Icons and Sacred Images

Q: I have sometimes heard fundamentalists attack the Catholic Church for having “graven images,” referring to our religious statues or pictures. What is a good response?

The attack against the Church’s use of religious statues or pictures arises from a misinterpretation of the clauses following the First Commandment: “I, the Lord, am your God…. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them” (Ex 20:2-5). (Actually, some Protestant denominations list the italicized clause as the second commandment and then combine our Ninth and Tenth Commandments. Interestingly, even the controversial “Ten Commandments Monument” in Alabama lists the commandments this way.)

In understanding the context of the First Commandment, we must remember that at the time the 10 Commandments were given, no one had ever looked upon the face of God. Even Moses who was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai did not see the face of God: God said to Moses, “I will make all my beauty pass before you and in your presence I will pronounce my name, ‘Lord….’ But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives” (Ex 33:19-20). So no one could ever possibly capture God in a statue or a picture; to do so would be simply a conjuring of the imagination.

However, Christ — true God and true man — entered this world and took on our own human flesh. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. In the Gospel prologue, St. John wrote, “We have seen His glory: The glory of an only Son coming from the Father filled with enduring love” (Jn 1:14); therefore, “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed Him” (Jn 1:18).

Precisely because of the incarnation of the Lord, St. John Damascene (d. 749) asserted, “Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that He has made Himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God…and contemplate the glory of the Lord, His face unveiled.” Since the earliest days of the Church we have evidence of depictions of our Lord, of scenes from Sacred Scripture, or of the saints; examples of such depictions can be found today in the catacombs.

However, in no way does a statue or picture depicting a religious subject — such as Christ, the Blessed Mother, or saint — become an object of worship. Simply stated, Christ is not a statue. To think of a statue or picture as the actual person or to worship that statue or object would be idolatry.

The purpose of these sacred images is clearly to help us human beings in our contemplation of our Lord, of His deeds, and of the saints, so that we may draw closer to Him and be more fully joined to the Communion of Saints. For example, all of us have pictures of our own loved ones, living and deceased. I remember being shown pictures of my great grandparents and even three of my grandparents whom I never personally knew or saw because they had died before I was born. These loved ones whom I know through their pictures and stories are living realities for me. My family ties are strengthened with these people. I am able to be mindful of the history that is a part of my life. How much more true this is when I look at the picture of my dear maternal Grandmother that I did know, but who has now gone home to our Lord. Granted the actual picture is not the person, but the picture reminds me of that person and the life I share with the person retains its focus.

The same is exactly true with a religious statue or image. Again, St. John Damascene stated, “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”

In her history, the Church has battled the misinterpretation of the First Commandment prohibition against graven images. In 730, Emperor Leo III, who ruled what remained of the Roman Empire in the East, ordered the destruction of icons, which are part of the Eastern liturgical tradition. The motive for the action was due to an exaggerated emphasis on the divinity of Christ and unfortunately an abuse of genuine devotion to these images. The destruction of these icons or any other sacred image became known as iconoclasm and was condemned by the Holy Father in Rome. Later in 787, the Second Council of Nicea, defending the use of sacred images, declared, “For, the more frequently one contemplates these pictorial representations, the more gladly will he be led to remember the original subject whom they represent, the more too will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it…a respectful veneration…. For ‘the honor given to an image goes to the original model’ [St. Basil]; and he who venerates an image, venerates in it the person represented by it.”

A new iconoclasm emerged in the Protestant movement. The “reformation” fervor resulted in the stripping of altars, the destruction of religious artwork, and the whitewashing of interiors in many former Catholic Churches. Calvin in particular declared the honoring of the saints as the devil’s invention and the veneration of sacred images as idolatry; Calvin’s hostility overflowed into the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Huguenot, Baptist, and Puritan traditions. (The Amish today even consider photographs of loved ones graven images.) The Council of Trent (1563) reacted, stating, “The Images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of other saints are to be kept and preserved, in places of worship especially; and to them due honor and veneration is to be given, not because it is believed that there is in them anything divine or any power for which they are revered, nor in the sense that something is sought from them or that a blind trust is put in images as once was done by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown to them is referred to the original subjects which they represent. Thus through these images which we kiss and before which we kneel and uncover our heads, we are adoring Christ and venerating the saints whose likeness these images bear.”

The Second Vatican Council affirmed the use of sacred images in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963): “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained. Nevertheless, their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order” (nr. 125). These sacred images help create a sense of the transcendent. Therefore, whether in our Churches or in our homes, sacred images are a visible reminder of our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints. Conscious of their living yet invisible presence in our lives, we join our prayers with our Blessed Mother and the saints to our Lord, looking forward to the time when we will see Him face to face.

Editor’s note: This article is courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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