Christian Vandalism in Europe

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

Detail from a painting by Pedro Berruguete on the life of St Dominic depicting Dominican friars burning heretical books. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The true torchbearers during the Dark Ages were Arabs, Jews, heretics and pagans who kept alive pre-Christian teachings. In western Europe Christianity enforced a monopoly of thought, and the consequence of this was that Western Christendom spent the Middle Ages in abject ignorance, regarded by Byzantines and Muslims alike as hopeless philistines. Pope Paul II, a nepotist and murderer, epitomised Western Christianity at the end of the medieval period. When in 1466 the historian Bartolomeo Platina commented on his ignorance, His Holiness had him imprisoned and tortured. The same pope suppressed the Roman Academy, which he thought encouraged paganism, and also banned the reading of ancient poets by Roman children.

Church vandalism continued for centuries after the Middle Ages. The canopy under the dome of the present St Peter’s is made from 200 tons of bronze stripped from the Pantheon in the sixteenth century (the rest reputedly went to make papal canon). Construction of St Peter’s had been started by Bramante. He destroyed much that could have been preserved from the old basilica, and pillaged various old buildings for marble and other materials. Raphael, who took over after his death, called him Ruinante. Roman Christians were not content with destroying their own city. Rome, the Eternal Parasite, is still furnished with treasures pillaged from elsewhere. There are for example more large obelisks in Rome than remain in Egypt.

Book burning — that favourite activity of the Christians throughout the Dark Ages — continued throughout the Middle Ages. Medieval Christians claimed that Holy Books could be easily identified because they would not burn. It was the same technique supposedly used by early Christians to determine the cannon of the New Testament – Heretical books burned: Holy books did not. As Voltaire noted, it is a great pity that this simple method of distinguishing the two no longer works – Holy Testaments have burned just as well as heretical ones since the end of the Middle Ages. In any case, this supposed method enabled Churchmen like Saint Dominic to destroy any book they wanted, and acclaim their vandalism as proof of heretical content.

When 240 wagonloads of Jewish books were burned in 1242 the incident provoked an official inquiry. A committee, including the great churchman Albertus Magnus, was appointed by Pope Innocent IV. The committee approved of the destruction of the books. As a result more mass burnings were held. Talmudic studies were banned, and centres of Jewish scholarship were destroyed. In 1415 a papal bull forbade Jews to possess or read the Talmud. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish books, including rare manuscripts, were burned in Italy by the Roman Inquisition. In 1629 an Italian cardinal could boast of having collected 10,000 Jewish books for destruction9. Classical books, if discovered, were burned or hidden, Arabic books were burned, heretical books were burned, books exposing forgery and corruption were burned, books containing original thought were burned. Not only were factual information and opinions in need of suppression. Some churchman could generally be found to condemn any item of innocent fun, amusement, interest or beauty. In 1497 the Christian citizens of Florence were inspired by the Friar Savonarola (and armed guards) to burn material possessions. Countless works of art went onto a “bonfire of the vanities”. Pictures, books, musical instruments, songs, poems, even jewellery — all were consigned to the flames. Known books included works by Ovid, Cicero, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Poliziano. One bonfire, lit on Shrove Tuesday 1497, was 100 feet wide and sixty feet high. The crowd sang Te Deum laudamus as it burned.

Soon the Church would be suppressing nudity too. Paul IV (pope 1555-1559), defaced many statues and paintings by covering up or painting over disconcerting genitals. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel was sanitised in this way, the artist who carried out the task, Daniel of Volterra, earning the nickname il braghettone (“the trouserer”). Innocent X (pope 1644-1655) installed metal fig leaves on the nude statues in the Vatican.

Numerous keen Christians have occupied their time in chipping the genitals off male statues throughout Christendom. This is one of the areas where Protestants and nonconformists have excelled Roman Catholics. In the nineteenth century notable figures like Comstock campaigned in the USA to protect the public from much of the greatest art ever produced. Others established pressure groups to clothe animals and to suppress other manifestations of vice.

Such distinctively religious attitudes persisted throughout the twentieth century and beyond. In 1996 devout American Christians mounted a campaign to have two statues used at the Olympic Games covered up. They were offended that representations of human figures should be furnished with genitalia. Not so long before that the Australian authorities had impounded a copy of Michelangelo’s David on the grounds that it was indecent. In 2005, officials in Bartholomew County, Indiana, required copies of classical art to be moved out of public view because they would be considered obscene under Indiana law. The statutes included copies of Michelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo.

Ancient monuments throughout Europe also suffered at the hands of Christians. Following the methods advocated by Pope Gregory I, wherever the Church spread it destroyed or took over the sites held holy by the local inhabitants. In Britain the traditional holy sites included yew groves, which helps to explain why yew trees are so common in English churchyards to this day. Neolithic stones were revered too. Churches were often built next to them in the hope that they would inherit the stones’ sanctity. In this way the Church could represent itself as belonging to an existing sacred tradition. Christian churches were sometimes built within ancient circles.

In later centuries, when the population had been converted and the earlier beliefs forgotten the Church could denounce the ancient stones as satanic, and set about destroying them. Many ancient standing stones were vandalised by the Church on this pretext. Lacking the elementary technology for splitting them, priests often had them tipped over or buried in pits. Later, they rediscovered an ancient method of breaking up large stones. They lit a fire around the stones, then doused them with water so that the thermal shock splintered them. The practice was called stone killing. It was popular wherever ancient stones were to be found, and its religious significance was clearly recognised.

Everywhere the Church took hold, it made a point of either adopting local gods as saints or denouncing them as satanic. Sacred trees, groves and other sites were desecrated everywhere. St Martin had felled holy trees in Gaul in the fourth century. John of Ephesus felled them in Asia Minor in the sixth century. Other zealous Christians committed arboreal genocide all around the Mediterranean. In the 770s a holy wood at Eresburg, also sacred to the Saxons, was taken in battle by Charlemagne. The victorious Christian forces destroyed the holy Irminsul, a tall pillar in the wood representing the world-tree Yggdrasil. Surviving Saxon boys were carried off to be indoctrinated and trained as missionaries.

Without Christianity the European patrimony from the ancient world might have been ten times what it is; perhaps a hundred times; perhaps a thousand times; perhaps more. We shall never know.

More detail, with references and photos at

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

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