A Strange Reformation Irony

One of my favourite places to go to is St. Fagans in Cardiff.  When my three children were children in the 1990’s, my wife and I virtually lived there – I mean, we took the children there a lot, not that we went there to escape them!

We went back a year ago with our adopted fourth child, and just loved it; especially to see what had changed and what had delightfully stayed the same.  One of the additions to the Museum, was what looked like, at first glance (or even a long stare), was a plain looking, church-like, chapel kind of building.  It was new to the museum and us, but old in the sense of centuries.  It is St Teilo’s, and it looked very plain and unassuming:


This was a Catholic Church built around the time of the great Thomas Aquinas (late 12th or 13th century), so is very old.  It was now restored and had been relocated to St Fagans, just outside Cardiff.  Inside, it was breathtaking.  A blaze of colour and images telling biblical stories.  All the pictures had been restored – not because they had faded over time, no, no, no.  But because at the 16th century Reformation, the “Reformers” decided that they had had enough of colour and art and imagination, and so, whitewashed the walls (that’s why many Protestant churches and chapels are plain, oh so plain)!!



I was irked and very annoyed to be a Protestant at that time.  It was quite something to experience – and, to sooth my ontological angst, the member of staff on duty was excellent and up-to-speed on her Reformation-Catholic knowledge, which helped, so well done St Fagans!

Having said all that, another favourite place of mine was visiting the Reformation Wall at Geneva, built between 1909 and 1917, during my 2017 Sabbatical from pastoral ministry,  What a place and what a city (very expensive cheese – but so worth the inevitable cheese-sweat)!

In the city, I found the magnificent Wall, Calvin’s church (near Purgatory Street); the Reformation Museum and even Calvin’s grave:



Below is a picture of me at the Wall taken by my daughter (above):

The central group represents the four great preachers: William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox, all four dressed in the “Geneva dress” and holding the little Bible of the people in their hands.  The berk on the left is me, holding a pamphlet about something-or-other.

It was a very special time, and although I’m a (UK) Baptist, I’m certainly not a card carrying Calvinist, as my tradition would suggest.  But, to be in that place was wonderful.  So, what’s the connection?

What is the connection between a whitewashed Catholic Church at St Fagans from 12th century Wales, to the Reformation Wall that was built to commemorate the Tectonic shift in Europe in the 16th century?  A Tectonic shift caused by a reaction to abuses of the Catholic Church regarding the Christianised peasants of Christendom and their eternal security in the selling of Indulgences, a kind of ‘buy-now-get-saved-later’ kind of deal – hideous!  Oh how the Good Shepherd roared like a Lion at the distortion of His Gospel!

Here’s the ironic connection:

In mid-July 2019, the monument had been covered in multi-colour paint.  Whoever it was or they were, God love them (and He does), were certainly no Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

Most news outlets I’ve found have likened the colour-splash to a “rainbow” and so indicted the LGBT community, but to-date, no-one knows and as far as I can tell, know one has confessed; still, it’s not the greatest rainbow I’ve ever seen!


If this is a protest it is pretty lame.  But whatever!

I think, despite the “lack of historical respect” (which it is) it actually looks alright (for the time being).  If it is a “protest” it could have been worse (we all prefer paint to ISIS rockets)!  If this is an LGBT protest (or any other protest), then please give us some words to go with the paint splash!   Tell the world what and why – anyone can splash stones with paint – if anything, it makes an inability to argue your case more obvious!  What do the protesters want, whoever you are?  What’s the goal?  Everyone to be like you and think like you no questions asked (which sounds like a Communist (left) or Fascist (right) dictatorship).  Were you annoyed like I was at St Teilos in Cardiff?

But the irony is this:  The Reformation’s Iconoclastic view unleashed oceans of white paint on Catholic churches (like St Teilo’s), a way of telling them they didn’t like Catholic art or images (and according to the infallible Wikipedia iconoclasm is “the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons” – sounds like Islamic fundamentalism to my ears)!  Any Reformation student will know that this was understood to counter the idolatry and various other abuses of the Medieval Catholic Church, and maybe they had a point, but from my perspective, it went too far, too quickly and without enough sophisticated distinction – which coming from the clever men(!) of the Reformation, was quite the blind spot.

And now, the Memorial to the Reformation, as magnificent as it is, is now covered in glorious techni-colour in a 21st century protest.

The Reformation was a Church family argument; an in-house dispute; a sibling bickering.  But what is this paint thing really?  It all seems rather self-promoting and self-defeating.   The German poet Goethe once said that “he who cannot draw on three thousand years [of history] in living from hand to mouth.”    Is this all about the imposing one view over another?  A power game?  Is it a forgetting of history?

Anthony Thiselton in his 2017 Doubt, Faith & Certaintyrightly tells us that wisdom is communal and corporate, and “related to past generations” (p.36) i.e. it’s for all of us and about all of us, and this means we reject ideological tribalism, preferred social constructs and a demonising that amounts to a crass scapegoating of individuals or communities.  We need more light (wisdom), not more paint!

The Reformers needed more light and less white paint back in the day.  And those who splashed the magnificent statues likewise need more light and less rainbow paint in our day.

If the Reformers were alive today, they would turn in their graves, scrub the damn paint off and demand a good old-fashioned argument, even if Calvin would be the first to say he looks fabulous in red and yellow – but that’s a moot point.


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