Symbolic structures and objects spurring controversies.

Alec Bliss-Pryor and Piotr Jankowski

Arc 134 – Paper 2

October 18, 2013

The historical topics are set to explain how, throughout different time periods, symbolic structures or objects have spurred controversy. Beginning with protestant reformation in the early 1500s, which revealed a shift in the public’s social needs. The protestant religious sect of Christianity rewrote the rules of what symbols can be worshipped. Protestant church design embodied a different way of memorializing god from the Catholic Church. The French Revolution exemplifies a political public opposition to monarchy by destroying statues and structures that represented monarchial figures. When the new democratic government formed on Paris, crowds of Parisians destroyed anything erected in honor of despotism. Contemporary memorials, such as the Vietnam War Memorial and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, deal with more economic, political and social problems. Memorializing WWII, in particular, creates controversies because individual affected groups seek equal representation.

Protestant Reformation

England; Early 1500s; Nieuwe Kerk, Pieter Noorwits; Notre Dame Cathedral, Maurice de Sully

Iconoclasm is the intentional destruction of a culture’s own icons and monuments, it is a challenging of current conventions based on social, political and economic motives.  In the early 16th century, protestant reformation created a steep division in the Christian faith.  England broke from the Catholic Church and set out to teach Christianity in a different way.  1548 marked a high pitch for the reformation as “royal injunctions ordered the removal of all images from English churches” (Piar).  The religious view of Protestants found that images of saints and crosses detracted from the one true god.  The now controversial Catholic Church designs called for a radical transformation.  The changes resulted in “the defacement of baptismal fonts, the destruction of stained glass windows, the whitewashing of pictorial depictions on walls, the painting over, or actual removal of, mounted crosses depicting the crucifixion of Jesus known as roods” (Piar).  The injunctions were eventually repealed to restore images, but iconoclastic activity sporadically spurred conflict throughout the 16th and 17th century as England sought a Protestant identity.  The Protestant Reformation exemplifies how the social aspects of religion can initiate a controversy over existing iconography.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Maurice de Sully

The controversial use of imagery also led to different ways of designing the Protestant Church.  The shifting religious protestant perspective found much of the iconography used in Catholic Church design as controversial.  Architects designed Protestant churches that reconfigured and stripped the “art and liturgical elements from Catholic churches in order to make them better preaching halls” (Stroik 429).  Protestant churches differed from the Catholic Church in design by emphasizing the pulpit rather than the altar, which meant the preacher was given more attention than the symbol of Christ.  As Protestants experimented in church designs, Catholics stuck mainly with traditional church architecture.  Even today Catholic churches follow “various aspects of tradition, such as high altars, crucifixes, and statues,” although they are represented in a more modern aesthetic and material (Stroik 429).  Memorials are pedagogical devices and the Protestant religion sought to make the houses in which Christians memorialize god more about the education of Christianity than the corrupt practices befalling the Catholic Church.

The Nieuwe Kerk, by architect Pieter Noorwits

The difference in church design and features can be clearly distinguished in plan.  Catholic Church architecture is argued as a better fulfillment of the plan of god.  The stained glass windows and high ceilings draw sights up towards the heavens (Pope).  This technique supported the notion that, according to the bible, Christians must seek things above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand.  Another architecture typology commonly associated with Catholic Churches is the cross shape plan.  Churches are constructed as crosses because Christians must only glory in the cross of Jesus Christ (Pope).  The Notre Dame in Paris is an excellent example of how the altar is placed along the main axis and the overall design conforms to the cross shape.  Whereas Catholics sought to physically replicate heaven in their church design, Protestants broke from convention and found new ways to organize church program.  Common to Protestant church design was the centralized plan.  The Nieuwe Kerk, by architect Pieter Noorwits, exemplifies the new direction of the Protestant church.  The plan comprised of “two octagonal spaces connected by a slightly narrower rectangular space where the pulpit was positioned, thus still complying to the protestant ideal of a centralized church” (Archimon).  The protestant reformation marked a period of public action against the Catholics, which ultimately transformed into a different way of designing how people worship Christianity.

French Revolution and Paris Commune

Paris, France; Late 18th Century

Burning of the Tuileries Palace

Beginning in the late 17th Century, the French Revolution led to the destruction of political monuments and structures because of their relation to monarchy.  This sudden spark of iconoclasm followed the collapse of the monarchy in France, which signified a major political shift.  Mobs stormed the city and tore down statues of “Henry IV, Louis XIII, XIV and XV […] to uproot all royal prejudice” (Idzerda 16).  In order for the monarchy to disappear the people felt that all symbols of monarchy had to disappear as well.  The new principles of liberty and equality found the previous symbolic monuments of ostentation, prejudice and tyranny in conflict with the new ideals of the communes.  The period during the French Revolution in which symbolic buildings, monuments and images were uncontrollably destroyed represents how controversy erupts from political change.

Destruction of the Vendome Column

Almost a century following the iconoclastic rampage of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune found more political structures and statues under fire.  A primary example comes from the destruction of the Tuileries Palace, which served as the center of French political activities.  The burning of this palace as a political symbol attests to the hatred felt by the new commune (Landoli 990).  The iconoclasm again spread to political statues as well.  The destruction of the Vendome Column at the Place Vendrome embodied a separation from the ideas of war and conquest from Napoleon’s empire (Selwyn-Holmes).  The French Revolution and Paris Commune challenged the parts of their society which were idolized most.  The lavish government buildings and imposing monarchial figures throughout Paris became problematic because their ideals became outdated.  Change usurps controversy.

The destruction of political figures’ statues is not uncommon in modern society.  U.S. intervention in Iraq led to the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein, which preceded the symbolic toppling of his statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad.  Kadom al-Jabouri recalls how “It was just me at first. Then 30 of us. Then 300. In the end there were thousands in the square” (Beaumont).  Crowds gathered to watch their dictator’s statue topple as they look to establish a new democratic government.  The fall of Saddam’s statue further reveals how symbols become controversial once the political views of the public change.

Contemporary Memorials

Washington DC; Berlin, Germany; 1980s-Present

Vietnam War Memorial Site Plan

In the 1980s, construction of the well-known Vietnam War Memorial began with a large design competition.  The winner was Maya Lin’s “Wall,” which quickly drew attention and controversy among the public as well as the Committee of Fine Arts.  Starting with political controversy, the design was initially criticized as a “black gash of shame” and an insult to the veterans (Gallagher).  The controversial contemporary design reached a compromise by implementing a statue and flag.  Lin, however, deeply disapproves of the changes as they alter the nature of her design.  Additionally, the implementation of a women’s memorial followed the official opening of the Vietnam Memorial.  Women veterans felt excluded from a memorial that recognized the Veterans as a whole rather than individually.  The Vietnam War memorial became a debate not only because of exclusion, but by proposing a different and more symbolic interpretation of remembrance. Memorials to World War II have recently found similar controversy in groups that feel unrecognized as victims of the holocaust.

Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism

Homosexuals and gypsies were also tragic victims of the Holocaust, which is overlooked in memorialization.  The homosexuality memorial in Berlin can be seen as underwhelming when compared to the neighboring Holocaust memorial in Berlin.  The ‘Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism’ is described as “a single, towering, unmarked block of concrete, nestled away in a nondescript enclave of the famous Tiergarten” (Ward).  The discreet nature and simplicity of the design may have been purposeful, but the disparity in representation is enough for to call into question why one social group deserves more praise.  Romanians have felt a lack of recognition in a different sense.  The country of Romania has had mixed feelings even towards the existence of the Holocaust.  Recently, a monument dedicated to some 300,000 Jews and Gypsies was opened in Romania.  Radu Ioanid, who has written several books on the Romanian Holocaust states “It is important that Romania acknowledges its past. It’s not an easy past, there are still people opposing this” (Holocaust Memorial).  Romania’s Holocaust memorial is still in contention due to the nation’s past political changes.  New educational programs hope to inform the divided public about the truth.  The Romanian government is now seen as “a young democracy dealing with history that was ignored by the Communists” (Holocaust Memorial).  The denial of the Holocaust’s existence as well as the exclusion of homosexuals as victims has obviously changed as contemporary times have altered society’s perception of those social groups.

A controversy aroused also during the recent opening of the New Belgian Holocaust Museum. People think that the memory is lost in the museum and that it is not dedicated only to the holocaust. The exhibitions show the holocaust only in terms of a murderer not killing of the population, which also induced critiques.


Controversy is a sum of social, political and economic influences, but the symbols or structures that act as the catalyst erupt from society’s evolution.  The Catholic Church was only modified to the more simple Protestant church design because ostentatious walls and murals were no longer relevant.  The political uprising in Paris questioned the relevancy of the remnants of the oppressive monarchy.  Memorials in the present face a much more complex relevancy as they are only as successful as their relation to their tragic event.  As long as society changes, controversy will always find relevance.



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Gallagher, Edward. “The Vietnam Wall Controversy.” History on Trial. Lehigh University Digital Library, n.d. Web. 7 Oct 2013.


“Commune of Paris.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 07 Oct. 2013. <>.


Piar, Carlos. “Idolatry: Icons and Iconoclasm.” Sites of Cultural Stress from Reformation to Revolution. Folger Institute, n.d. Web. 7 Oct 2013.


Idzerda, Stanley. “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution.” American Historical Review. 60.1 (1954): 13-26. Web. 7 Oct. 2013. <>.


“Editorial: the capitulation of Paris.” Guardian [Manchester] 2 Mar 2012, n. pag. Web. 7 Oct. 2013. <>.


Stroik, Duncan. “Commentary.” Material Religion: . 7.3 429-431. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <>.


“Holocaust Memorial Unveiled in Romania.” Jewish World. Associated Press, 09 Oct 2009. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <,7340,L-3787227,00.html>.


Ward, Julian. “Mixed Feelings at Berlin’s Gay Memorial.” Forget the Box. N.p., 19 Jun 2012. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <>.

Zazner, Alexander. “New Belgian Holocaust Museum opening” <>


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