Decapitating Statues, Or How You Cannot Deface Sin

The best metric by which you can determine the status of life in our household is whether our bathroom counter looks like CVS (or Boots) Pharmacy.

Our bathroom pharmacy
Our bathroom pharmacy

We do not have a medicine (or any) cabinet in our family bathroom, so normally all our medicines stay in the kitchen downstairs. However, when we all get sick, my wife and I eventually reach a tipping point where we give up going downstairs over and over again to administer late-night medication, and we just start leaving it in the bathroom. So, once we have all delightfully shared in whatever virus is going around, we are likely to have some combination of children’s ibuprofen, children’s acetaminophen, children’s cough syrup (also known as sugar), adult ibuprofen, pseudoephedrine, mucinex, nyquil, and a thermometer nestled together in disorderly array along with floss and toothpaste (out of reach of the kids, of course). You know we’re back to health when we ceremoniously move the pharmacy back where it belongs.

Why do we do this? Obviously, like everyone else, we want to attack the illness.

Problem: viruses don’t die. We can administer all these medications to make ourselves feel better or sleep better at night, but we haven’t actually dealt with the virus itself. We can do all we can to address the symptoms, but at the end of the day we haven’t gotten to the core problem.

Which brings me to knocking the heads off statues and stripping down paint at Ely Cathedral.

Echos of Iconoclasm

A few weeks ago, my family had the chance to visit the amazing Cathedral Church of the Holy Undivided Trinity in the town of Ely, just east of Cambridge. The Ely Cathedral, shown above, is a simply amazing place. With its origins dating back to the 600s AD, It is one of the oldest and most famous cathedrals in England, famous for having one of the longest unbroken lines of sight from front to back of any church structure in the world.[1]

While we visited Ely, our tour guide pointed out a subtle detail that I found to be immensely fascinating. In its original form, the cathedral was completely painted on the inside, with colorful patterns of all sorts adorning nearly every square inch of the massive stone walls and columns. Here is what most of the walls look like today, however:

Stone walls of Ely Cathedral
Stone walls of Ely Cathedral

The walls, columns, arches, and so on are now all stripped down to their original stones. Apart from the vaulted ceilings (which are painted) and stained glass windows, every square inch is bare stone with no paint.

What happened to the paint? During the English Reformation in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers in England took part, at least to some degree, of a larger (but highly criticized, even among many Reformers) Europe-wide movement of iconoclasm. In the attempt to rid Christendom of the evils of idolatry, icon-worship, and so forth that they believed plagued the Roman Catholic church, some movements within the Reformation attacked churches to remove painted icons of saints, vandalize religious statues, break windows bearing images of Jesus and saints, and so forth. The goal was to purify the church by removing visual elements that, according to the iconoclasts, promoted idolatry and false worship. Opinions were mixed among the Reformers at the time regarding whether this was a good thing or a bad thing to do; either way, it happened.

Which brings us to Ely. During the turmoil surrounding the rise of the Reformation movement and the establishment of the Church of England (by Henry VIII), the Cathedral at Ely became subject to iconoclasts. In the picture below, you can see where the statues that adorn the chapel were beheaded by the iconoclasts. I had never seen such a thing firsthand, so it was very bizarre but pretty cool to see the aftereffects of this historical event. The chapel is full of these little alcoves with statues in them, and every single one of them had lost its head!

Decapitated Statue at Ely Cathedral
Decapitated Statue at Ely Cathedral

That, however, was not the subtle detail that our tour guide pointed out. Here is where things got more fascinating. We stopped in one of the archways in the main part of the cathedral, and he shone his flashlight upwards to point out this feature of the walls that we would have otherwise been completely oblivious to:

Paint remnants in the archways
Paint remnants in the archways

If you look closely at the two levels of the arch closest to the camera, you will notice some rather faint traces of diagonal painted stripes. These swatches of paint were left over from the original painted cathedral as it was before the Reformation. The paint in this arch was apparently green and red, with possible other colors, and the entire cathedral would have been covered with patterns of paint.

As it turns out, the Reformation iconoclasts couldn’t get all the paint off. They did a pretty good job, as you can tell from the prior picture, but they left traces of paint here and there that remain to this day.

For all their efforts to purify the house of the worship of God, the vandals of Ely (because that is what they were doing) could not fully remove the adornment that represented sinful, pagan idolatry to them. Some of it was just too stubborn to remove—a constant reminder staring them in the face for the next 500 years.

Connecting to the pew

I contemplated this phenomenon for many days after our visit. It seems that there are two important things to learn from this nearly unnoticed detail contained on the walls of Ely Cathedral.

  • Sin cannot be defaced. The iconoclastic strand of the Reformers (which was a minority) thought they were doing the right thing by destroying statues, breaking stained glass, ripping down painted panels, and, in the case of Ely, attempting to strip off regular paint to make the church structure as un-adorned as possible. The merits of removing religious iconography from worship can certainly be, and certainly was, debated (moreover, there’s a difference between designing plain worship spaces and, shall we say, “converting” one through vandalism). But the main point here is that the iconoclasts were attacking paint. They were attempting—through the defacing  of external features of a church building—to purify the doctrine and practices of the church. They were addressing symptoms, not the core issue. They were giving ibuprofen to someone with a virus. Yes, it shook things up, yes icons and idolatrous images were polluting the church, and yes it gave the appearance of progress in the reform movement. But at the end of the day they were stripping paint off stone walls … and they did not even get all of it. As Christians, we are constantly tempted, whether we realize it or not, to focus on sin at the surface level. If we are struggling with our devotional life, we will try to set the alarm earlier and get a reading plan; if we are sinning in online pornography, we will get Covenant Eyes; if we are failing to serve our neighbors, we’ll sign up for more stuff. We make lists, we add new accountability partners, we read books about efficiency or spiritual gift assessment or whatever else.[2] We spend a lot of time trying to fix the external side of sin, when really we have to go deeper. Sin is not something to be defaced; it is something to be rooted out, to be killed.
  • Sin cannot be eradicated, in this life at least. This leftover paint at Ely Cathedral also gives us insight into the nature of indwelling sin. Whatever we can say about the motives and theology of the iconoclasts, we have to at least give them credit for their execution. They were terrific at vandalization. But even their best efforts could not fully remove the vestiges of the evils of Rome that they sought to eradicate. Like Lady Macbeth trying desperately but failing to remove all the spots of blood, they could not get all the paint off. The fact that it remains on the walls to this very day is, in fact, a brilliant reminder of the lasting effects of sin. While we cannot deface sin, we can, by the Holy Spirit, make great progress in the Christian life in mortifying sin at the root level. God is making us more and more conformed to Christ’s image (Rom 8:29), even if it is not a smooth upward trajectory in that direction. YET: sin will not be fully defeated in our flesh in this life. The old man—like the old paint stripes on the walls of Ely—will remain, doing battle against the Spirit until the day we die. We keep fighting, but we know that it will be a fight. While we have died, on the one hand, to the power of sin as the controlling force in our life (when we are united to Christ by faith), the vestige of sin nevertheless remains like paint that you just cannot scrape off. So we take heart that sin’s backbone has been broken in our lives through Christ’s victory over it, but we also take notice that it’s still there for us to do battle with every hour of the day.



[1] Why? Because unlike most cathedrals, Ely lacks the standard screen that separates the presbytery (where only the bishops and priests can go) from the nave and the rest of the building. It was torn down in the Reformation and never replaced, though you can see markings on the pillars that show where it used to be.

[2] Standard caveat must be inserted here: “Those things are not wrong in themselves,” “Many of these disciplines are good things that God uses to get to heart issues,” etc. etc.


4 thoughts on “Decapitating Statues, Or How You Cannot Deface Sin”

  1. Setting aside the question of paint for a moment, wasn’t iconography morphing into idolatry a pretty valid concern? It was especially bad during the Middle Ages, with immense sums being paid for “a piece of the True Cross” or the fingerbone of an apostle because pilgrims would come from all over to see the relic and–in practice if not official theology–idolize this item with the power to heal. It’s the same deal with the veritable pantheon of Catholic saints: there comes a point where it’s impossible to tell the difference between “asking a saint to pray for you” and actually praying to the saint.
    That context makes beheading statues a little more comprehensible, I think. Even today you can go to Rome and see marble statues whose toes are worn down to nubs from the millions of pilgrims who have kissed them. If people were focusing their prayers and affections on people and art instead of God–and worse, the very distraction is right there in church–can’t it be argued that extreme action is necessary? If the statues and paintings of saints were in fact idols, there is pretty strong scriptural support for removing them. Do you think it’s illegitimate for the Reformers to take their inspiration from 2 Chronicles 31:1?
    I think you’re right that you’re never going to totally eradicate sin, and ultimately the most important iconoclasm we can ever undertake is to crucify our old self with Christ. But when Israel turned back to God, it had to get rid of the old idols and remove the temptation to return to old sins. It’s just a symptom, but as your example of illness shows, it’s not wrong to treat the symptoms too . . .

    1. Hey Justin – Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that iconography was often the gateway drug to full blown idolatry (and vice versa). I think there’s tons of biblical precedent for tearing down the external accouterments of pagan worship (asherim, high places, altars, etc.). I was admittedly underplaying this aspect to make a rhetorical point, though I do make a few references to the fact that iconoclasm had at least some merit. My main point was less to say “don’t treat the symptoms at all” and more to say “don’t treat ONLY the symptoms and neglect the core issue of sin.” That was the main point of the analogy.

      I think history (both biblical and modern) bears out the fact that, while tearing up idols IS the right thing to do, it does not really work unless hearts change. For instance, Hezekiah destroyed the high places and asherah (2 Kgs 18), but his pride led to judgment on Judah (2 Chr 32), and his very own son was the notoriously wretched Manasseh, who immediately rebuilt everything, burned children, etc. (2 Kgs 21). The cycle was repeated with Josiah. So, while it was a good thing to address the symptoms of idolatry, the reforms ultimately failed because the root idolatry (rejecting Yahweh) was not addressed with real repentance, etc.

      Same kind of thing with the RCC. It has developed very nuanced official doctrines pertaining to icons, relics, saints, Mary, etc., moving it away from the abuses that led to the Reformation. However, millions of followers (not all, of course) still adhere to the folk elements of relics, apparitions of Mary, worshipping via icons, etc. In fact, in many ways the outward symptoms look improved but the heart issues can be deeper, darker, and more subtle.

      So, yes, give ibuprofen … but ultimately nothing REALLY improves until the virus is killed. Not to press the analogy too far (but I think it’s valid): treating only the symptoms can actually mask an escalating problem underneath.

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