Knox’s graven image
Peter Stanford reflects on the statue of Scotland’s iconoclastic reformer
I CAN’T HELP WONDERING what John Knox would make of his lifesize statue standing against the north wall of the nave of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh’s Old Town, sometimes referred to as ‘the mother church of world Presbyterianism’. The details certainly do justice to what we know of the firebrand preacher and leading light of the Scottish Reformation. In his left hand he grips the Bible – the Sola Scriptura that, according to him and his fellow Protestant reformers across Europe from Luther onwards, was the only basis for discerning how to live a truly Christian life. Knox’s forefinger is leafing through the pages, as if to find a pithy quote to use from the pulpit to damn the ungodly, unscriptural corruption he saw in the behaviour of the papacy, the bishops of his national Church and his Catholic monarch, Mary, Queen of Scots, to whom he refused to bend even an inch in their repeated clashes.
Most arresting, though, is how the sculptor has reproduced Knox’s famously direct gaze. It almost beams out from the statue’s deeply drilled irises, as compelling as it is (almost) alarming. But that is not what is most troubling about the statue. It is something more fundamental. Knox is on record time after time as decrying the presence of any statues in churches, regarding them as akin to the graven images condemned in Scripture, in the Ten Commandments. When he became Minister of St Giles in 1559, it took a full nine days to clear all signs that this had once been a ‘puddle of papistry’ as he referred to the Church of Rome. Statues, stained glass and silver were removed.
Some fifty stone subsidiary altars, each with its own sets of vestments and silverware, were destroyed, pillars were painted green and walls were whitewashed before the texts of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments were inscribed onto them…
Peter Stanford is a writer and journalist. This article is an extract from The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through 20 Buildings, published by Hodder and Stoughton in October
This is an extract from an article published in the October 2021 edition of Reform