What follows is an attempt to chart the waters on what I feel is a healthy attitude to imagery in the Church. Different traditions have varying positions on the use of images, they also have different ideas on what they think others believe on this too. Any cursory glance online on this topic will highlight this and it is generally framed in the reductionistic context of whether someone is an iconoclast or an iconodule in the eyes of an interrogator. This is, therefore, my attempt at collating and distilling various material I have been reading recently on the topic for posterity and in an attempt to unify the disparate factors I have been considering on this topic.
I will try and keep this brief in comparison to the standard of my earlier writing on baptism. I will also attempt to keep the better part of any original thinking on this until taking in the whole sum during the conclusion, although it will be hard not to comment on various statements I have collated and will quote. I will offer merely at the outset, however, what I understand of the term image. This is any artifice fashioned in the likeness or depiction of a living creature based on the 2nd commandment.
You shall not make for yourself a carved 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 nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
Exodus 20:2-17 NKJV
Scripture comments on this extensively but the purpose of this piece is to try and appraise what others, notably those I respect and consider better informed than myself, thought on the subject. These include the Fathers of the early Church, the Reformers, Anglican Divines, and more. If nothing else this will serve as a repository for some of my reading on the topic to date.
The Early Church Fathers
And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do, nor offer to the dead libations and the savour of fat, and crowns for their statues, and sacrifices.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 24. Varieties of heathen worship
Justin in defending the Christian faith highlights the fact that Christians do not show tribute to the dead or adorn their statues, a practice we’ll see from other Fathers was practiced by Gnostics and Pagans of the period. Justin himself, like many earlier Fathers, aims his criticism at these Pagan practices and details them more extensively in Chapter 9 on his First Apology. We don’t see, however, any commentary (to my knowledge) by Justin on image use by Christians in a specifically religious context. His description of them being employed by the Pagans, however, is consistently polemical.
Athenagoras of Athens
But, since it is affirmed by some that, although these are only images, yet there exist gods in honour of whom they are made; and that the supplications and sacrifices presented to the images are to be referred to the gods, and are in fact made to the gods
Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 18.
Athenagoras points out that the early church were aware that the supplications and sacrifices offered to the images of Pagan society weren’t to the images themselves but what the beings they depicted. Athenagoras goes on to point out that even these Pagan deities have an origin unlike the God the Christians worship. The question could then asked, would Athenagoras object to images of the uncreated God?
Some fathers seem to object to images in which people believed gods resided, others acknowledged that they were aware the image didn’t ‘contain’ a god but acted as a conduit through which praise might be brought to the deity in question. Athenagoras seems to showing the latter here.
Clement of Alexandria
But it is clear to every one that piety, which teaches to worship and honour, is the highest and oldest cause; and the law itself exhibits justice, and teaches wisdom, by abstinence from sensible images, and by inviting to the Maker and Father of the universe.
Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 18. The Mosaic Law the Fountain of All Ethics, and the Source from Which the Greeks Drew Theirs.
Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata conflates withholding from images with the ideals of justice and wisdom. He later states…
Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane; and if you perfect the art, they partake of mechanical coarseness. Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.
Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 5. The Holy Soul a More Excellent Temple Than Any Edifice Built by Man
Here he points out that even art cannot be divine or sacred for it is made of matter. This might be to ascribe to a low view of matter itself. Yet even if we object to this it is worth upholding the fact he seems to be making. That is that sacred art does not cease to be its constituent parts even when fashioned into the image of something else. Here we see the Fathers objecting to artifice not because of the image it is fashioned into but the fashioning of images in a religious context itself irrespective of the deity in question. The medium itself is questioned.
For that wicked reptile monster, by his enchantments, enslaves and plagues men even till now; inflicting, as seems to me, such barbarous vengeance on them as those who are said to bind the captives to corpses till they rot together. This wicked tyrant and serpent, accordingly, binding fast with the miserable chain of superstition whomsoever he can draw to his side from their birth, to stones, and stocks, and images, and such like idols, may with truth be said to have taken and buried living men with those dead idols, till both suffer corruption together.
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 1. Exhortation to Abandon the Impious Mysteries of Idolatry for the Adoration of the Divine Word and God the Father.
Clement takes his language further by conflating images and idols with the work of the devil stating that both the artifice and its maker ‘suffer corruption together’ which invokes echoes of Psalm 115 (Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them).
So powerful is art to delude, by seducing amorous men into the pit. Art is powerful, but it cannot deceive reason, nor those who live agreeably to reason. The doves on the picture were represented so to the life by the painter’s art, that the pigeons flew to them; and horses have neighed to well-executed pictures of mares. They say that a girl became enamoured of an image, and a comely youth of the statue at Cnidus. But it was the eyes of the spectators that were deceived by art; for no one in his senses ever would have embraced a goddess, or entombed himself with a lifeless paramour, or become enamoured of a demon and a stone. But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you, if it leads you not to the indulgence of amorous affections: it leads you to pay religious honour and worship to images and pictures.
The picture is like. Well and good! Let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth. The horse stands quiet; the dove flutters not, its wing is motionless. But the cow of Dædalus, made of wood, allured the savage bull; and art having deceived him, compelled him to meet a woman full of licentious passion. Such frenzy have mischief-working arts created in the minds of the insensate. On the other hand, apes are admired by those who feed and care for them, because nothing in the shape of images and girls’ ornaments of wax or clay deceives them. You then will show yourselves inferior to apes by cleaving to stone, and wood, and gold, and ivory images, and to pictures.
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 4. The Absurdity and Shamefulness of the Images by Which the Gods are Worshipped.
This later statement by Clement to me is actually his most interesting, because it speaks to the very power of imagery itself. When I first read it I couldn’t help but think of later commentators talking about contemporary mass media (Postman et al) in our own media saturated age might have been channelling Clement here. It’s generally accepted today how mediums like television bypass our reasoning via the power of the image alone, it is authoritarian in this degree. Wherein writing employs the mind to evaluate the claims and statements it perceives as it encounters them. Clement seems to be applying this sort of argument here with regard to the fashioning of imagery in general. His comments on how even apes and animals are superior to those who make supplications to images seems particularly cutting, and he isn’t the last Father to make such comparisons.
As an aside, the statements regarding apes and other animals being superior by their ignorance remind me of Wycliffe’s critique of Transubstantiation. That even if people are mistaken that the Bread and Wine are literally transformed in the eucharist the Mice (and Pagans) remain unconvinced.
We are thus shut up, either to destroy the verity of Scripture, or to go along with the senses and the judgment of mankind, and admit that it is bread. Mice, and other creatures, are aware of this fact; for according to philosophers, they have the power of discerning what is good for them to eat. Oh, if believers in the Lord will look on, and see.
John Wycliffe, Showing the Bread remains Bread After Consecration, De Wycliffe, J. (1845). Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe. (R. Vaughan, Ed.) (pp. 138–141). London: Blackburn and Pardon.
Let us return now to Clement…
None of these ever made a breathing image, or out of earth moulded soft flesh. Who liquefied the marrow? Or who solidified the bones? Who stretched the nerves? Who distended the veins? Who poured the blood into them? Or who spread the skin? Who ever could have made eyes capable of seeing? Who breathed spirit into the lifeless form? Who bestowed righteousness? Who promised immortality? The Maker of the universe alone; the Great Artist and Father has formed us, such a living image as man is.
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 10. Answer to the Objection of the Heathen, that It Was Not Right to Abandon the Customs of Their Fathers.
This final statement from Clement points us to the realisation that our common man is in fact a living ‘image’ or ‘icon’ of God himself. A statement that on the face of it seems obvious for anyone familiar with scripture. So even those who do not indulge in the adoration or veneration of artifice are not without images, we are surrounded daily by the image of the living God.
Tertullian of Carthage
But I pass from these remarks, for I know and I am going to show what your gods are not, by showing what they are. In reference, then, to these, I see only names of dead men of ancient times; I hear fabulous stories; I recognize sacred rites founded on mere myths. As to the actual images, I regard them as simply pieces of matter akin to the vessels and utensils in common use among us
In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, with which hawks, and mice, and spiders are so well acquainted, does it not merit praise instead of penalty, that we have rejected what we have come to see is error?
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Chapter 12
Tertullian here seems surprisingly frank in his description of the advent of the Pagan gods. His description of the role Time has to play in the foundation of these traditions is something I must confess I am sympathetic to as well. I also am sympathetic to his question at the end about rejecting even the mere homage of these counterparts of perhaps once great dead men. Not because these men aren’t Gods but because these artifices ‘are simply pieces of matter’.
It is also worth noting that Tertullian continues Clement’s approach of pointing to the indifference of animals to show the reality of artifice that man becomes blind to in offering honour to it.
To the majesty of the Cæsars, in respect of which we are charged with being irreligious towards them, since we neither propitiate their images nor swear by their genius. We are called enemies of the people.
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Chapter 17. The Christian Refusal to Swear by the Genius of Cæsar. Flippancy and Irreverence Retorted on the Heathen.
Tertullian also comments on the fact that the Christians didn’t pay homage to statues of Caesar this was one I have heard frequently cited (informally) as a reason for the persecution of early Christians. I also, however, find this statement particularly interesting when I compare it to the statements of Christians in later centuries which I include in this post.
Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: “Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.” The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents. I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given.
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Chapter 22 – The Brazen Serpent and the Golden Cherubim Were Not Violations of the Second Commandment. Their Meaning.
Here Tertullian marks the distinction between artifice and idolatry more generally. It also directly speaks to the 2nd commandment in question so it is a helpful starting point. A useful extension of this is to consider the adornment of the Temple of Solomon. Here we see explicit instructions on how it should be decorated. Yet not for the purposes of idolatry, which is the reverent love or devotion shown towards an object in persona of an entity whether corporeal or spiritual. Tertullian makes no comment regarding the Churches own attitude towards images only that it seems apparently in upholding the Jewish practice of the time. Tertullian also later on goes on to remind us of John 3:14.
Did he not here also intend to show the power of our Lord’s cross, whereby that old serpent the devil was vanquished,—whereby also to every man who was bitten by spiritual serpents, but who yet turned with an eye of faith to it, was proclaimed a cure from the bite of sin, and health for evermore?
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Chapter 18 – Types of the Death of Christ. Isaac; Joseph; Jacob Against Simeon and Levi; Moses Praying Against Amalek; The Brazen Serpent.
Yet it is also worth reminding ourselves that centuries after Moses King Hezekiah brought himself to destroy the Bronze Serpent when it came to be treated as an idol by his people. This touches on what seems, so far to be the two objections the Fathers have to the adoration of images.
- They often depict false gods, sometimes true demons, and these representations as a rule generally have no guaranteed relation to reality as may be apprehended properly via sober use of reason. Despite this the medium itself works to circumvent human powers of reason.
- Artifice does not cease to be inert matter and the work of a man’s hand. By contrast humanity is the animated image of the living God and we are in any case to venerate him alone.
There seems a strong continuity and invoking of the practice of the Jews throughout this period. At least in literature.
For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,—an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth.
The law, indeed, wished them to have regard to the truth of each individual thing, and not to form representations of things contrary to reality, feigning the appearance merely of what was really male or really female, or the nature of animals, or of birds, or of creeping things, or of fishes.
ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Chapter 31.
Origen, we see continues the trend of looking to the practice of Israel for guidance cocerning the use of artifice or the fashioning of representations. He also draws a distinction, again, between representation and reality wholesale concerning visual mediums.
In designating others by the epithets of uninstructed, and servile, and ignorant, Celsus, I suppose, means those who are not acquainted with his laws, nor trained in the branches of Greek learning; while we, on the other hand, deem those to be uninstructed who are not ashamed to address (supplications) to inanimate objects, and to call upon those for health that have no strength, and to ask the dead for life, and to entreat the helpless for assistance.
Against Celsus, Book 6. Chapter 14
Origen in this instance seems in keeping with Clements attitude towards those who make supplications to artifices. Whilst he doesn’t invoke the indifference of the animal world towards artifice the tone is consonant with that of Clement and Tertullian. A very literal line regarding the use of imagery seems to be consistently held here.
To explain this fully, and to justify the conduct of the Christians in refusing homage to any object except the Most High God, and the First-born of all creation, who is His Word and God, we must quote this from Scripture…
Against Celsus, Book 7. Chapter 70
This statement from Origen again reasserts the fact that Christians of the period only paid homage to the God himself. Taking, what seems, a very literal view to ‘any’ object.
Irenaeus of Lyon
Others of them employ outward marks, branding their disciples inside the lobe of the right ear. From among these also arose Marcellina, who came to Rome under [the episcopate of] Anicetus, and holding these doctrines, she led multitudes, astray. They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.
ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Chapter 25 – Doctrines of Carpocrates
Irenaeus in his landmark book ‘Against Heresies’ makes mention of Gnostics who possess painted images, made of a variety of material and adorned with crowns. Even claiming to have one dating back to the life of Christ himself and are honoured in fashions similar to the Gentiles of the period. What I find particularly eye-opening is that Christ even in his depiction is set up alongside Pagan philosophers showing this heresy as some form of emergent syncretic belief. Albeit this seems hardly surprising given the climate of the period. One can speculate as to what Irenaeus means by use of the term ‘honouring’ but the fact that Irenaeus calls out the use of images as a distinctive facet of these Pseudo-Christian heretics which is not shared by other groups he mentions.
Cyprian of Carthage
They were formerly kings, who on account of their royal memory subsequently began to be adored by their people even in death. Thence temples were founded to them; thence images were sculptured to retain the countenances of the deceased by the likeness; and men sacrificed victims, and celebrated festal days, by way of giving them honour. Thence to posterity, those rites became sacred which at first had been adopted as a consolation.
Treatise 6, On the Vanity of Idols
This statement of Cyprian seems to use the same language as his Carthaginian predecessor Tertullian regarding his given explanation for the adoration of images. This entire view is predicated on the assumption we’ve already established from earlier sayings, that the medium of imagery has the tendency to present representation as reality. Something Cyprian seems, like other Fathers thus far critical of.
Arnobius of Sicca
If they had any natural properties previously, all these they retain when bulk up in the bodily forms of statues. What stupidity it is — for I refuse to call it blindness — to suppose that the natures of things are changed by the kind of form into which they are forced, and that that receives divinity from the appearance given to it, which in its original body has been inert, and unreasoning, and unmoved by feeling!
And so unmindful and forgetful of what the substance and origin of the images are, you, men, rational beings and endowed with the gift of wisdom and discretion, sink down before pieces of baked earthenware, adore plates of copper, beg from the teeth of elephants good health, magistracies, sovereignties, power, victories, acquisitions, gains, very good harvests, and very rich vintages; and while it is plain and clear that you are speaking to senseless things, you think that you are heard, and bring yourselves into disgrace of your own accord, by vainly and credulously deceiving yourselves.
Against the Heathens, Book 6. Chapters 15,16
It has been sufficiently shown, as far as there has been an opportunity, how vain it is to form images
Against the Heathens, Book 7. Chapters 1
Arnobius is particularly demeaning of the religious use of images. At one point he tries to determine at which point material can be considered worthy of praise and honour. Even asking whether pagans would still display obeisance to statues that had been smashed or partially melted down. Again there is a strongly worded acidic literalism coming across in his writing which mirrors Clement’s placing the intellect of Apes over those who give honour to their images.
In this case, I say, do you not see that newts, shrews, mice, and cockroaches, which shun the light, build their nests and live under the hollow parts of these statues? That they gather carefully into these all kinds of filth, and other things suited to their wants, hard and half-gnawed bread, bones dragged there in view of probable scarcity, rags, down, and pieces of paper to make their nests soft, and keep their young warm? Do you not see sometimes over the face of an image cobwebs and treacherous nets spun by spiders, that they may be able to entangle in them buzzing and imprudent flies while on the wing? Do you not see, finally, that swallows full of filth, flying within the very domes of the temples, toss themselves about, and bedaub now the very faces, now the mouths of the deities, the beard, eyes, noses, and all the other parts on which their excrements fall? Blush, then, even though it is late, and accept true methods and views from dumb creatures, and let these teach you that there is nothing divine in images, into which they do not fear or scruple to cast unclean things in obedience to the laws of their being, and led by their unerring instincts.
Against the Heathens, Book 7. Chapters 16
Arnobius also seems well aware, albeit intolerant, of the claim that Pagans do not worship or venerate images themselves but those in whom they are made in honour of. By their sacred use some claim those depicted are made present. To this Arnobius says…
But you err, says my opponent, and are mistaken, for we do not consider either copper, or gold and silver, or those other materials of which statues are made, to be in themselves gods and sacred deities; but in them we worship and venerate those whom their dedication as sacred introduces and causes to dwell in statues made by workmen. The reasoning is not vicious nor despicable by which any one — the dull, and also the most intelligent — can believe that the gods, forsaking their proper seats — that is, heaven — do not shrink back and avoid entering earthly habitations; nay, more, that impelled by the rite of dedication, they are joined to images Do your gods, then, dwell in gypsum and in figures of earthenware? Nay, rather, are the gods the minds, spirits, and souls of figures of earthenware and of gypsum? And, that the meanest things may be able to become of greater importance, do they suffer themselves to be shut up and concealed and confined in an obscure abode? Here, then, in the first place, we wish and ask to be told this by you: do they do this against their will — that is, do they enter the images as dwellings, dragged to them by the rite of dedication — or are they ready and willing? And do you not summon them by any considerations of necessity? Do they do this unwillingly? and how can it be possible that they should be compelled to submit to any necessity without their dignity being impaired? With ready assent? And what do the gods seek for in figures of earthenware that they should prefer these prisons to their starry seats — that, having been all but fastened to them, they should ennoble earthenware and the other substances of which images are made?
Against the Heathens, Book 7. Chapters 17
It is hard not to appreciate the antipathy Arnobius has for the use of images in worship, Pagan or otherwise. He clearly states that the creation and veneration of images is an argument against all truth and reasonableness and his critique, to my reading is the most withering we have amongst the Fathers. On questioning the residence of the entity depicted in artifice he states…
For neither is it possible that there can be at one time one god in several images, nor, again, divided into parts by his being cut up. For let us suppose that there are ten thousand images of Vulcan in the whole world: is it possible at all, as I said, that at one time one deity can be in all the ten thousand? I do not think so. Do you ask wherefore? Because things which are naturally single and unique, cannot become many while the integrity of their simplicity is maintained. And this they are further unable to become if the gods have the forms of men, as your belief declares; for either a hand separated from the head, or a foot divided from the body, cannot manifest the perfection of the whole, or it must be said that parts can be the same as the whole, while the whole cannot exist unless it has been made by gathering together its parts. Moreover, if the same deity shall be said to be in all the statues, all reasonableness and soundness is lost to the truth, if this is assumed that at one tithe one can remain in them all; or each of the gods must be said to divide himself from himself, so that he is both himself and another, not separated by any distinction, but himself the same as another.
Against the Heathens, Book 7. Chapters 19
This really presses the question of the nature of a divine image. Is the person depicted present? Is the image still not inert matter? How can the belief that a person, or a body, can maintain its integrity and yet be materially be omniscient be possible? According to Arnobius this belief is an argument that results in “all reasonableness and soundness” being ejected from truth.
Arnobius in his argumentation exploits the material nature of these creations as an essential claim concering the subject they are meant to be fashioned in the likeness of. To use the language of representation and reality, the former denigrates the object of adoration and the latter shows such individuals as being willfully stupid as, to Arnobius, no one can be truly blind to reality that even base animals acknowledge.
We have no mention, by contrast, of Arnobius’s attitudes to Christians using images to depict Christ or saints like that which emerge in later centuries. Yet it seems impossible to imagine an advocate of icons of later centuries speaking in such terms today, Namely because the arguments employed against the images of Pagans are capable of being weaponised against images as an object of devotion indiscriminately. To describe his language as that of a scorched earth approach to debating the topic of imagery in this context doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. It is also a tone and trend we see in his pupil, Lactantius.
Lactantius of Numidia
In the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous. But they fear lest their religion should be altogether vain and empty if they should see nothing present which they may adore, and therefore they set up images; and since these are representations of the dead, they resemble the dead, for they are entirely destitute of perception. But the image of the ever-living God ought to be living and endued with perception. But if it received this name from resemblance, how can it be supposed that these images resemble God, which have neither perception nor motion? Therefore the image of God is not that which is fashioned by the fingers of men out of stone, or bronze, or other material, but man himself, since he has both perception and motion, and performs many and great actions. Nor do the foolish men understand, that if images could exercise perception and motion, they would of their own accord adore men, by whom they have been adorned and embellished, since they would be either rough and unpolished stone, or rude and unshapen wood, had they not been fashioned by man
Divine Institutes, Book II (Of the Origin of Error). Chapter 2. What was the first cause of making images; of the true likeness of God, and the true worship of him.
There are a few statements here from Lactantius’s Divine Institutes that are very quotable regarding his attitude towards images. As a student of Arnobius it is unsurprising that he carries a similar tone. He argues that since God is omnipresent there is no need for an image. Yet calls out the use of images as a practice, like previous fathers ‘entirely destitute of perception’ for opting for representation over reality. This only makes sense if we realise Lactantius seems to applying a very literal view to the construction of images, like previous Fathers, not as just mere windows ‘into’ reality but as making individuals blind to the true reality before them in their practices. A reality that previous Fathers pointed out that even animals seem aware of.
How much better, therefore, is it, leaving vain and insensible objects, to turn our eyes in that direction where is the seat and dwelling-place of the true God; who suspended the earth on a firm foundation, who bespangled the heaven with shining stars; who lighted up the sun, the most bright and matchless light for the affairs of men, in proof of His own single majesty; who girded the earth with seas, and ordered the rivers to flow with perpetual course!
Divine Institutes, Book II (Of the Origin of Error). Chapter 5. That God only, the creator of all things, is to be worshipped, and not the elements or heavenly bodies; and the opinion of the Stoics is refuted, who think that the stars and planets are gods.
Lactantius here encourages the pointing man’s eyes not to images but to the heaven. There is a surprising earthiness and rigid consistency in the thought of the Fathers on this topic to date. They argue that the use of religious images of devotion is essentially a theological claim that speaks to the nature of the thing created. An image doesn’t just point to the divine but the divine in turn necessarily points to the image. In light of this when one presents adoration or devotion towards an image the distinctions between representation and reality inevitably become collapsed in the mind of the practitioner, something the Fathers seem consistently wary of.
God is greater than man: therefore He is above, and not below; nor is He to be sought in the lowest, but rather in the highest region. Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. And this, indeed, may be plain to a wise man from the very name. For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false; nor can anything receive the name of a true object which counterfeits the truth by deception and imitation. But if all imitation is not particularly a serious matter, but as it were a sport and jest, then there is no religion in images, but a mimicry of religion. That which is true is, therefore, to be preferred to all things which are false; earthly things are to be trampled upon, that we may obtain heavenly things. For this is the state of the case, that whosoever shall prostrate his soul, which has its origin from heaven, to the shades beneath, and the lowest things, must fall to that place to which he has cast himself. Therefore he ought to be mindful of his nature and condition, and always to strive and aim at things above. And whoever shall do this, he will be judged altogether wise, he just, he a man: he, in short, will be judged worthy of heaven whom his Parent will recognise not as abject, nor cast down to the earth after the manner of the beasts, but rather standing and upright as He made him.
Divine Institutes, Book II (Of the Origin of Error). Chapter 19. Of the Worship of Images and Earthly Objects.
Some might accuse Lactantius of having a low view of matter in this statement here by his disassociation with the earthly from any divinity but again this Father plants his argument in terms of the differences between representation and reality (whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false). Lactantius would presumably respond by saying that matter is not evil but the treatment of inert matter fashioned by humanity as any expression of divinity is. It is a tone in keeping with preceeding Fathers to date.
Lactantius elsewhere also recalls an account of a Roman sacking of a church and with it gives an interesting reference to religious images in a Christian context…
When that day dawned, in the eighth consulship of Diocletian and seventh of Maximian, suddenly, while it was yet hardly light, the prefect, together with chief commanders, tribunes, and officers of the treasury, came to the church in Nicomedia, and the gates having been forced open, they searched everywhere for an image of the Divinity. The books of the Holy Scriptures were found, and they were committed to the flames; the utensils and furniture of the church were abandoned to pillage.
ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily. Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died Chapter 12
The interesting thing about this is that there is no image of the Divinity contained in the church presumably to be defaced instead it is the holy scripture that is destroyed. This is interesting in that it seems to imply that the Fathers took their criticisms of artifice consistently in the practice of their own religion, it wasn’t merely employed to the particularities of Paganism.
Epiphanius of Salamis
Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loath that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person.
They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best I could find, and I beg that you will order the Presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort – opposed as they are to our religion – shall not be hung up in any church of Christ.”
NPNF2: Vol. 7, The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 51: From Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, In Cyprus, to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, Section. 9.
This is a quote I have found mentioned several in discussions on this topic. It is probably the most explicit rejection of any use of images or imagery in Churches. At the same time given how explicit it is it is one I have seen many, particularly Eastern Orthodox commentators, quick to caveat that this statement cannot be trusted. This statement in particular, I’ve heard was invoked by Iconoclasts in defence of their views yet even if the statement itself is to be doubted Historian Ernst Kitzinger wrote…
“But even the most sceptic do not doubt Epiphanius was an opponent of Christian religious imagery, and at least one of the reasons for his hostility becomes clear from a passage in one of his undisputed writings: “When images are put up the customs of the pagans do the rest.” This surely reflects the experience of his own age.
The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm by Ernst Kitzinger, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 8 (1954), p. 93
The statement Kitzinger quotes seems very in keeping with prior writings of Arnobius and Lactantius. Moreso, out of the Epiphanius’s most famous work, the Panerion (Medicine Chest), detailing the heresies of his age we see this notable commentary on the construction and use of images.
Peleg was the father of Reu, and Reu was the father of Serug, which means “provocation”; and, as I have been taught, idolatry and Hellenism began among men with him. It was not with carved images yet, or with reliefs in stone, wood or silver-plated substances, or ones made of gold or any other material, that the human reason invented evil for itself and, with its freedom, reason and intellect, invented transgression instead of goodness, but only with paintings and portraits.
The Panerion by Epiphanius of Salamis, Volume 1, Section 1, Chapter 3, Paragraph 4, p 18.
Epiphanius talks about the use of images consistently as a condemnation of the practices of the Pagans he mentions. His condemnation of their worship seems unequivocal so going through every instance doesn’t bear repeating. However, we also see another mention of the Gnostic Marcellina and her images…
Marcellina at Rome was a follower of his (Carpocrates). He secretly made images of Jesus, Paul, Homer and Pythagoras, burned incense to them and worshiped them
The Panerion by Epiphanius of Salamis, Volume 1, Section 2, Chapter 27, Paragraph 2, p 59.
Who is described in much more detail in later sections. It is also worth noting, however, that Epiphanius doesn’t draw distinctions between images as paintings, sculpture or more. He does, however, shed more light on how these images were treated. At the same time Kitzinger also points out that determining which statements of Epiphanius’s can be defended unequivocally is essentially beyond the normal reach of a non-specialist. So I will leave his commentary at this point given it he is considered so contentious that it would likely generate more heat than light. I mention him only to show that his statements, are not necessarily anomalous compared to others who preceded him.
Philostorgius the Arian Historian via Photius of Constantinople of the 9th century with reference to Chronicler John Malalas in the 6th
In the 9th century the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius found the histories of Philostorgius, an Arian bishop of Constantinople in the 4th century. Photius wrote an epitome of it so whilst we don’t have the original we do have some description of Christian and Pagan practices during the period which seem notably different than earlier centuries. He writes…
Concerning an image of our Saviour erected by the faith of a pious woman in grateful remembrance of her cure from a bloody flux, Philostorgius writes, that it was placed near the fountain in the city among other statues, and presented a pleasant and agreeable sight to the passers-by.
The statue itself they placed in the part of the church which was allotted to the deacons, paying to it due honour and respect, yet by no means adoring or worshipping it; and they showed their love for its great archetype by erecting it in that place with circumstances of honour, and by flocking thither in eager crowds to behold it.
Chapter 3, Epitome of Book 7, Photius of Constantinople, The Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius of Constantinople
Which is interesting because Philostorgius makes a point of pointing out that the statue, whilst it existed, was not worshipped and existed in the public sphere. This alone, whilst perhaps a change from prior centuries, isn’t worth commenting on but is worth considering when we hear of his description of the image of Constantine that existed in Constantinople during this period.
This impious enemy of God also accuses the Christians of offering sacrifices to an image of Constantine placed upon a column of porphyry, and of honouring it with lighted lamps and incense, and of offering vows to it as to God, and making supplications to it to ward off calamities.
Chapter 17, Epitome of Book 2, Photius of Constantinople, The Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius of Constantinople
Whether the accusations were true or not regarding the veneration of the image, in terms previously condemned by Christian leaders, this was something that not a million miles from other practices by Christians at this time. At least according to other commentators regarding images of the Emperor.
The 6th century Chronicler John Malalas describes the procession and homage paid to a statue of Constantine instituted by the Emperor himself. This was to celebrate the founding of Constantinople at the anniversary of the city. Malalas wrote of the event…
He had another statue made of himself in gilded wood, bearing in its right hand the tyche of the city, itself gilded, which he called the Anthousa. He ordered that on the same day as the Anniversary race-meeting this wooden statue be brought in, escorted by the soldiers wearing cloaks and boots, all holding candles; the carriage should march around the turning post and reach the pit opposite the imperial kathisma, and the emperor of the time should rise and make obeisance as he gazed at this statue of Constantine and the tyche of the city. This custom has been maintained up until the present day.
The Chronicle of John Malalas, Book 13, The Time of Emperor Constantine p 175
When this practice started is debated but there is no reason to doubt the practice was taking place in Malalas’s own day. All of this suggesting a more relaxed approach to images in general than had previously had been perhaps assumed and a much more blurred line between understandings of the secular and the sacred in greater continuity with older Roman practices associated with Imperial culture and religion. Wherein in earlier centuries the Church looked more to Jerusalem for its example regarding images, by this time it had perhaps begun to cast its eyes to Rome. Personally, however, this jarrs with earlier statements by Tertullian regarding images of Caeser. Yet these accounts when taken together may mean that the description of practices by Constantinopolitan Christians regarding images of the Emperor during this period, whilst exacerbated beyond the reality of the period, do potentially reflect changing practice.
Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus gives us some more insight into the attitudes of Christians regarding the idea of obeisance towards artifices in his letter to the later Emperor Julian the Apostate. He writes…
It is a royal custom, I know not whether with all men amongst whom royalty exists, but certainly with the Romans, and one, too, of those most thought of, that the reigning princes shall be honoured with public statues. For the crowns, and the diadems, and the dye of the purple robe, and the numbered life guards, and the multitude of subjects do not suffice to establish their sovereignty, but they must needs have adoration through which they may appear more awful—-and not merely that adoration which they receive in person, but also that received in their statues and pictures, in order that the veneration may be more insatiable and more complete. These portraits different emperors delight in accompanying with other representations; some the chief cities of their dominions offering them gifts, others, Victories holding garlands over their heads; others, their officials doing homage to them, and decorated with the insignia of their charges; others, hunting scenes and feats of archery; others, barbarians overcome, and trampled under foot, or being slaughtered in a variety of forms; for they love not only the realities of the actions upon which they pride themselves, but also the representations of the same.
Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus/First invective against Julian the Emperor, Paragraph 80
Whether Gregory was actually condoning anything of this behaviour is debatable but this continuation of this rhetorical dichotomy between ‘representation’ and ‘reality’ appears again. His tone is disparaging (“in order that the veneration may be more insatiable and more complete”.) and continued the practice of disparaging Imperial customs surrounding images. Yet the tone is much more muted on the topic compared to Tertullian’s earlier objections perhaps suggesting Gregory’s objection is the idea that one might have to adore a character like Julian, an enemy of the Church, rather than the idea of adoring images in general.
Gregory the Great
The next entry we see on this topic is a letter by Gregory the Great to the then Bishop of Massilia who reported smashing images in Churches which had become the subject of adoration. It reads…
Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation.
Epistle 105: to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (Marseilles)
The interesting thing is this is one of the first explicit mention of pictorial representation in Church, which is a change from Lactantius description of a Church with no image of Divinity. Yet Gregory commends the zeal by which the Bishop, channeling the spirit of King Hezekiah, sought to stop the adoration of images but encouraged their use for the purpose of education for those unable to read. This seems, to me, to be one of the earliest descriptions of the use of imagery in a Church and the ends to which it existed.
In mentioning this account, however, to others I am told that this could not be possible because their also exists a famous story of Gregory the Great himself leading a procession, to stop a plague, in which he carried an icon of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Rome. A procession which culminated in a vision of the Archangel Micheal (whose Statue today sits atop Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome). The problem with this is that in my looking for the dating of such a story I couldn’t find a written account for it dating before the 13th century. One writer summarising…
Although Gregory the Great was a prolific writer and many of his works survive, he never mentions or even alludes to this vision. None of the early hagiographic works on Gregory mention it. Very strange considering how interested the English were in Gregory as their apostle. They came to Rome looking for more information in part on Gregory in the seventh century, and were still in the midst of plague epidemics when his story was forming in England. The earliest life of Gregory the Great was written in early eighth century England. The earliest written version of the vision that Schwartz could find was from the 13th century! The legend can only be documented about a century before the Black Death that must have fixed the legend in the landscape of Rome, along with supporting processions as mitigation against the plague.
The Heavenfield. St Michael, the Plague, and Castel Sant’ Angelo
To be generous, however, a way to harmonise the account and this letter of Gregory’s lies in the letter itself. That Gregory seems to accept pictorial representation but still commended the zeal of those against anything made with hands being an object of adoration. Yet I am personally unconvinced by the historicity of the account of Gregory’s procession (of which his possession of the icon is arguably an incidental part).
Augustine of Hippo
One of the later comments on artifice and imagery comes from Augustine himself in a series of homilies on Psalm 115. In this Augustine displays what seems to me remarkable clarity and insight on the topic. It is for this reason I will quote more extensive from this homily, although I fully encourage people reading it in its entirety to get the best grasp of what he is saying.
In other passages the inspired writers guard against these things, lest any one should say, when the idols have been ridiculed, “I worship not this visible thing, but the divinity which doth invisibly dwell therein.” Thus in another Psalm the same Scripture thus condemneth these divinities. As for all the Gods of the heathen, they are but idols : but it is the Lord that made the heavens. The Apostle also saith ; Not that the idol is anything, but that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
But they seem to themselves to have a purer religion, who say, I neither worship an idol, nor a devil ; but in the bodily image I behold an emblem of that which I am bound to worship. They therefore interpret these images, by stating one to represent the earth, whence they constantly call it the temple of Tellus; another the sea, as the image of Neptune; another air, as that of Juno; another fire, as that of Vulcan ; another the morning star, as that of Venus; another the sun, another the moon, to whose images they give the same name, as in that of Tellus ; the various stars too they represent by various figures, and so with other works of creation ; for we cannot enumerate them all. And when they begin to be ridiculed for worshipping bodies, and chiefly the earth, and air, and the sea, and fire, all of which we use in common : (for they are not so much ashamed of their adoration of heavenly bodies, since we cannot touch or reach them with our bodies, save by the light of our eyes : ) they presume to reply, that they worship not the bodies themselves, but the deities which preside over the government of them.
But who worshippeth or prayeth with his eyes upon an idol, who is not so affected, as to imagine that he is listened to, as to hope that what he desireth is given him by his idol ? Thus men who are bound by such superstitions, usually turn their back to the sun itself, pour forth their prayers to a statue which they call the sun ; and when they are struck by the dashing of the waves behind them, they strike with their groans the statue of Neptune, as if it could perceive, which they worship in place of the sea itself. For this is a sort of necessary effect of this figure endued with limbs, that the mind which liveth in the bodily senses, should be inclined to suppose that that body which it seeth so closely to resemble its own body, is more apt to feel than a circular sun and an expanse of waves, and any thing which it beholdeth not formed with the same features as those which it constantly seeth endowed with life. In opposition to this affection, whereby human and carnal weakness may easily be snared, the holy Scripture setteth forth sentiments universally recognised, whereby it may arouse the minds of men sleeping in the thraldom of their bodies. The idols, it saith, of the heathen are gold and silver. But it is God Who made gold and silver. Their idols, he saith, are the work of men’s hands: for they worship what they have constructed out of gold and silver.
But, it will be said, we also have very many instruments and vessels made of materials or metal of this description for the purpose of celebrating the Sacraments, which being consecrated by these ministrations are called holy, in honour of Him Who is thus worshipped for our salvation : and what indeed are these very instruments or vessels, but the work of men’s hands? But have they mouth, and yet speak not? have they eyes, and see not? do we pray unto them, because through them we pray unto God ? This is the chief cause of this insane profanity, that the figure resembling the living person, which induces men to worship it, hath more influence in the minds of these miserable persons, than the evident fact that it is not living, so that it ought to be despised by the living. For idols have more power in perverting an unhappy mind because they have a mouth, have eyes, have ears, noses, hands, feet, than in rectifying it, because they speak not, see not, hear not, smell not, touch not, walk not.
Expositions on the book of Psalms, Psalm 115
Again the objection of exchanging reality for representation sits alongside the rejection of the Pagan religion in these writings. What is more interesting, however, is the Augustine also turns this reasoning on the Churches own artifices. He asks “do we pray unto them, because through them we pray unto God?” The answer is that to consider such thing is, according to Augustine is “insane profanity”. In this we see the same rebuke of earlier fathers towards the practices of pagans as a basis for one to reject the notion of praying ‘through’ artifices to our God. This helps us distinguish the objection as one that was not specific to Pagan practices but artifice more generally. Albeit in its most direct form so far.
The earliest centuries of the Church, on the topics of imagery, were marked by a generally polemical attitude towards Paganism and its use of imagery. In this we see a consistent drawing on the Old Testament approach towards imagery in the writings of the Fathers.
On top of this we see an aggressive critique of the medium itself that debases the users of imagery for the purposes of religious veneration or adoration as an abdication of the powers of reason as such that even animals are rendered comparatively superior in their ignorance. This is compounded by the view that the person depicted necessarily takes on the characteristics of the image representing them.
When we do hear of images in Church, in the 4th century. We hear that their intended purpose was to be educational, not devotional. At the same time we hear of their destruction when congregants came to view the images as subjects of adoration. We are also aware that other Churches in prior years upon interrogation contained ‘no image of the Divinity’. In each case, these are intended to be understood as anecdotes and not representative. Yet we know they did exist and can be presumably assumed to be considered with the historic bounds of classical Christianity.
This piece was originally intended to be one entry but given the volume of material on hand I will want to space it out. It is my view, having gone through the statements of various Fathers, that the earliest Fathers were deeply suspicious of images. Yet this needs to be tempered with a view that this was not an exclusive condemnation of it in all spheres of life but in a specifically devotional context. We may even push this slightly further to say imagery was allowed in some areas (education) but not in a context containing prayer.
Personally I find the Fathers echoing forms of arguments about imagery that we see today about the role of the Internet, and before that of Television in our own lives. Nicholas Carr in his book on the role of the Internet in our lives wrote…
“In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
What Carr is talking about here, I believe, is that reading as a medium itself makes an epistemic claim regarding the nature of truth. An image, by contrast, bypasses this, it is authoritative. Read a novel and you imagine the characters, watch a film and you see them. One engages the mind, the other replaces it. In the latter representation becomes reality and that, I believe, was seen as a cause for condemnation by the Fathers, especially in acts of religious devotion. Before Nicholas Carr the author Neil Postman, admittedly writing about Television, elaborated on this by picking up on the epistemic potency of images.
By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama–a mythology, if you will–of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.
Yet for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history we know the attitude towards imagery changed dramatically in successive centuries. So In my next entry I will look at the primary advocates for the use of imagery and in what context. I will then, in a final piece, write a more fully formed conclusion.