It is true, indeed, that the making of holy images was not so general among the Jews as it is among us, because the Hebrews themselves were prone to idolatry, and because they were surrounded by idolatrous people, who might misconstrue the purpose for which the images were intended. For the same prudential reasons the primitive Christians were very cautious in making images, and very circumspect in exposing them to the gaze of the heathen among whom they lived, lest Christian images should be confounded with Pagan idols.
The catacombs of Rome, to which the faithful alone were admitted, abounded, however, in sacred emblems and pious representations, which are preserved even to this day and attest the practice of the early Christian Church. We see there painted on the walls or on vases of glass the Dove, the emblem of the Holy Ghost, Christ carrying His cross, or bearing on His shoulders the lost sheep. We meet also the Lamb, an anchor and a ship – appropriate types of our Lord, of hope and of the Church.
The first crusade against images was waged in the eighth century by Leo the Isaurian, Emperor of Constantinople. He commanded the paintings of our Lord and His Saints to be torn down from the church walls and burned. He even invaded the sanctuary of home, and snatched thence the sacred emblems which adorned private residences. He caused statues of bronze, silver and gold to be melted down and conveniently converted them into coins, upon which his own image was stamped. Like Henry VIII and Cromwell, this royal Iconoclast affected to be moved by a zeal for purity of worship, while avarice was the real motive of his action.
The Emperor commanded the learned librarians of his imperial library to give public approbation to his decrees against images, and when those conscientious men refused to endorse his course they were all confined in the imperial library, the building was set on fire and thirty thousand volumes, the splendid basilica which contained them, innumerable paintings and the librarians themselves were involved in one common destruction.
Constantine Copronymus prosecuted the vandalism of Leo, his predecessor. Stephen, an intrepid monk, presented to the Emperor a coin bearing that tyrant’s effigy, with these words: “Sire, whose image is this?” “It is mine,” replied the Emperor. The monk then threw down the piece of money and trampled it. He was instantly seized by the imperial attendants and soon after put to a painful death. “Alas!” cried the holy man to the Emperor, “if I am punished for dishonoring the image of a mortal monarch, what punishment do they deserve who burn the image of Jesus Christ?”
The demolition of images was revived by the Reformers of the sixteenth century. Paintings and statues were ruthlessly destroyed, chiefly in the British Isles, Germany and Holland, under the pretext that the making of them was idolatrous. But as the Iconoclasts of the eighth century had no scruple about appropriating to their own use the gold and silver of the statues which they melted, neither had the Iconoclasts of the sixteenth century any hesitation in confiscating and worshiping in the idolatrous churches whose statues and paintings they broke and disfigured.
A stranger who visits some of the desecrated Catholic churches of Great Britain and the Continent which are now used as Protestant temples cannot fail to notice the mutilated statues of the Saints still standing in their niches.
This barbaric warfare against religious memorials was not only a grievous sacrilege, but an outrage against the fine arts; and had the destroying angels extended their ravages over Europe the immortal works of Michael Angelo and Raphael would be lost to us today.
The doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding the use of sacred images is clearly and fully expressed by the General Council of Trent in the following words: “The images of Christ, and of His Virgin Mother, and of other Saints, are to be had and retained, especially in churches; and a due honor and veneration is to be given to them; not that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them for which they are to be honored, or that any prayer is to be made to them, or that any confidence is to be placed in them, as was formerly done by the heathens, who placed their hopes in idols; but because the honor which is given them is referred to the originals which they represent, so that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads or kneel, we adore Christ and venerate His Saints, whose likeness they represent.”
Every Catholic child clearly comprehends the essential difference which exists between a Pagan idol and a Christian image. The Pagans looked upon an idol as a god endowed with intelligence and the other attributes of the Deity. They were therefore idolaters, or image worshipers. Catholic Christians know that a holy image has no intelligence or power to hear and help them. They pay it a relative respect – that is, their reverence for the copy is proportioned to the veneration which they entertain for the heavenly original to which it is also referred.
For the sake of my Protestant readers I may here quote their own great Leibnitz on the reverence paid to sacred images. He says, in his Systema Theologicum, p. 142: “Though we speak of the honor paid to images, yet this is only a manner of speaking, which really means that we honor not the senseless thing which is incapable of understanding such honor, but the prototype, which receives honor through its representation, according to the teaching of the Council of Trent. It is in this sense, I take it, that scholastic writers have spoken of the same worship being paid to images of Christ as to Christ our Lord Himself; for the act which is called the worship of an image is really the worship of Christ Himself, through and in the presence of the image and by occasion of it; by the inclination of the body toward it as to Christ Himself, as rendering Him more manifestly present, and raising the mind more actively to the contemplation of Him. Certainly, no sane man thinks, under such circumstances, of praying in this wise: ‘Give me, O image, what I ask; to thee, O marble or wood, I give thanks;’ but ‘Thee, O Lord, I adore; to Thee I give thanks and sing songs of praise.’ Given, then, that there is no other veneration of images than that which means veneration of their prototype, there is surely no more idolatry in it than there is in the respect shown in the utterance of the Most Holy Names of God and Christ; for, after all, names are but signs or symbols, and even as such inferior to images, for they represent much less vividly. So that when there is question of honoring images, this is to be understood in the same way as when it is said that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend, or that the name of the Lord is blessed, or that glory be given to His Name. Thus, the bowing before an image outside of us is no more to be reprehended than the worshiping before an external image in our own minds; for the external image does but serve the purpose of expressing visibly that which is internal.”
In the Book of Exodus we read: “Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them nor serve them.” Protestants contend that these words contain an absolute prohibition against the making of images, while the Catholic Church insists that the commandment referred to merely prohibits us from worshiping them as gods.
The text cannot mean the absolute prohibition of making images; for in that case God would contradict Himself by commanding in one part of Scripture what He condemns in another. In Exodus (xxv. 18), for instance, He commands two cherubim of beaten gold to be made and placed on each side of the oracle; and in Numbers (xxi. 8) He commands Moses to make a brazen serpent, and to set it up for a sign, that “whosoever being struck by the fiery serpents shall look upon it, shall live.” Are not cherubim and serpents the likenesses of creatures in heaven above, in the earth beneath and in the waters under the earth? for cherubim dwell in heaven and serpents are found on land and sea.
We should all, without exception, break the commandment were we to take it in the Protestant sense. Have you not at home the portraits of living and departed relatives? And are not these the likenesses of persons in heaven above and on the earth beneath?
Westminster Abbey, though once a Catholic Cathedral, is now a Protestant house of worship. It is filled with the statues of illustrious men; yet no one will accuse the English church of idolatry in allowing those statues to remain there. But you will say: The worshipers in Westminster have no intention of adoring these statues. Neither have we any intention of worshiping the statues of the Saints. An English parson once remarked to a Catholic friend: “Tom, don’t you pray to images?” “We pray before them,” replied Tom; “but we have no intention of praying to them.” “Who cares for your intention,” retorted the parson. “Don’t you pray at night?” observed Tom. “Yes,” said the parson; “I pray at my bed.” “Yes; you pray to the bed-post.” “Oh, no!” said the reverend gentleman; “I have no intention of doing that.” “Who cares,” replied Tom, “for your intention.”
The moral rectitude or depravity of our actions cannot be determined without taking into account the intention.
There are many persons who have been taught in the nursery tales, that Catholics worship idols. These persons, if they visit Europe and see an old man praying before an image of our Lord or a Madonna which is placed along the wayside, are at once confirmed in their prejudices. Their zeal against idols takes fire and they write home, adding one more proof of idolatry against the benighted Romanists. If these superficial travelers had only the patience to question the old man he would tell them, with simplicity of faith, that the statue had no life to hear or help him, but that its contemplation inspired him with greater reverence for the original.
As I am writing for the information of Protestants, I quote with pleasure the following passage, written by one of their own theologians, in the Encyclopédie (Edit. d’Yverdun, tom. 1, art. Adorer):
“When Lot prostrates himself before the two angels it is an act of courtesy towards honored guests; when Jacob bows down before Esau it is an act of deference from a younger to an elder brother; when Solomon bows low before Bethsabee it is the honor which a son pays to his mother; when Nathan, coming in before David, ‘had worshiped, bowing down to the ground,’ it is the homage of a subject to his prince. But when a man prostrates himself in prayer to God it is the creature adoring the Creator. And if these various actions are expressed – sometimes by the word adore, sometimes by worship or prostration – it is not the bare meaning of the word which has guided interpreters in rendering it, but the nature of the case. When an Israelite prostrated himself before the king no one thought of charging him with idolatry. If he had done the same thing in the presence of an idol, the very same bodily act would have been called idolatry. And why? Because all men would have judged by his action that he regarded the idol as a real Divinity and that he would express, in respect to it, the sentiments manifested by adoration in the limited sense which we give to the word. What shall we think, then, of what Catholics do to show honor to Saints, to relics, to the wood of the cross? They will not deny that their acts of reverence, in such cases, are very much like those by which they pay outward honor to God. But have they the same ideas about the Saints, the relics and the cross as they have about God? I believe that we cannot fairly accuse them of it.”
A gentleman who was present at the unveiling of Clay’s statue in the city of Richmond informed me that as soon as the curtain was uplifted, and the noble form of the Kentucky statesman appeared in full view, the immense concourse of spectators instinctively uncovered their heads. “Why do you take off your hat?” playfully remarked my friend to an acquaintance who stood by. “In honor, of course, of Henry Clay,” he replied. “But Henry is not there in the flesh. You see nothing but clay.” “But my intention, sir,” he continued, “is to do honor to the original.” He answered correctly. And yet how many of the same people would be shocked if they saw a man take off his hat in the presence of a statue of Saint Peter! It is not, therefore, the making of the image, but its worship, that is condemned by the Decalogue.
Having seen the lawfulness of sacred images, let us now consider the advantages to be derived from their use.
First – Religious paintings embellish the house of God. What is more becoming than to adorn the church, which is the shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem, so beautifully described by Saint John? Solomon decorated the temple of God with images of cherubim and other representations. “And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. And all the walls of the temple round about he carved with divers figures and carvings.” If it was meet and proper to adorn Solomon’s temple, which contained only the Ark of the Lord, how much more fitting is it to decorate our churches, which contain the Lord of the Ark? When I see a church tastefully ornamented it is a sure sign that the Master is at home, and that His devoted subjects pay homage to Him in His court.
What beauty, what variety, what charming pictures are presented to our view in this temple of nature which we inhabit! Look at the canopy of heaven. Look at the exquisite pictures painted by the Hand of the Divine Artist on this earth. “Consider the lilies of the field…. I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.” If the temple of nature is so richly adorned, should not our temples made with hands bear some resemblance to it?
How many professing Christians must, like David, reproach themselves for “dwelling in a house of cedar, while the ark of God is lodged with skins.” How many are there whose private apartments are adorned with exquisite paintings, who affect to be scandalized at the sight of a single pious emblem in their house of worship? On the occasion of the celebration of Henry W. Beecher’s silver wedding several wealthy members of his congregation adorned the walls of Plymouth church with their private paintings. Their object, of course, in doing so was not to honor God, but their pastor. But if the portraits of men were no desecration to that church, how can the portraits of Saints desecrate ours? And what can be more appropriate than to surround the Sanctuary of Jesus Christ with the portraits of the Saints, especially of Mary and of the Apostles, who, in their life, ministered to His sacred person? And is it not natural for children to adorn their homes with the likenesses of their Fathers in the faith?
Second – Religious paintings are the catechism of the ignorant. In spite of all the efforts of Church and State in the cause of education a great proportion of the human race will be found illiterate. Descriptive pictures will teach those what books make known to the learned.
How many thousands would have died ignorant of the Christian faith if they had not been enlightened by paintings! When Augustine, the Apostle of England, first appeared before King Ethelbert to announce to him the Gospel, a silver crucifix and a painting of our Savior were borne before the preacher, and these images spoke more tenderly to the eyes than his words to the ears of his audience.
By means of religious emblems Saint Francis Xavier effected many conversions in India; and by the same means Father De Smet made known the Gospel to the savages of the Rocky Mountains.
Third – By exhibiting religious paintings in our rooms we make a silent, though eloquent, profession of our faith. I once called on a gentleman in a distant city, some time during our late war, and, on entering his library, I noticed two portraits, one of a distinguished General, the other of an Archbishop. These portraits at once proclaimed to me the religious and patriotic sentiments of the proprietor of the house. “Behold!” he said to me, pointing to the pictures, “my religious creed and my political creed.” If I see a crucifix in a man’s room I am convinced at once that he is not an infidel.
Fourth – By the aid of sacred pictures our devotion and love for the original are intensified, because we can concentrate our thoughts more intently on the object of our affections. Mark how the eye of a tender child glistens on confronting the painting of an affectionate mother. What Christian can stand unmoved when contemplating a picture of the Mother of Sorrows? How much devotion has been fostered by the Stations of the Cross? Observe the intense sympathy depicted on the face of the humble Christian woman as she silently passes from one station to another. She follows her Savior step by step from the Garden to Mount Calvary. The whole scene, like a panoramic view, is imprinted on her mind, her memory and her affections. Never did the most pathetic sermon on the Passion enkindle such heartfelt love, or evoke such salutary resolutions, as have been produced by the silent spectacle of our Savior hanging on the cross.
Fifth – The portraits of the Saints stimulate us to the imitation of their virtues; and this is the principal aim which the Church has in view in encouraging the use of pious representations. One object, it is true, is to honor the Saints; another is to invoke them; but the principal end is to incite us to an imitation of their holy lives. We are exhorted to “look and do according to the pattern shown us on the mount.” Nor do I know a better means for promoting piety than by example.
If you keep at home the likenesses of George Washington, of Patrick Henry, of Chief Justice Taney, or of other distinguished men, the copies of such eminent originals cannot fail to exercise a salutary though silent influence on the mind and heart of your child. Your son will ask you: “Who are those men?” And when you tell him: “This is Washington, the Father of his Country; this is Patrick Henry, the ardent lover of civil liberty; and this is Taney, the incorruptible Judge,” your boy will imperceptibly imbibe not only a veneration for those men, but a relish for the civic virtues for which they were conspicuous. And in like manner, when our children have constantly before their eyes the purest and most exalted models of sanctity, they cannot fail to draw from such contemplation a taste for the virtues that marked the lives of the originals.
Is not our country flooded with obscene pictures and immodest representations which corrupt our youths? If the agents of Satan employ means so vile for a bad end; if they are cunning enough to pour through the senses into the hearts of the unwary the insidious poison of sin, by placing before them lascivious portraits, in God’s name, why should not we sanctify the souls of our children by means of pious emblems? Why should not we make the eye the instrument of edification as the enemy makes it the organ of destruction? Shall the pen of the artist, the pencil of the painter and the chisel of the sculptor be prostituted to the basest purposes? God forbid! The arts were intended to be the handmaids of religion.
Almost every moment of the day the eye is receiving impressions from outward objects and instantly communicating these impressions to the soul. Thus the soul receives every day thousands of impressions, good or bad, according to the character of the objects presented to its gaze.
We cannot, therefore, over-estimate the salutary effect produced upon us in a church or room adorned with sacred paintings. We feel, while in their presence, that we are in the company of the just. The contemplation of these pious portraits chastens our affections, elevates our thoughts, checks our levity and diffuses around us a healthy atmosphere.
I am happy to acknowledge that the outcry formerly raised against images has almost subsided of late. The epithet of idolaters is seldom applied to us now. Even some of our dissenting brethren are beginning to recognize the utility of religious symbols and to regret that we have been permitted, by the intemperate zeal of the Reformers, to have so long the monopoly of them. Crosses already surmount some of our Protestant churches and replace the weather-cock.
A gentleman of Richmond recently informed me that during the preceding Holy Week he adorned with twelve crosses an Episcopal church in which, eleven years before, the sight of a single one was viewed with horror by the minister.
May the day soon come when all Christians will join with us not only in venerating the sacred symbol of salvation, but in worshiping at the same altar.