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The Sacrifice of Images

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

In the hearts of squares, the palaces were stirring. Columns of rebels were already charging into the mist where streetlamp globes bobbed uncertainly like ripe oranges destined for the children of princes behind silk and diamond panes. Day had not yet unraveled the tangled branches nor the fountains writ their tracery beneath the winter sky. But a rumor had taken hold of those great spaces where the city drew breath: avenues and roundabouts where gods dwelled, broad clearings in the close elms, plazas with reflecting pools where gatherings of stone emote.

By all appearances, life went on, trade threatened little by the fever that had seized so many humble folk. None could have foreseen such ardor for slaughter in these good people whose unspoken hatred had ripened over the course of centuries, forming a face closed to kindness.

Volunteers climbed toward the cathedral, accompanying their song with the clamor of tumbrels. Clumsily, motorized winches took their places. Ladders soared up and latched onto pinnacles. Like a net tautened by a struggling bird, bundles of rigging hugged the statues atop the highest triforia.

Along the river, the broad windows of the national palace opened on a harsh light. Crowds were filling the galleries and some busied themselves by hurling, from the casements, paintings whose frames shattered on the sidewalks. Armed groups coursed through opulent abodes denounced for their works of art. A lone statue in a square drew a crowd like that for a lost child, or a madman. Quarriers soon reduced it to an

unthinking bollard. They seemed driven to sledgehammer the faces on the fountains back into the depths of stone.

Blazes broke out on the doorsteps of peaceful museums hidden by courtyards. Varnish on old paintings crackled merrily like pinecones in a fire. A powerful joy seized the manufacturers and shopkeepers whose brows buzzed with bills and calendars. Elated by the rioting, children danced in circles. A choice spectacle that exhausted its material on the first day—exhausted it forevermore—was the obliteration of stained glass windows in a fireworks of multicolored ornament.


No doubt the people’s rage sometimes struck master and epigone alike. No doubt searches conducted on the pretext of tracking down images soon took on a different character. Yet soon the visionaries announced that this spontaneous insurgency, arising from the most sensible strata of society, had found support and effective direction, and that its goals had been, in the main, accomplished. An important note, then: sculptures in plaster or bronze that bourgeois mantelpieces or the altars of saints had placed before our eyes daily now received only the odd blow, whereas a monk by a Flemish Old Master, a lemon or an apple by a 17th century French intimist, provoked a rare fury.

One imagines Soong porcelain irritated the Tartars in much the same fashion. And indeed, these excesses took a Great Wall as their target: that which the scandalous production of images had traced across the landscape of history.

And what if such a wall had unfurled its length under all the heavens, irrefutably separating two races each with their own laws, their way of understanding life, housing, horticulture? Those on one side would have been but vaguely aware of the others’ offensive silence, in the distance, thanks to the stone’s thickness. Their towers, their sooty twilights crisscrossed with explosions, would not have been the target of philosophers’ provocations.

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