacing a "construction model" where art theory concerned itself with how the maker created his work, with a "contemplation model" concerned with the effect of the finished work on a "lone perceiver" or viewer.[54]

Once the revolt proper had started, there were many further instances of clearing churches, some still unofficial and disorderly, but as cities became officially Protestant, increasingly undertaken by official order, like the Amsterdam Alteratie ("Alteration") of 1578. Altars, to which Calvinists, unlike Lutherans, took strong exception, were typically completely removed, and in some large churches, like Utrecht Cathedral, large tomb monuments put where they stood, partly to make their return more difficult if political conditions changed. After the Eighty Years War was finally over, in the cities and areas that became Protestant, the old Catholic churches were all or nearly all taken over by the new established church of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, with other congregations left to shift for themselves.[52]

In many places there were attempts by Calvinist preachers to take over the ransacked buildings. These were usually repulsed in the period after the attacks. In the months afterwards there were attempted negotiations in many cities, by William of Orange and others, to allocate certain churches to accommodate the local Protestants, often divided into Lutherans and Calvinists. These had mostly failed within a few weeks, not least because Margaret's government rejected them; she had already had an earlier attempt at compromise overruled by Philip a few months earlier, and been embarrassingly forced to retract a decree.[50] Instead there was a wave of building or adapting Calvinist "temples", though in the end none of these were to remain in use by the following year, and their layouts, which seem to have echoed early Swiss and Scottish Calvinist designs, are now largely unknown.[51]

The painting Beeldenstorm in een kerk, 1630, by Dirck van Delen, six decades after the original actions.

The English had found the Antwerp money market short of funds since earlier in the year, and now made use of Cologne and Augsburg as well, but as events unfolded in the next year, and the personal position of some leading lenders became precarious, the English found to their surprise that repayments were no longer pressed for, probably as the lenders were happy to keep their money abroad on loan to a secure borrower.[49] The Dutch Revolt, which from 1585 onwards included a Dutch blockade of the River Scheldt leading to the city, was to finally destroy Antwerp as a major trading centre.

Antwerp was then Europe's largest financial and international trading centre, taking as much as 75 or 80% of English exports of cloth,[47] and the disturbances created serious and well-justified fears that its position as such was under threat. Sir Thomas Gresham, the English financier who arranged Elizabeth I's borrowings, and whose agent in Antwerp was Clough, left London for Antwerp on August 23, only hearing about the Antwerp attacks en route; he needed to roll-over 32,000 Flemish pounds and borrow another 20,000 to finance her expenses in Ireland. Dining with William of Orange on his arrival, he was asked if "the English were minded to depart this town or not", and wrote to William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief minister, "in alarm that he "liked none of their proceedings" but "apprehended great mischief", and urged that the English government "should do very well in time to consider some other realm and place" for marketing English products. It was a message that helped shape the course of events."[48]

On August 29 Margaret wrote a somewhat panicked letter to Philip, "claiming that half the population were infected with heresy, and that over 200,000 people were up in arms against her authority".[44] Philip decided to send the Duke of Alba with an army; he would have led them himself but was kept in Spain by other matters, especially the increasingly evident insanity of his heir, Carlos, Prince of Asturias.[45] When Alba arrived the following year, and soon replaced Margaret as Governor-general, his heavy-handed repression, which included the execution of many convicted of iconoclastic attacks the summer before, only made the situation worse.[46]

Many elite Protestants were now alarmed by the forces unleashed, and some of the nobility began to shift towards support of the government. Implementing the somewhat vague terms of the agreement led to further tensions, and William of Orange, appointed by Margaret to resolve the situation in Antwerp, tried and failed to produce a wider settlement that all parties could live with. Instead unrest continued and the episode fed into the causes of the Dutch Revolt which was to erupt two years later.[43]

On August 23, Margaret of Parma, the Habsburg Regent or Governor-general, whose capital of Brussels was unaffected by the movement, agreed to an "Accord" with the group of aristocratic Protestant leaders known as the "Compromise" or Geuzen ("Beggars"), by which freedom of religion was granted, in exchange for allowing Catholics to worship unmolested and an end to the violence. Instead, "the outbreak of the iconoclastic fury began an almost uninterrupted series of skirmishes, campaigns, plunder, pirate-raids, and other acts of violence. Not all areas suffered violence at the same time or to the same extent, but practically none remained unscathed."[42]

Later depiction of the destruction of a wayside cross in Zurich in 1523.



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