133: The empty niche syndrome


Following a symposium on iconoclasm organized jointly by the University of Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, at which the destruction in 2001 of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was discussed, I brought up the column that I wrote at the time.

Reading about the destruction of the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan fills me with powerful, contradictory emotions. First and most powerful, let it be said for all clarity, is horror and a sinking sense of loss. The idea that these ancient artistic and religious relics were deliberately and irretrievably destroyed by my own contemporaries is nearly unbearable. Dario Gamboni, the newly appointed professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, pointed out sagely in his book The destruction of images that attacks on works of art do not necessarily end their life as objects. Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and Barnett Newman’s Who’s afraid of yellow, red and blue still exist, in a degraded form that is now part of their legend. But the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan have been dynamited into smithereens. Nothing but legend is left.

The second reaction was the unwelcome thought that the iconoclasts would get away with it. The day the pictures of the empty niches appeared in the newspapers I happened to be in Zürich. Zürich has lots of empty niches. Sacred works of art were removed from them and destroyed in the summer of 1524 by the city authorities under leadership of the reformer Ulrich Zwingli. The niches of Reformed churches in the Netherlands too are empty, their statues having been toppled and destroyed in iconoclastic riots in 1566 and 1580. As far as I am aware, no Protestant church body has ever repudiated the wilfull destruction of so much of the cultural heritage of Europe, carried out in the name of the Reformation.

Along with these feelings of hurt and bitterness came one of guilt. I was upset to realize that the demolition of the statues distressed me more than the daily loss of life in the war in Afghanistan. When the Taliban leadership mocked the western world for caring more about stone images than about the hunger of the Afghan people, I knew what they were saying. The point was the same one made by Protestant iconoclasts of the 16th century. They drew a polemical distinction between the stone and wooden images of God adored in churches and the living image of God, man, whose suffering is ignored by Christian worshipers.

Deeper down, there are emotions that were inculcated into me as a child. I may have rejected them since, but I still feel them. As a pupil in Orthodox Jewish schools in New York, I was taught that iconoclasm is a good thing. The second of the Ten Commandments, which is seldom cited in full, reads: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20: 4-6 and Deuteronomy 5: 8-10). Especially the patent unfairness of this and the emotional blackmail of the final provision were enough to convince me and my schoolmates that we were not dealing with a mere technicality. We went out of our way to avoid even looking at crucifixes.

The Second Commandment does not enjoin actual iconoclasm, but other teachings do. That children were not helpless in preventing their fathers from committing idolatry was taught to us in a story from the midrash. Abraham’s father, Terach, was a maker of idols. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. Abraham ook a hammer, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them. When his father returned, he told him that the biggest idol had broken the others. His father’s rejoinder that this was impossible was turned by Abraham against him as proof that idols were not worthy of respect.

If we did not break statues in New York in the 1940s, it was only because our fathers worshipped idols of other kinds, which we did attack. The art in Christian churches, whatever artistic or cultural worth it may have had, was nothing to us but an abhorrence. In judging the Taliban today, I cannot help but thinking that my 10-year-old self in their situation would undoubtedly have felt called upon to obey another Biblical injunction that is closer to the case. Deuteronomy 12: 2-3: “You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the hills and under every green tree; you shall tear down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Ash’erim with fire; you shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name out of that place.”

In citing this Biblical justification for iconoclasm, I do not wish to join the ranks of those who think of that phenomenon as an expression of monotheistic zeal peculiar to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Nor do I agree with those who interpret iconoclasm in the first place as a psychological reaction to the power of images. The Biblical command to root out the adversary goes far beyond imagery as such or even divine worship. The urge of embattled groups to wipe out those they fear, their symbols, what is sacred to them, their very name, is not Islamic or Jewish any more than it is Slavic or African. Tragic to say, it is human.

© Gary Schwartz 2001. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 9 June 2001.


Yesterday, June 9th, 2001 was the 404th birthday of Pieter Saenredam, an artist about whom I co-authored a monograph with Marten Jan Bok. As it happens, it was also the day that I was asked to open an exhibition on Saenredam Island, an ecological art work by Lucien den Arend. Saenredam Island is a planting in rows of willows in a new residential neighborhood in Barendrecht, near Rotterdam. The tops of the branches meet each other in a form reminiscent of the vaulting in the Gothic churches Saenredam painted. It was an immensely complex event, with the opening of the exhibition Full Moon by Joseph Semach and Felix Villanueva at Saenredam Island; an installation by them called Shir ha-Shirim, Song of Songs, in the hall and library of the Barendrecht cultural center; a display of Semach’s work in the center café; a two-part performance of a dance by Pieter de Ruiter called Corpora Mixta, with orchestra and chorus and bridal rites both in the water of the Island and on the stage of the center; the placing of all of this in the program of Rotterdam 2001, Cultural Capital of Europe.

Somehow my whole life seems like that these days. In and out of the water performing, as it were. Readers of this column may have noticed that Loekie and I have not managed to take a real vacation since we went to Gozo for a week in October 1998. We have decided that part of the problem lies in the fact that our house in Maarssen is so attractive and comfortable that we seldom want to leave it, and that when we are at home we always have work to do. So next weekend we are going to Romania to see whether we can buy a house in a village near Sibiu where can spend quality vacation time. This may seem like a bit of a non sequitur, there being many other conceivable solutions, but there you are. Having fallen in love with Transylvania (no garlic jokes, please) we may be kidding ourselves into believing that buying a house there is a solution to an existing problem. We’ll find out and will keep you posted.

P.S. 11 December 2016. When we got to Sibiu, we found out that the woman from whom we were buying that house and its 3,000 square meter grounds had decided not to sell. We got our money back and spent it instead on a self-contained cottage in our garden, a few steps from our back door rather than a 17-hour drive away. For the past three years we have been renting it as a b&b, with success and pleasure.

Memories of the Bamiyan Buddhas were revived at a two-day symposium on Iconoclasm in Amsterdam.  One thing I learned, from the talk by Geert Jansen, is that iconoclasm in the Netherlands can be described as a “riot” only concerning events in 1566. In the 1570s, 1580s and 1590s a far more extensive “cleansing” of churches was carried out by the authorities in Dutch towns, as public policy rather than popular rage.

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