VENERATION OF STATUES, ICONS AND IMAGES

 

A Little Bit of History

One mark that distinguishes the Catholic Church from many Protestant churches is its use of statues, icons and sacred images. Catholic Churches are usually ornamented with statues in both the exterior of the buildings, as well as the interior - in the hallways, the altar, in the social hall, even in recreation rooms and dining areas. A large crucifix is usually present at or near the altar. The walls often carry relief images of the Stations of the Cross, and in some really large churches, even the ceilings contain religious paintings by celebrated artists. Its windows and doors contain magnificent stained-glass images that depict memorable scenes in the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles or the Saints. Surrounded by such lavish display of artwork, one can tell and feel right away that he or she is in a Catholic Church when he or she is inside one.

Today the Catholic Church's use of statues, icons and sacred images is still being criticized by other Christians (mainly the Protestants) as a practice opposed to Holy Scripture. However, this objection is not a new one. In the eight century there were heretics in the Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantine Empire) who felt that it was sinful to venerate images. Their opposition to this practice of venerating images reached its peak when they got the support of then Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian who issued an edict (A.D. 726) ordering all religious images to be destroyed throughout the Empire. This heresy, which aimed at the destruction of all religious images, came to be known in history as iconoclasm. It became violent because it turned into hostility and persecution of the icon venerators. Of course, the then Pope Gregory II opposed the edict of Emperor Leo III. St. John Damascene (676-750), a Father and Doctor of the Church, supported him in the campaign against this heresy. Just to make the story short, Iconoclasm was finally condemned by the Second Council of Nicaea in A.D. 787.

In the sixteenth century the iconoclast movement came back with the Protestant Reformation. Unlike Martin Luther, who favored the veneration of images, the other Protestant leaders – John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Müntzer, etc. – were much against it. As in the seventh century, violence also erupted and caused havoc throughout Europe. Today the errors of the iconoclast movement still persist, but the hostility and violence have been subdued.

Reason for the Opposition

Those who oppose the veneration of images believe that the practice of venerating images is idolatrous, for it apparently violates God's commandment: "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Ex 20:3-5).

Defense of the Tradition

The making of icons and images is a practice that is deeply rooted in Catholic Tradition. Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than the religious artworks produced by the early Christians inside the catacombs to embellish the resting places of those who died in the faith. Examples of this type of "catacomb art" are given below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the artwork found in the catacombs we also have the testimony of the Fathers and early Ecclesiastical Writers, such as St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Denis the Areopagite and Severinus, all of whom wrote of the benefits and the goodness that can be derived from the use of sacred Images. It is not necessary to make and repeat the quotations here. The diligent reader can find some of these in St. John Damascene's book, Apologia Against Those who Decry Holy Images, Part I.

Finally, many Catholic Apologists have defended the Tradition of using images by showing how the text from Exodus 20:3-5 has been misread and grossly misinterpreted:

  • The text of Exodus 20:3-5 forbids the worship of images; but it does not forbid the use of images in worshiping God. In fact, if one were to read the book of Exodus just a little farther, he or she will find that God Himself commanded Moses to make two graven images of cherubs (angels), one on each side of the Ark of the Covenant, and facing each other (Ex 25:18-20).

  • Note what Exodus 20:4 actually said: "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth." (Italics added). If this be interpreted as forbidding the making of Holy Images, then it also forbids the making of practically all images, including the images of earthly things. But we know that when King Solomon built his Temple in Jerusalem, he lavishly decorated it with statues of angels, a brazen sea, graven images of oxens, and he lined the tops of the columns with images of pomegranates and lily blossoms (See 3 Kgs 7:13-51). Was God displeased? On the contrary, He approved it (3 Kgs 9:1-3).

Bust of Christ, 4th Century Mural Painting

Catacomb of Commodilla

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

The Good Shepherd, Mid-3rd Century 

At Ceiling of the Catacomb of St. Callistus

Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org

The Molten Sea

One of the Ornaments in King Solomon's Temple

Image source link: marysrosaries.com

The Ark of the Covenant

Images of cherubs added by God's Instruction

Image source link: marysrosaries.com

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