When you walk into just about any Catholic Church around the world, there is a distinctive feature common among them – the presence of art, statues, and other imagery that depict Jesus and other heavenly beings and realities. Those who have been Catholic most or all of their lives probably find the presence of these images natural or comfortable, but, as it turns out, there have been periods in our Church’s history where the use of such items has been both condemned and defended. In this article, I’ll talk about something called iconoclasm and why it is considered a heresy by the Catholic Church.

The word iconoclast comes from the Greek word eikonoklastēs, which literally translates to “image destroyer” and refers to those who oppose the use of what they would refer to as a “graven image,” which is expressly forbidden by God. We’ll first look at the history of iconoclasm and then examine the scriptural foundations for its error. Finally, we’ll examine how our tradition uses these images appropriately for rightly ordered worship.

In the early Church, the persecution of Christians was so extreme that not many images were being used for fear of being found out as a Christian. It was not until the 4th century, when these early persecutions of Christians ended, that images of Jesus and heavenly things began to be commonly depicted and were largely uncontested. In the early 7th century, Muhammad founded Islam and determined that God should never be depicted in art because the art could only be a perversion of the real thing. Unsurprisingly, this way of thinking eventually entered Christian conversations and divisions emerged as to whether or not these types of images were appropriate. Even some early Christian emperors took the iconoclast position. Whenever the Church comes upon areas of dispute, it holds a council to establish definitive teaching, so in 787, Pope Adrian I called the Second Council of Nicaea regarding the use of holy images. It was determined by the council and confirmed by the Pope:

As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere…a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels…those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments… and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes…to be revered by all who might see them. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent veneration, not, however, the adoration which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone…

There were no further issues with iconoclasm until the Protestant Reformation, when many of the Catholic Church’s teachings and practices were debated by the different reformers. One reformer from Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, took the iconoclast position so extremely he ordered all churches in his area to be stripped bare to the point of even removing the organs. These examples illustrate how the heresy has come and gone throughout Church history even until today.

Moving to Scripture, Iconoclasts base their position on Exodus 20:4 where God says, “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.” Iconoclasts, like Zwingli, would argue that our use of art and statues depicting godly and heavenly realities amounts to the worship of graven images, same as the Israelites when they worshipped the golden calf in the desert, angering God. While God did, indeed, say this, to isolate this verse is to take it out of context from the rest of scripture, which tells a much bigger picture. Just five chapters after God forbids carved images, He commands that the Ark of the Covenant be built. The instructions He provides include: “you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat” (Ex 25:18). Here, God is commanding the people to make an image of a heavenly reality (angels), but we know that God cannot contradict Himself, so there must be more going on. Later, while still in the desert, the Israelites are plagued by venomous snakes. In Numbers 21:8-9, God instructs Moses to make an image of a serpent and set it up on a pole, so that as the people are bit, they may look upon the image and be healed. This is a clear illustration of how God works through physical things, perceived by our senses, to act and bestow graces on us. Then, we come to Deuteronomy 4:15-16, where God actually explains in more detail why He forbade carved images saying, “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” In other words, since God had not yet shown Himself to His people, any image they would have made of Him would have been a creation of their own imaginations and a perversion of reality. However, when Jesus arrives, everything changes. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” (Col 1:15). The Greek word used for “image” here is eikon, which literally means “icon.” With Jesus, we can now see God and have a physical experience of Him through our senses. So, when we put all of this together, rather than taking one verse out of context, we can see that the problem with graven images was about the worship and idolatry of a human concept of God. After Jesus, our images find their source in divine revelation and are not considered idolatry. We are worshipping God in His all-encompassing truth, not a piece of art.

From the perspective of tradition, the use of holy images has proven to be a great tool in both worship and catechesis. We have already established that, as physical beings, we use our physical senses to know and understand things, including heavenly realities. When we look upon holy images, they aid our imaginations, hearts, and minds to ascend to the things they depict. They also aid in catechesis – teaching the people about the Catholic faith. Think back to when many people could not read and Mass was only celebrated in Latin. The people could look at the painted ceilings, stained glass, statues, and other art to see visual depictions of Scripture and heavenly realities. They could see images of the truths they were being taught, such as the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, and angels. They could learn the patronage of certain saints by the representation of the items they carried. Art and holy images bring God down to us, while elevating us to God. We are not worshipping physical materials, we are worshipping God through created things, just as He intended. Think of it this way: You have a deceased loved one’s picture sitting on a shelf in your home. You miss that person and when you see their photo, you think of them and talk to them, knowing they can hear you from where they are in heaven. Are you actually talking to the photo, or are you talking to the person whom the image represents? Iconoclasts are very sadly missing out on a very rich piece of the Church due to their false understanding of idolatry and the worship of graven images. Do not lose sight of the gift of art in the Catholic Church, allowing it all to blend into the background. This week, take notice of holy images and how they elevate your heart and mind to God, the One whom you worship.

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