Question: In a discussion with a Protestant friend about statues and pictures of the Saints, he made the claim that all images of living things violate the second Commandment, that the early Church did not make religious images, that the Fathers of the Church forbade images, that in 309 AD a Council forbade the placing images in church and lighting of votive candles, and the iconoclasm of the 8th century was a return to authentic Christianity. Any of this true?
Answer: What we refer to as “The Ten Commandments” is a gloss of the first part of Exodus 20 (or Deuteronomy 5), a brief summary of the much longer “Law of Moses” found in those books and in Numbers and Leviticus. What Catholics (and Lutherans, the original Protestants) call the First Commandment, “I am the Lord, thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me,” is a summary of the verses in Exodus 20: 1-5:
From the context, it is clear that the prohibition on images is meant to exclude the worship of idols from among the Israelites. A number of images were made by the Jews at God’s request: golden Angels for the Ark of the Covenant and golden candle sticks for the sanctuary (Ex. 25:10-40); numerous angels, oxen, and lions for the Temple (3 Kings 6:23-29; 7:25 & 29; 1 Para. 28:18-19; 2 Para. 3:10.); lions to support the king’s throne (3 Kings10:19-20); and a brass serpent used by Moses to heal those bitten by asps (Numbers 21:9). None of these items were worshipped as gods, and their manufacture demonstrates that God did not find images offensive per se.
What God did object to was the manufacture of images to be worshipped as gods. Some hold that the golden calf, made in Moses’ absence, while he was receiving the Law, was supposed to be an idol of the true God (there is discussion as to whether or not the grammar of Exodus 32 supports “god” or “gods), but even this was an abomination, reducing the infinite uncreated Spirit to the level of one of His lowly creatures. Before the Incarnation, God had no physical form at all, after which an image might be fashioned.
In Deuteronomy we read:
The observant Jews of biblical times were not content to follow anything less than the absolute letter of the law, and often they did much more. By building a “hedge around the Law,” they were sure of not violating the Law even by accident. If God said, “do not touch the mountain,” they stayed a hundred yards away from its closest point. Even though it was clear that God was prohibiting idolatry, and even though He authorized the creation of numerous images, they weren’t going to create any images at all on their own.
Christianity brought something new. The one true God had taken human form, and had done many things among men that could be represented in stone or in paint. He had also left an organization, His Church, with the authority to speak His mind in His absence. Just as the Church was competent to change the observance of the Lord’s day from Saturday to Sunday, It was competent to acquiesce in the making of images of the Incarnate God; and further in the making of images to remind the faithful of those who cooperated with the Incarnate God, the Saints.
As a persecuted religion, many of the first works of religious art were in the catacombs, the underground burial vaults, protected from interference by Roman law. Archeologists have found virtually every conceivable Christian topic painted in these necropoli. There were even a few statues, even though these were more difficult to produce, and less convenient than paintings on the underground walls.
So, how then did it come to pass that images were prohibited in certain Christian venues? To answer that question it is necessary to realize that the carefully defined, written body of Church teaching that we take for granted in the 21st century did not exist in the early Church—such dogmatic definitions came about only as needed, in response to heretical movements. Early Christians were free to speculate about a number of things which would be reduced to dogmatic definition only many years in the future. The problem with speculation, of course, is that even very intelligent people may speculate incorrectly—even people whom we moderns honor as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church!
At least three heretical currents circulated in the early days of the Church: the Judaising heresy, the idea that Christians were still bound by the Mosaic Law; Manichæism, Gnosticism, or some such philosophy which held that matter is evil and only spirit is good; and rigorism, the perennial idea that “there are not enough rules.”
The Judaising heresy—tendency might be a better word—was the source of a number of Saint Paul’s problems, which were not fully remedied by the Council of Jerusalem which required no more of the gentile Christians than that they “abstain from anything that has been contaminated by idols and from immorality and from anything strangled and from blood.”[i] But not all of the Apostles wanted to argue the point with the converts from Judaism. Saint Peter and Saint Barnabas feigned the practice of the Law before the Jewish converts, for which Paul rebuked the former "to his face ... for I through the Law have died to the Law that I may live with God"[ii] Even Paul himself yielded to the pressure of former Jews and circumcised Saint Timothy.[iii] As late as 385, Pope Siricius held that the ritual impurity of marital love remained a consideration for Christians in the service of the altar.[iv] It is certainly possible that the Mosaic Law’s prohibition of graven images was likewise held applicable to Christians in some places.
Manichæism was just one of a number of dualistic philosophies, popular well into the middle ages (e.g. the Cathari of the thirteenth century), which posited a good god as the creator of spiritual things and a bad god as the creator of material things. Manichæism posited fantastic system of creatures emanating from the good god to do battle with the forces of darkness, which need not concern us. More important is the concept shared with other dualistic philosophies that matter is evil. Matter, and, of course, the human body, which imprisoned a spiritual soul. The cult of iconoclasm, as Saint John Damascene explained, was a natural result of the condemnation of material things.[v]
Spain and Roman North Africa—the two are united by less than fifteen miles of water at Gibraltar—seem to have had more than the normal share of Judaisers, dualists, and rigorists. The Donatists denied the efficacy of the sacraments conferred by those who had lapsed during persecution, the nominal Catholics demanded re-Baptism, the Circumcellions viewed suicide as a sort of Sacrament. Spain would have the dubious distinction of putting the first heretic, a “Gnostic-Manichaean,” Priscillian of Ávila, to death—and Pope Gregory the Great would advise another bishop, “You should, for no reason, receive Africans or other unknown foreigners who seek ecclesiastical orders, because some of the Africans are Manichaeans, [and] others have been re-baptized.”[vi]
With this background in mind, it is not difficult to see how the local synod of Elvira (Illiberis), near Granada, in southern Spain might have made some decisions that were not quite in keeping with the Catholic Faith. The synod decreed severe penances for a number of offences, prohibiting Holy Communion for the repentant even at the point of death (1, 2, 6, 7, 8, etc.).[vii] It demanded that bishops and priests refrain from relations with their wives (33), punishing the cleric if his wife was thereby driven to adultery (65)! The prohibition was not on marriage in order to devote full attention to God, but on marital relations and procreation—it would later be explained to Himerius, Bishop of Tarragona, that such things were an “obscene desire” and brought about a ritual impurity incompatible with the celebration of Mass.[viii] Fasting was day long on Saturdays, except for the weak during July and August (23, 26). The prohibition of votive candles—in cemeteries, during the day—seems to be the condemnation of a common pagan practice (34), and only “those who have suffered from an evil spirit” were enjoined from lighting candles in church (37). Some argue that Elvira did not prohibit the veneration of images, that it was merely seeking to keep sacred scenes from the eyes of the pagans, or seeking to avoid scandal for newly baptized pagans—but the canon seems clear: “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become the objects of worship and adoration” (36)..[ix]
With very few exceptions. the Fathers of the Church had nothing to say about the veneration of images. Clement of Alexandria is often cited as an iconoclast, but he wrote only in criticism of immodest images worn as jewelry.[x] Another, Irenaeus of Lyons, criticized the Gnostics for honoring the images of the pagan philosophers on par with that of Christ.[xi] Tertullian is often cited for criticizing a chalice with the image of a shepherd on it, but the shepherd was not the Good Shepherd but an apocryphal writer who condoned adultery (likely the Shepherd of Hermes)![xii] Origen of Alexandria, did indeed hold that Christians and Jews who made religious images violated the Commandments, but Origen held a number of condemned doctrines—his contempt for the human body went beyond damaging fasts and sleep deprivation to self mutilation.[xiii] The only major example of an otherwise orthodox Catholic author criticizing the veneration of images is in a letter from Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, who took it upon himself to tear down an embroidered curtain hanging in a rural church.[xiv]
In spite of these very few variations, it has been overwhelmingly the practice of the Church to decorate churches, homes, and cemeteries with likenesses meant to call to mind our Lord and the saints. Only God is worshipped; the saints are merely held in veneration of their holy lives so that we may remember to emulate their deeds.
The Council of Trent
[ii] Galatians ii: 11-21
[iii] Acts xvi: 3.
[iv] Letter of Pope Siricius to Bishop Himerius of Tarragona, Robert Somerville and Bruce Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 36-39 http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon%20Law/Decretals/SiriciusDecretal.htm
[v] St. John Damascene, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images http://www.balamand.edu.lb/uob/theology/Joicons1.htm.
[vii] Numbers in parenthesis refer to the Canons of Elvira, Josep Vilella - Pere-Enric Barreda, «Los cánones de la Hispana atribuidos a un Concilio Iliberritano. Estudio filológico», Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 78 (2002), pp. 545-579. Universitat de Barcelona, Facultat de Geografia i Història, http://www.ub.es/grat/grat48.htm
[viii] Pope Siricius, ibid.
[x] Clement of Alexandria, "Paedagogus" ("the Instructor.") Ch. XI
[xi] Iranæus, Against the Heresies, Book I Chapter XXV.
[xii] Tertullian "on Modesty." Chapter X.
[xiii] Origen, "contra Celsus" Book VII Chapter LXII. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (H.E.), Book VI, chapters 3 and 8.
[xiv] Saint Jerome, Letter LI. From Epihanius, Bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus, to John, Bishop of Jerusalem.
[xv] Council of Trent, Session XXV, 4 December 1563.