I have been asked what is the difference between the veneration of images and idol worship, and I am going to try and give some kind of explanation. First, though, I am going to yield the field on this: often, there is no practical difference.
Yes, I admit: some (okay, let’s make that “a lot”) of ordinary Catholics do treat religious images with more than veneration, they treat them as almost having magical powers (or indeed, sometimes there’s no “almost” about it). Processions on feast days, in times of danger or natural disaster, important days like Holy Week in Seville or pilgrimage to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the torchlight processions in Lourdes – aren’t these excessive, at best, and superstitious at worst? Half-digested paganism lingering on in what is supposed to be a Christian tradition, but really encouraging the worst of folk religion under the guise of piety? Lack of understanding, so that people treat these as idols in the most literal sense, pinning money on to statues so that we can see the basic motives at work – religion as commercial transaction, where in the spirit of peasant pragmatism favours are bought and sold – what has this to do with the Gospel? Wouldn’t it be better, safer and more conducive to establishing a genuine relationship with God to do away with all these kinds of things and concentrate on the word as revealed in the Bible, and the Word as revealed in the Son? To turn the eyes of the people from images and pictures and statues and things made by human hands out of the human imagination to the eternal Reality which surpasses any invention of mortals? After all, this kind of populist mania about weeping and bleeding images is every bit as scandalous and unedifying as the reports from 2005 of Hindu idols in North Indian temples drinking milk offerings, and can be put down to hysteria, hoax and fraud the same way that rationalists and skeptics debunked those “miracles”. If you wouldn’t convert to Hinduism on account of that kind of event, why on earth would a Christian version be any more convincing?
All those things and worse being admitted, let us consider the case for the defence. Firstly a lot of these accretions are cultural and are indulged in not from any kind of great religious fervour but more from a mix of national and patriotic pride and following on the customs and traditions of your native place. For example the serenade to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is just as much a secular showbiz performance as it is a religious event, and I imagine many Mexican pop singers and entertainers take the gig for the same reasons that American pop singers and entertainers take the gig to sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl; who is going to turn down exposure like that, particularly if a refusal can be seen as offensive to public sentiment or declining an honour? Many of the immigrant festivals in North America have morphed from celebrating a saint’s day to becoming a celebration of native culture, customs and traditions from the ‘old home’ and a great excuse to have an outdoor party of food, music and company, with a procession or church service tacked on. And not just in America: the “patterns” (or saint’s day devotions) in Ireland have become more about local history and less about a mainly religious event; they’ve become more like fairs or festivals, the best example of such being St. Patrick’s Day which has been turned into the “St. Patrick’s Week Festival” in Dublin, advertised as “a distinct celebration of Irish culture” and you would look long and hard, with no success in the end, to find any notices about Mass or prayer as one of the constituent events of the calendar.
Secondly, it’s not so easy to unravel “pure” or “correct” use from possible abuse. We humans have the capacity to abuse or misunderstand or misuse anything and everything. Our forebears in faith were outstanding (or disgraceful, take your pick) examples of this, the most notorious example being when Moses returned with the Law only to discover his countrymen adoring the image of the Apis bull which they had created while waiting for him. By any measure, that’s a very short time to go astray in your understanding of correct religious procedure.
The people of Israel were always falling away into such habits, but God did not reward this behaviour as it deserved by abandoning them and choosing another people; He constantly corrected them and led them back on the right path. As humans, we need tangible reminders of things. We live in bodies which are physical, material vessels and we comprehend things not through pure intellectual apprehension but mediated through our senses. This also means that we have a whole tangle of emotional and value associations entwined with symbols and tokens and ideas that are meaningful to, and esteemed by, us. Religious connotations are not going to be any different or any more separate from other elements in our lives.
We can make idols of anything. We have idols in everyday life that we don’t even recognise as such. Have you been told all your life to study hard and get good grades in school, work hard and do your best at your job, and mark significance by means of proofs such as promotions, job titles, awards, publicity, celebrity, living in a desirable location, having the dream house and dream spouse and family? Did anyone ever talk about the idol of Success? What place do the failures and the broken and those on the bottom rungs of the ladder have in that scheme?
Think about the rows and court cases about displays of the Ten Commandments or anything associated with religion in schools, public buildings or on public lands. Think about the real hurt and anger felt by both sides when things like memorials commemorating the dead are challenged by atheist groups as promoting Christianity above other religions or establishing a state religion. To the majority of us, civic memorials or war memorials are not primarily or solely religious and we are so accustomed to them that we are functionally blind to any trappings of religious imagery that are included. Ironically, the atheist objectors may be clearer in what they see as standing out (even if it is offensive to them) than the rest of us, who lump everything in together in a kind of bland civic religion that is so watered-down, it has no more unadulterated meaning and so we are shocked more by the offense to our sense of civic pride and patriotic duty engendered by the objection than by the realisation that hey, yeah, putting these symbols on means that this philosophy or belief represented by them has – or should have – primacy over the rest of the attributes of state and cardinal virtues.
Don’t think your denomination suffers from idolatry? Ever experienced a row over which Bible translation is the only one to use – King James Only or one with inclusive language? The Catholic version of this is the Spirit of Vatican II versus the Society of St. Pius X (or, for the even purer, more hardcore, the Society of St. Pius V – these are the ones who think the Pius X crowd are too wishy-washy, to which the only reasonable response is the formation of the Society of St Pius I). Ever heard of someone who kicked up a row about the flag being/not being on display in the sanctuary? Does your church have a national flag in its sanctuary or otherwise prominently displayed, and it’s not a state church? Would there be more fuss about removing the flag or removing the cross? Is there even a cross there to be removed?
Okay, now that I’ve hammered the point about the abuses into the ground, I should speak about the legitimate use of images. There is a legitimate use, and it hinges on the very propensity for abuse that is all too real a risk.
Let’s go back to the title of this post: a window upon heaven. More accurately, “a window into Heaven” is how the icons of the Orthodox tradition are described, and that is their function – to represent the eternal things, to lift up the heart and mind to the reality represented there, to be not mirrors reflecting back our own thoughts and imaginings but windows through which we look upon truth. Icons are deliberately stylised and confined to set rules of composition, with a very limited permissible palette of symbols, in order to avoid the developments in Western art which were heavily criticised by the East; the more realistic styles which arose out of better and novel techniques and investigation of scientific disciplines, not to mention the interest in recovering the skills and realism of the Classical world, were used to portray both secular and religious subjects. This meant that in the West, there was an increasing emphasis on the human nature of the Holy Family and of the saints and in general, the more life-like, the better as far as aesthetic and artistic values were concerned. This led to religious pictures being treated as excuses for artists to show off their technical virtuosity (and so appeal to patrons) rather than as devotional objects. This attitude led to conflicts such as that in 1573 when Veronese was called before the Venetian Inquisition to answer charges of possible heresy on account of his painting, which was originally titled “The Last Supper” but after this, changed to “Christ in the House of Levi”. Veronese preferred to change the title to another plausible occasion in the Gospels rather than make the alterations required by the Inquisition. In art histories, this episode is regarded with a mixture of amusement, bemusement and mild outrage about interference with the free expression of art, but if you take the request to be to produce a devotional image and not a work of secular art, then Veronese failed in one and succeeded in the other – though he may not (and probably wasn’t even trying to) have been that serious about producing a religious icon in the first place.
For a more edifying example, take El Greco, who as a young artist from Crete worked in the style of icon painting native to that island, a blend of Italian and Byzantine techniques. You can see recognisably Greek imagery in this early work. Contrast that with how his style developed after studying in Italy and moving to Spain, in this painting of the Trinity. It is genuinely devout and unmistakeably intended for prayerful contemplation, but it is not an icon by the stern and unbending definitions of Orthodox icon-writing.
Besides the divergent attitudes to painting between the Eastern and Western churches, the Orthodox had and have a much more confrontational attitude to statues, which are not considered either suitable or permissible. There are many reasons behind this, but one probably is based on historical grounds in that the memory of actual idols was alive in the early Church and, while the Western half of the Empire fell into decay, the Byzantine Empire maintained a continuity of cultural memory (including that of the Classical heritage) and practice that militated against adopting statues for use in worship. However, while the disapproval towards sculptural representations may have seemed like common ground to the Protestant Reformers, the judgement on veneration of images and the cultus of the saints remained the same. There were iconoclastic movements within Orthodoxy during the 8th and 9th centuries which received the approval and support of the Emperors, but the licitness of images and their veneration was upheld and restored.
And let’s go all the way back to the earliest use of painted imagery – the catacombs. Used for burials between the 2nd and 6th centuries, important for the history of early Christian art as they contain the majority of the frescoes and sculptures, and fascinating whether you want to believe that Pure Bible Christianity went off the rails anytime from the 2nd-3rd centuries and was overwhelmed by pagan corruption or you want to see how those living in a majority pagan society coped, and then how it made the transition into a majority Christian society and how they coped with that. One of the interesting things is where you can see the influences of the surrounding society and the very real dangers the early Christians faced, and a demonstration of that is the Good Shepherd imagery. Now, we’re all soaked in Christian/post-Christian culture where we know the imagery, know the verses, know the references. So to us, a painting of a man with a sheep on his shoulders and more sheep at his feet is unambiguously Christ the Good Shepherd. Not so for 2nd century Romans; it’s more of a cross between a coded image and recycling earlier themes. A coded image, because pagans and Christians were buried in the early catacombs, and maybe you didn’t want to be identified as one of those weird atheist cultists who wanted to destroy society. So the imagery of the Good Shepherd could be read as Christian, by Christians – or it could be read as Hermes Kriophoros (Hermes carrying a ram) by the pagan Romans and any stray Greeks.
Also, there probably was a lot of overlap between the artisans who worked as tomb painters and the likes; they could adapt pagan imagery for Christians and maybe even after conversion, they re-worked their old repertoire. Instead of a goddess or nymphs, they painted the same figures as saints or pious women. Now, you can look at this as wicked pagan corruption diluting true teaching and infecting the church with the result that notional converts continued to be half-pagan in public and fully pagan in private, or you could see it as the Church taking what is good or useful from the pagan world and consecrating it to the use of God, in the same way that the Pantheon (temple of all the gods) was made into a church in the 7th century and other sites of ruined temples were turned into Christian sites for various purposes. The fact remains that, even from the time of the persecutions and the martyrs, religious imagery was used to represent both symbolic references (such as fish and bread for the Eucharist) and real persons, and the faithful did not think it incongruous with or prohibited by their faith to use paintings in the tombs of the martyrs where services and prayers would be said before those tombs and in the presence of those images.
So what purpose do these images serve? It’s one that can easily be perverted to abuse, but it’s the risk we as humans with our fallen nature run in everything we do; it’s the same danger that Peter ran into when he went from “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” to “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” in the space of about ten minutes. I’m about to be mean to my co-religionists who are converts and/or apologists once again, because often (in the spirit of making a helpful and easily understandable analogy), they use something along the lines of “Paintings and statues of Christ and Mary and the saints are used by Catholics the same way you use pictures of your friends and family. You might carry around a picture of your spouse in your wallet or purse, and it means a lot to you, but you don’t worship it, do you? Neither do we! It’s a reminder of those who mean a lot to us!”
Well, yes and no. Yes, these images are reminders, but they are not merely that, and they contain a lot more might and intensity than family portraits, no matter how cherished. Why do we burn candles before them, after all? Why do we kneel in prayer before them? The first and simplest function is as the analogy to photographs of loved ones suggests: to act as memorials and representations. As I have said earlier, we are physical beings who experience reality through our senses. We find it easier to think of things or people or ideas or memories if we can make some kind of representation of them. Even if we only read an account in a book, we have a mental construction of how we think the character looks. How many of you have made a picture of what you think someone on the radio looks like, based on his or her voice, and been surprised when you see his or her real appearance? It’s easier to think of St. Tabitha or Venerable Gregory when you have a picture of him or her, even if it’s not an exact likeness or even a particularly realistic one.
That leads on to the second and related function: to express religious ideas and sentiments, to catch and hold and fix our attention. Buddhism has the concept of the “monkey mind” which skips restlessly from topic to topic, endlessly active, endlessly distracted. Any tradition which engages in contemplation or prayer will recognise the problem. Any one of us who has tried to pray will know it straight off: the moment you find a quiet time and a quiet space, the clamour of your internal voice chattering away overwhelms you. One of the functions of images is to give you something to fix upon so that you can concentrate on a definite thing, and so at least put a leash on the monkey, if not quieten it entirely. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote, during the 6th century, to the Bishop of Marseilles who had destroyed the images in his diocese: “Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book.”
C.S. Lewis, in “The Screwtape Letters”, describes the problem of attempting to pray and the danger attached to the use of images excellently:
“The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives. If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer – perhaps quite savage and puerile – images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered. I have known cases where what the patient called his ‘God’ was actually located – up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him.”
That is exactly and precisely the danger. It does you no good to kneel before a crucifix if you are praying to it, not through it. It does you no good to congratulate yourself on not being like that crucifix-worshipper if you are praying to an area located three inches to the front of your nose while in your “prayer closet”. Modern vampire movies and books have gone a little overboard on the notion that religious symbols (especially crosses) don’t work ‘of their own accord’ against vampires, but depend on the faith of the wielder for their effect (so a non-Christian could use something personally meaningful to them), but they are making a somewhat correct point. You can see this in the original “Fright Night” where Peter Vincent, host of a television horror-movie show and who formerly played the role of a vampire hunter in a series of Hammer Horror-type films tries (and fails) to use a crucifix to repel a real vampire, due to lack of faith in the spiritual reality it represents (and the lack of faith in the reality of supernatural entities such as vampires) but then later triumphantly drives off the main villain because now he does truly believe.
The third and most important, and most easily confused and abused, function of images is to act as representations of real persons in order to help us direct our adoration and worship to its proper end. Here we get technical, because while it is permissible to venerate an image, it is not permissible to worship it. We venerate the statue of Christ in the imagery of the Sacred Heart, we worship Christ whose heart was pierced by the lance while His dead body hung upon the cross, that pierced heart the source of the infinite mercy and charity which saved us from our just condemnation. As the icons of the East are intended to be, the images of the West should act as windows into Heaven. We look upon them first to fix our minds, then we look through them to lift up our hearts and wills. This is why we light candles before them; not as signifying worship of an image, but as representing the prayer we made and the intention we had in our mind. The candle stands before the image to say “This is me, this is my need. O merciful Christ, hear and grant my prayer. O compassionate Mother, O you my brother or sister, the saint I ask to intervene for me, join my prayer to yours and ask it of the Lord we all serve. I cannot remain here in prayer as I would wish, and my mind is distracted by the cares and necessities of the world, so let this light stand in my place and represent me to you, as this image represents you to me.”
To give an example, my mother was deathly afraid of thunderstorms and lightning, so whenever there was one in the vicinity, she would take us kids and retire to bed with us and the statue of the Sacred Heart until it was over. Did she think that there was some magic power in the statue that would protect her and us? No, of course not, but it helped her to fix her mind not on the scary storm but on the Lord who calmed the tempest.
In a way, I think that the use of statues in Western religious art has played a role more akin to those of icons. I’ve mentioned how painting developed along lines of “art for art’s sake”, but statues (although sculpture also was caught up in the Renaissance re-discovery of Classical precedents) tended to be more static and fossilised in its imagery, whatever about technique. Whatever about great artists like Michaelangelo, most Catholics’ experience of religious images are the ones in their local churches, which in the main (if they haven’t been consigned to the basement in the 70s renovations) are 19th century mass-produced Italian (or Italian-style) plaster ones, of set iconography and generally pastel colouring. Artistic merit is not of a very high grade, but once you’ve seen one Sacred Heart or Virgin of Lourdes, you will recognise it no matter where in the world you may encounter another one (and you’ll be able to tell the difference between Mother of Good Counsel, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima, to boot).
Because they are of mediocre artistic merit, you will definitely not be distracted by the beauty or interest of a great work of art, and so in a way it is easier to “look through” them. It’s hard to put all this into words when you’ve grown up with it as a natural part of your devotions, and I’m sure many plain people have the same difficulty. Don’t assume that just because I used the example of Mexican peasants and urban poor going on pilgrimages paying extravagant reverence to the tilmàtli bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that I intend to say they all have a superstitious understanding of the veneration of images; they are just as likely to know in practice the correct theology but not be able to articulate it. I would also like to use atheists once again (if they will forgive me) to make a point; just as it is easy for those outside the traditions that venerate images to see this as pagan, mistaken and confused literalism, so certain rationalists and freethinkers are convinced that Christian believers of all stripes think Hell is located in the centre of the Earth and that Heaven is up in the clouds, where God sits on a throne floating in mid-air, and all that is needed to debunk Christianity is to say that when the cosmonauts and astronauts went into space, they didn’t see any sign of angels or pearly gates. I think most of you would object to such a simplification and misunderstanding of what you believe, and how metaphorical language is being subjected to an unwarranted emphasis. When you salute the flag, are you worshipping the flag, or are you honouring the country of which it is a symbol?
So, am I saying that images are necessary? No, you can strip away practically everything from candles to the tabernacle (and believe me, somebody out there has already done that) but as long as you have the Gospel (and good liturgy), you are fine. Am I saying you should incorporate images into your private or corporate prayer and worship? No, but if you want to try, go ahead. Am I trying to turn you all into idol-worshippers? Most definitely not. Am I saying that images should never be used because of the potential for falling into error? No. The moral of the story is not no images because they can be abused, it is that we can make idols out of anything, even good things. If images are a scandal to you, then keep far from them. If you venerate images and your weaker brother finds them to be a stumbling-block, then be tender to his conscience.
But don’t let a permissible, optional extra turn you into the kind of zealot who cuts off his own nose to spoil his face; the next time you hear about the War on Christmas or someone from a Protestant denomination gets highly exercised over Nativity scenes/crèches/cribs (these aren’t Catholic-inspired images which are the same thing as idols, then?) being banned from public spaces, remember the Wars on Christmas of former years carried out with the best intentions of pruning wrong thinking and wrong practice.
When it comes to ordering soldiers to patrol the streets of 17th century London on Christmas Day so that they can seize illegal Christmas puddings, or the Scots Presbyterians being so determined to stamp out Popish Chrismastide that they encouraged the celebration of Hogmanay (the New Year’s Eve festival with pagan Norse roots) in its stead, it’s time to reconsider the situation. To finish up, I will leave you with a quote from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”:
1159 The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images.
1160 Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other.
1161 All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses” who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God”, finally transfigured “into his likeness”, who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ.
1162 “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.” (St John Damascene). Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.