Statues & Images:
Definition of Terms:
The practice of using statues, images, and icons as aids in prayer, meditation, and devotion dates back to the early centuries of Christianity. These visuals helped convey religious teachings to the faithful at a time when illiteracy was commonplace. Statues, images, and icons served as reminders of sacred figures, events, and teachings from sacred Scripture and Tradition. Although some modern Christians condemn this practice as an adoption of some form of paganism, the use of imagery can be found in both early Christian and ancient Jewish practices.
Exodus 20:4 strictly forbids the worship of idols and false gods, but this was not understood by Jews or early Christians to pertain to the use of religious images for devotional purposes. They understood the distinction to lie in the intention behind their use – while idols are objects of worship themselves, statues and images in early Jewish and Christian practice were seen as aids in meditation and prayer directed towards God and to serve as reminders of the examples of the saints. The use of statues, images, and icons did not place other gods before the one true God, but instead served as representations to deepen their understanding of the divine.
The use of religious imagery is illustrated in the Old Testament and was even commanded by God. In the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses to construct the Ark of the Covenant, which was a sacred container to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. On the Ark’s cover, God commanded the creation of two cherubim (angelic figures) with outstretched wings facing each other (Exodus 25:18-22). The curtain which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle tent had embroidered figures of cherubim (Exodus 26:31). During the reign of King Solomon, God commanded the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple included various images and ornate decorations, such as palm trees, flowers, cherubim, and figures of oxen (1 Kings 6:23-35, 1 Chr. 28:18–19).
Evidence of the Jewish use of religious imagery can be found outside of Scripture as well. Numerous ancient Jewish coins and artifacts have been discovered, some of which depict religious symbols, biblical figures, and other religious iconography, illustrating the use of imagery in Jewish culture and worship. There are many surviving ancient synagogues that contain Biblical scenes and statues.
The 1st-century Magdala Synagogue (Magdala, Israel), located near the Sea of Galilee, features a mosaic floor with intricate designs, including a prominent seven-branched menorah, along with other symbols such as a shofar and a lulav. The Ostia Synagogue (Ostia Antica, Italy), dating back to the 1st-2nd century AD, features frescoes depicting biblical scenes and Jewish symbols from the Roman period. Archaeology has found extensive wall-paintings in the Jewish catacombs of Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria. It’s paintings depict Old Testament scenes and there is a Torah shrine on the western wall. It’s construction was dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 AD, making it one of the oldest synagogues in the world.
There are several other archaeological finds that provide evidence of imagery being used in Jewish contexts throughout history. The ancient Synagogue of Hamat Tiberias (Tiberias, Israel), dating back to the 3rd century AD, contains mosaic floors with various Jewish symbols, biblical scenes, and images of the zodiac. The Hammath Tiberias Synagogue (Tiberias, Israel) from the 4th century AD contains mosaic floors with biblical scenes, such as Noah’s Ark, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the Story of Jonah. The Beit Alpha Synagogue (Beit Alpha, Israel) features a stunning mosaic floor depicting a zodiac wheel and biblical scenes, including the binding of Isaac. The synagogue of Huqoq (Galilee, Israel) contains well-preserved and elaborate mosaics portraying biblical scenes, including the parting of the Red Sea, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel.
There is also diverse archaeological evidence for early Christians using imagery, statues, and icons in their religious practices. These findings illustrate the widespread use of imagery in early Christian worship and underscores the richness and complexity of early Christian expressions of faith and culture. Several iconic symbols emerged during the early Christian period, some of which are still widely recognized today. These early Christian symbols played a vital role in the visual representation of Christian beliefs and provided a unifying identity for early Christian communities across different regions. Some prominent early Christian symbols include:
- The Chi-Rho: A monogram of the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ,” which forms an intertwined “XP” or “XP” symbol. The Chi-Rho was used as a Christogram and a sign of Christian identity.
- The Ichthys (Fish): The fish symbol served as a secret sign of identification among early Christians during times of persecution. It represents Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, and is derived from the Greek word “ichthys.”
- The Good Shepherd: An image of Jesus as a shepherd carrying a lamb or sheep on His shoulders, symbolizing His care and protection of His followers.
- The Anchor: A symbol of hope and steadfastness in faith, reflecting the early Christian belief in Christ as an anchor for the soul.
- The Cross: While the use of the cross as a Christian symbol developed later, by the 4th century, it became one of the central symbols representing Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The Catacombs of Rome, dating from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, contain numerous frescoes and reliefs depicting biblical scenes, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection, and other Christian symbols like the fish (ichthus). In addition to the Catacombs of Rome, early Christian catacombs found outside the city, such as those in Naples and Syracuse, also contain frescoes, sculptures, and inscriptions related to Christian themes, offering further evidence of early Christian use of imagery in burial sites. Early Christian sarcophagi, or burial containers, would often feature Christian iconography and early tombs held various funerary steles and inscriptions, such as the Chi-Rho and the Good Shepherd, as well as prayers and references to religious beliefs.
Several early Christian basilicas, such as the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, feature intricate mosaics depicting biblical figures, saints, and scenes from the life of Christ. The Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy) is renowned for its stunning mosaics depicting various biblical scenes. The Dura-Europos Church, dating back to the 3rd century AD, contains wall paintings depicting biblical scenes, such as Jesus healing the paralytic and the Last Supper. Some early Christian icons were discovered in the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. These icons portray Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and biblical figures, reflecting the use of visual representations for devotional purposes.
Caves in Cappadocia, located in modern-day Turkey, have also yielded significant evidence of early Christian presence and religious expression. Cappadocia became an important center for early Christianity, and several caves served as places of worship, monastic communities, and hiding spots for early Christians during periods of persecution. Cappadocia’s unique geological landscape allowed early Christians to carve churches, chapels, and monasteries into the soft volcanic rocks. These rock-cut churches are adorned with frescoes and wall paintings depicting various religious scenes, such as the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and biblical stories. Among the famous cave churches from the fourth century in Cappadocia is the “Elmalı Kilise” (Apple Church), known for its beautiful frescoes dating back to the 4th century AD. Another notable example is the “Yılanlı Kilise” (Snake Church), which also contains frescoes dating from the 4th century. The Goreme Open-Air Museum is one of the most famous sites in Cappadocia.
In addition to the archaeological evidence, there are numerous Church Fathers who attested to the use of imagery in the early church. St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) wrote in his “Confessions” about how the beauty of creation and music moved him to contemplate God’s greatness. St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – 395 AD), in his work “On the Making of Man,” spoke about the value of religious symbols and images as representations of divine realities, guiding believers towards a deeper understanding of God. St. John of Damascus (c. 675 – 749 AD), in his work “On the Divine Images” (also known as “Three Treatises on the Divine Images“), defended the use of religious images and icons against the iconoclastic controversy of his time.
The first major iconoclastic controversy occurred in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was initiated by Emperor Leo III in 726 AD, who ordered the removal and destruction of religious icons from churches and public spaces. The iconoclasts believed that the veneration of icons bordered on idolatry and violated the commandment against graven images. Orthodox Christians argued that a weak association with paganism is not a valid reason to condemn the use of images in Christian worship as Christianity had since repurposed and transformed pre-existing symbols, using them in a new context to convey Christian teachings and foster devotion to God.
The iconoclastic controversy led to a series of imperial decrees and church councils that alternately supported and opposed the use of icons. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD ultimately reaffirmed the use of religious images and icons in Christian worship, declaring them to be legitimate objects of veneration. As a result, the use of icons was restored, and the iconoclastic movement gradually subsided.
However, during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, some reformers, particularly in the Calvinist tradition, adopted iconoclastic views. They rejected the use of religious images, statues, and other visual representations in churches, considering them as potential distractions from the pure worship of God. Iconoclasm thus became prevalent in regions influenced by the Protestant Reformation, leading to the destruction of religious images and artwork in churches. This practice, known as “white washing”, involved removing paintings, statues, and decorations from churches, leaving the interiors plain and devoid of visual representations. This included the cross itself as many churches adopted a plain empty cross in place of traditional crucifixes.
“And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.”
“Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim woven into it by a skilled worker.”
1 Kings 6:23-35:
“In the inner sanctuary he made a pair of cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the first cherub was five cubits long, and the other wing five cubits—ten cubits from wing tip to wing tip. The second cherub also measured ten cubits, for the two cherubim were identical in size and shape. The height of each cherub was ten cubits. He placed the cherubim inside the innermost room of the temple, with their wings spread out. The wing of one cherub touched one wall, while the wing of the other touched the other wall, and their wings touched each other in the middle of the room. He overlaid the cherubim with gold. On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms, he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers. He also covered the floors of both the inner and outer rooms of the temple with gold. For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood, with five-sided jambs. And on the two olive wood doors he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers, and overlaid the cherubim and palm trees with hammered gold. In the same way, for the entrance to the main hall he made doorframes of olive wood that were four-sided. He also made two doors of juniper wood, each having two leaves that turned in sockets. He carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers on them and overlaid them with gold hammered evenly over the carvings.”
1 Chronicles 28:18–19:
“He also gave him the plan of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things. He gave him instructions for the divisions of the priests and Levites, and for all the work of serving in the temple of the Lord, as well as for all the articles to be used in its service.”
Church Father Quotes:
John of Damascus:
“Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable—the evil, the demonic, that which contradicts God.”
“The universe is an image of God, and the soul is an image of the universe.”
Basil the Great:
“The honor shown to the image passes on to the prototype.”
Gregory of Nyssa:
“The beauty of the material world leads to the beauty of the spiritual world.”
Jerome of Stridon :
“Acknowledge the honor of the saints, and train yourself to seek after it.”
Epiphanius of Salamis:
“I abhor the wicked throng of those who are against the holy images and paintings.”
“The cherubim shone forth from their wings the divine mysteries.”
Gregory the Great:
“What writing is to the literate, an image is to the unlearned.”
Clement of Alexandria:
“As we honor the person who brings us good news, so we glorify the image of the good God in the images of the venerable apostles and prophets.”