On vandals and revolutionaries

Two thousand years ago a tribe called Vandals originating somewhere in the Southern Scandinavia, took a long road South, and after years of being pushed by enemy forces here and there finally stopped in Northern Africa. In the V century they seized the eternal city and looted or destroyed some of the heritage of the ancient Rome. Today the historians are no longer convinced of the latter. But in the international vocabulary a vandal is someone, who destroys or damages things of value. Those may be things of money value as well as of historical value.

Travelling the world here and there we hear of cases of damage or destruction of things of religious or historical value (or both) because they were no longer politically correct. (A modern word, but describing the issue well.) A kind of revolutionary vandalism. 

On our last year trip to Japan we heard of cases, when the whole castle complexes were destroyed or severely damaged during the so-called Meiji restoration only because they belonged or were erected by the shogunate. Meiji restoration describes the time period in the Japanese history, when the emperor after years of being only a symbolic figure preceded by militaries (shoguns) who effectively ruled the country, took back the main power. Today, the Japanese government puts much effort and funds to restore those historical buildings that were not fully destroyed. One of them is the very impressive Himeji castle >>>.


The Himeji castle, a white castle on a hill. Although a shogun never lived there, through years of the Japanese history it belonged to the Japanese militaries. In the Meiji period it did not share the fate of some other shogunate castles that had been fully destroyed. A prominent Japanese colonel put much personal effort to preserve it. Today the castle is one of three most important Japanese castles with national heritage status. 

The first time I realised the scale of the revolutionary vandalism in Europe was as I spent some time in the German city of Muenster. For longer time I was convinced that the local cathedral was a Protestant one. My reasoning was simple. The Protestant churches are more austere than the Catholic ones. You will not see there some of the iconography specific for the Catholic religion. The interior was for me too austere to be of a Catholic cathedral. I was wrong. The shortage of objects I missed inside was quickly explained to me by my German colleagues.

In the XVI century as the wave of reformation went through the Western Europe, the city that was traditionally Catholic was seized by an Anabaptist sect. They burned most of the objects of the Catholic symbolism (and many other objects and books of historical value). The city inhabitants finally (quite brutally) got rid of the sect leaders, but the damage was irreparable.


The Muenster cathedral. Much of its interior decorations was devastated and burned by an Anabaptist sect that seized the city.

Another and a very prominent example is the famous Notre Dame of Paris >>> that was once devastated by Huguenots (Calvinists) acting on the wave of the European reformation. The second wave of destruction came with the French revolution.


The interior of the famous Notre Dame of Paris. Some damage was brought to it by the World War II operations, but not as much as the damage incurred in times of the European reformation and later the French revolution. The reconstruction of the damage by the French authorities took years and many funds. Talking the WWII damage it is worth to know, that besides some exceptions like bombing of the historical city of Dresden in Germany, the allied anti Nazi forces with time learned to avoid bombing of places of historical value. 

Of other approaches towards buildings that were no longer politically correct but of practical value I have heard about while traveling Europe was the practice of turning them into prisons. That what was not done by reformatory and revolutionaries was done by the prisoners (like at the Mont St. Michel monastery in France >>> or the Durham cathedral in England >>>). Funds were ultimately raised to repair the damage. Today, both are on the international heritage lists and are attracting tourists from all over the world.


The interior of the Durham cathedral in England. Much damage was incurred to it in times as it served a prison for Scottish fighters, who were held there in truly cruel and humiliating conditions. Today, the place is on the absolutely must-see list in England. 

But yet another practice was widespread among, let us say more subtle revolutionaries, that if we put proper attention we can see while sightseeing in Europe. I knew of the practice, but the details I usually discovered when processing the shots back home. The practice is beheading figures that were no longer politically correct. A beheaded figure of a saint is no longer a saint. The similar practice was castration of male statues like the one ordered by one of the popes in Vatican (in Angels and Daemons, Robert Langdon calls it ‘the great castration’). This kind of damage is often not repaired by the authorities. But at least we can realise that the practice of destruction of that what belonged to the past took place. Watching this from today’s perspective we know, although some reasoning was behind it, the revolutionary vandalism was by definition false.


A wooden door of the Gothic cathedral in French Beauvais >>>. The reliefs are still in tact, but the heads of some figures were cut off.


A relief on a tomb carved in the Manueline style (late Portuguese Gothic >>>) that can be admired in the Alcobaca monastery in Portugal >>>. The tombs are true pieces of art. But if we look closely we can see hat the most of the figures had been beheaded.


A stained glass I photographed in one of the chapels of the York Minster in England >>>. The face of the figure left was removed. The only one in tact is the one on the right hand side. The beheading took place as England changed from Catholicism to Anglicanism.

And yet another example. Sightseeing in Rome we are often told by the guides that through ages using old artifacts as a source of building materials was a common practice in Rome. But sometimes, these were not just building materials. Visiting the Pantheon, we focus simply on its great decorations. But something is missing. These are the bronze reliefs that once decorated the ceiling of the dome. Some time ago (during the reign of Pope Urban VIII) these together with bronze adorning, which covered the columns and ceiling of the Portico, were cut out, melted and used to build canons for the Castel Sant’Angelo as well as the Baldachin above St Peter’s tomb in St Peter’s Basilica (by Bernini).


The Pantheon of Rome. Looking up we barely expect that some time ago the dome was stripped of bronze reliefs.

Watching international news we hear of people, who in the name of an ideology destroy artifacts of past times because they are not in line of their value system. Sill in the XXI century the history is repeating itself, although many nations worldwide went through the practice but ultimately put much effort to that what was possible to repair.

Index of posts on Japan >>>, England >>>, France >>> and Italy >>>

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