Sacred Images – The Veneration of Images Honors the Reality They Represent

In my last post I reviewed the charge made by some that Catholics “leave out” the commandment that forbids creating images, and why that claim is false.  In this post, I will review why we do make sacred images and venerate them, and how we understand that does not violate God’s command to not make or bow down to an idol. 

The specific text of the commandment in question comes from Exodus 20:4-5 “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” 

The word “graven” simply means an image that is carved or sculpted.  Not all translations use the word graven; some simply state you are not to make an image.  Whether or not the image is carved and three dimensional or something like a painting and two dimensional does not really seem to be the question.  The “or any likeness of anything” would cover either. 

The commandment is basically in two parts – first you are not to make images that are the likeness of anything – whether it be something in heaven, on earth, or from the waters under the earth.  The second part is you are not to bow down and serve them. 

When placed into the culture of the time, we can see quite clearly why this command immediately follows verse 3 – “You shall have no other gods before me.”  In the pagan cultures surrounding Israel, it was common practice to construct a carved image and believe it was truly a god, and to offer worship and sacrifice to the image.  St. Paul notes this in Acts 17:24-25,29 and contrasts these actions with faith in the one true God – “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything….Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.”  We see the Israelites revert to the pagan ways of the Egyptians when in the desert they chose to construct a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32).  The message God is clearly trying to send is this practice is not acceptable – that He alone is God and He alone is to be worshipped.  This is why Catholics view the text to not create images or worship them as implicitly being part of the first commandment.

One of the things I have always found interesting about the view Catholics somehow frequently break this commandment and even encourage the practice is the fact most Christian groups simply do not take this commandment literally.  The commandment plainly states you are to make no likeness of anything – that seems to be pretty much ignored by all.  Churches that would never have a statue within their church often display Nativity sets on the lawn at Christmas time.  Many have stained glass images within their churches.  You can often find children’s Bibles with pictures in them.  I see all kinds of angel statues in Christian bookstores.  Even items like a painting of a landscape is a likeness of something on earth.  A complete adherence to the letter of the law here should require no images of anything, to include no photographs of people, no stuffed animals for kids etc.  Most Christian groups clearly understand this commandment is not applicable to us in a literal sense, as they make many images of many things.  But they will often point out they don’t worship these images, with the implication Catholics do.

The spirit of the law of this commandment is clear – it’s about having nothing before God.  We can make “gods” of many things in our lives and place them before God – money, relationships, power, pride, etc.  A focus on simply the literal words about not making an image can allow us to miss the heart of the commandment – only God is God and nothing can come before Him. 

God Himself commanded the creation and use of images, which is another way we can understand His words about making images are limited to a specific context and application.  In Exodus 25:18-20, God told Moses to construct the worship space of the Israelites in the desert and to craft two majestic cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant.  1 Kings 6:23-25 describes the temple built by Solomon has multiple carved cherubim carved on the walls and doors. 

In the desert when the Israelites began to complain against God, he sent poisonous serpents that bit them, and they began to die.  They repented, and asked Moses to intercede for them with God.  God had Moses make the image of a snake and set it on a pole, and if someone was bitten and looked at the image, they would live (Numbers 21:4-9).  We learn in the New Testament this image is a “type” of Christ – it points to him.  John 3:14-15 tells us “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

Later in the history of the Israelites, we learn they began to worship the image of the serpent, so King Hezekiah broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).  We can clearly see even something commanded by God can be misused.  That does not however lead to a conclusion we should try to remove from our lives anything that could be misused.  What would we have left? 

So, is there a proper use of religious images that can enhance our relationship with God and each other?  As Catholics we would say yes, and this question was resolved at the seventh ecumenical council, the second Council of Nicaea in 787.  As with most councils, it was convened because a heresy had taken root and begun to spread – the heresy of iconoclasm.  The Church had used sacred images since its inception, as can be seen in the frescos found in the catacombs and some of the surviving early house churches (the Dura-Europos in Syria is an example).  But in the eighth century, this practice began to be questioned, and iconoclasm – the deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols of the faith began to erupt. 

There is a somewhat mixed history as to the root causes of iconoclasm.  Islam had started to push on the edges of the Christian world, and its explicit ban of the use of images had an impact.  There is some debate whether the rise was due more to its acceptance by many of the clergy, or by Leo III who was the emperor at the time.  In 730, Pope St. Gregory II convoked a local synod and formally condemned iconoclasm as heretical, but the papal letter with this pronouncement never made it to Constantinople. 

Leo III was succeeded by his son, Constantine V, and he was an iconoclast.  He convened his own council in 745 with a select group of bishops, and no representation from any of the five major patriarchs of the church — Rome (the pope), Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem.  This is what is known as a “robber” council because it deliberately excluded leadership from major areas of the church and was not approved by the Pope.  This council simply enacted the will of the emperor, not the Holy Spirit.  The use of images was banned in churches, and over the next many years, much of the religious imagery that had been in churches throughout the Byzantine empire was destroyed. 

In 780, Constantine VI became emperor, but he was still a child.  His mother, Empress Irene petitioned Pope Hadrian to call an ecumenical council to address iconoclasm, which he does.  The second Council of Nicaea convened in 786.  This was a true ecumenical council with representation from the entire Church and accepted by the Pope.  The council ordered sacred images were to be exposed in churches, in houses, by public ways – images of Christ, our Lord, God and Savior, as well as those of Mary, the angels and other saints.  Their reasoning – “The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.  Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.”

As a Catholic I have experienced the reality these images can remind us of Christ, holy men and women, and draw our minds and hearts to God.  And with movements in our country to remove religious imagery from the public realm, Christians seem to come together on this topic perhaps more than in the past.  The idea of venerating these images though is what is often seen as foreign to those not rooted in the ancient church.  They often can’t see how that is different from worship.

The idea of extending honor through an image isn’t really a foreign concept though.  People often display photos of loved ones in places of honor and may even kiss the image.  Few would view that as worship.  In this country, we often honor people by creating statues – the Lincoln Memorial is an example. 

But perhaps one of the best examples of honoring a reality by honoring an image in the United States is the American flag.  We all know it is simply material formed in a certain pattern.  What it represents to those who honor it however is much more.  People understand when they honor the flag they are not elevating a piece of cloth.  They instead honor the reality of what it represents – our country and especially those who have served in the military.  People will stand, remove their hats, put their hand over their heart, and even “pledge allegiance” to the flag.  They also would view when people disrespect the flag, they are not simply desecrating a piece of material.  They would see it as dishonoring the reality it represents.  It’s a very powerful symbol in the culture of the US. 

It is very similar when Catholics venerate statues or icons.  We do know these are simply plaster, or bronze, or whatever material is used.  We know as St. Paul taught “an idol has no real existence,” and there is no God but one (1 Corinthians 8:4-7), so of course it is simply a material item.  But we also understand that through the image, the reality that is represented can be honored.  For example, when the priest or deacon kisses the book of the Gospels after proclaiming the Gospel during Mass, we understand they are not venerating the ink and paper, but rather the reality it represents — the written word of God.

Occasionally you will read about the desecration of a sacred image in the name of “art.”  It is interesting to me how many Christians who do not embrace the concept of venerating sacred images are offended by this.  If they understand so easily how a reality can be dishonored through an image, I am always surprised they can’t understand how the inverse is true and that the reality can also be honored through the image. 

There are those however who view honoring the US flag is akin to worshipping it, and therefore refuse to participate in those common cultural rituals of the US.  The Jehovah Witnesses are an example of a group that holds that view.  While it is certainly their right to not participate, the charge of “worship” is a serious one.  Those who honor the flag in this way would view their actions are not understood correctly.  Likewise, Catholics most certainly view the charge we “worship” idols when we venerate statues or other religious images indicates our actions are not correctly understood.  That does bring us to a larger question however — how do we correctly define and identify what it means to worship?  That topic will be covered in my next post. 

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