The religious use of sacred images in the Catholic churches is one of the most celebrated topics by the anti-Catholics in their very agendum of bringing the Church down. But when did the veneration of images begin?
During the Jewish Machabean period, the strong feeling against any kind of representation of living things occured. According to Josephus, “Certain things were done by Herod against the law for which he was accused by Judas and Matthias. For the king made and set up over the great gate of the temple a sacred and very precious great golden eagle. But it is forbidden in the law to those who wish to live according to its precepts to think of setting up images, or to assist any one to consecrate figures of living things. Therefore those wise men ordered the eagle to be destroyed” (“Antiq. Jud.”, 1. XVII, c. vi, 2). So it became the general conviction that Jews abhor any kind of statue or image.
In spite of the iconoclastic ideas of the Jews of Palestine described by the early historians, the Jews in the Diaspora made no difficulty about embellishing their monuments with paintings even of the human form. There are a number of Jewish catacombs and cemeteries decorated with paintings representing birds, beasts, fishes, men, and women. At Gamart, North of Carthage, is one whose tombs are adorned with carved ornaments of garlands and human figures; in one of the caves are pictures of a horseman and of another person holding a whip under a tree, another at Rome in the Vigna Randanini by the Appian Way has a painted ceiling of birds, fishes, and little winged human figures around a centerpiece representing a woman, evidently a Victory, crowning a small figure. This fact depicts that when Christians began to decorate their catacombs with holy images they did not separate themselves from the custom of their Jewish forefathers.
So that in this matter, the use of Christian symbols were first mentioned in writing by St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 153-217) in Paedogogus 3, 11.
“And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.”
Evidently, the Christian catacombs with religious images and symbols in Rome have been dated back to the late second century. One of them contains a fresco that depicts the Virgin with the Child on her knees and a picture of a prophet pointing at them; a fresco of a Good Shepherd, which was one of the common images found in the catacombs; an image of a cross and the monogram of Christ (Chi-Rho) in a sarcophagus; etc. These images depicted in the ancient Catacombs of the early Christians were as old as Christianity itself.
In the Dura-Europos church, of about AD 230-256, which of the very early churches surviving is in the best condition, there are frescos of biblical scenes including a figure of Jesus, as well as Christ as the Good Shepherd. The building was a normal house apparently converted to use as a church.
Did the early Christians use sacred images? The answer is absolutely YES. What else is needed to prove its historicity?!
The earliest distinction between the worship of Christ and the veneration of saints is seen as early as the first Christian century in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. AD 135), as it reads:
“…it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ…nor to worship any other. For we worship him indeed, as being the Son of God. However, as for the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love them on account of their extraordinary affections towards their own King.”
See? Since the earliest years of Christianity, the Church has offered exclusive worship and adoration to God but showed veneration and honor to God’s saints. It has never been changed from the first until the present centuries. The Apostles handed it down to their disciples and to their disciples, so on and so forth. Who are you to refuse it?
Below are the other testimonies of the early Christians on the veneration of sacred images:
Tertullian, theologian (AD 160-240):
“The brazen serpent and the golden cherubim were not violations of the Second Commandment. Their meaning. [+] Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.’ The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents? I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given” (Against Marcion, II.xxii).
Eusebius Pamphili, bishop of Caesarea (AD 295-340):
“They say that this statue is an image of [+] Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers” (Church History, VII).
St. Basil the Great (AD 329-379):
“I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches” (Letter 360).
St. Jerome, a Roman presbyter (AD 347-420):
“Everywhere we venerate the tombs of the martyrs; we apply their holy ashes to our eyes; we even touch them, if we may, with our lips” (Letter 46 §8).
“We shall see the fountain in which the eunuch was immersed by Philip. We shall make a pilgrimage to Samaria, and side by side venerate the ashes of John the Baptist, of Elisha, and of Obadiah” (Letter 46 §13).
“You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name Wakeful is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as Sleepy) has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom upon the relics of the holy martyrs; and that he calls us who cherish them ashmongers and idolaters who pay homage to dead men’s bones. Unhappy wretch! to be wept over by all Christian men . . . We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord” (Letter 109 §1).
St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (AD 347-407):
“For like a conflagration indeed, or like a thunderbolt hurled from on high, have they lighted upon the roof of the Church, and yet they rouse up no one; but whilst our Father’s house is burning, we are sleeping, as it were, a deep and stupid sleep. And yet who is there whom this fire does not touch? Which of the statues that stand in the Church? for the Church is nothing else than a house built of the souls of us men. Now this house is not of equal honor throughout, but of the stones which contribute to it, some are bright and shining, whilst others are smaller and more dull than they, and yet superior again to others. There we may see many who are in the place of gold also, the gold which adorns the ceiling. Others again we may see, who give the beauty and gracefulness produced by statues. Many we may see, standing like pillars. For he is accustomed to call men also also on account of their beauty, adding as they do, much grace, and having their heads overlaid with gold” (Homilies 10 on Ephesians).
“Were your Statues thrown down? You have it in your power again to set up others yet more splendid” (Homilies 21 on the Statues §10).
“For not the bodies only, but the very sepulchres of the saints have been filled with spiritual grace. For if in the case of Elisha this happened, and a corpse when it touched the sepulchre, burst the bands of death and returned to life again, much rather now, when grace is more abundant, when the energy of the spirit is greater, is it possible that one touching a sepulchre, with faith, should win great power; thence on this account God allowed us the remains of the saints, wishing to lead by them us to the same emulation, and to afford us a kind of haven, and a secure consolation for the evils which are ever overtaking us” (Homily on St. Ignatius §5).
Egeria, a Galician pilgrim to the Holy Land (AD 348-418):
“Veneration of the Cross. Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table” (Pilgrimage of Ætheria, Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem XXXVII).
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (AD 354-430):
“What is properly divine worship, which the Greeks call latria, and for which there is no word in Latin, both in doctrine and in practice, we give only to God. To this worship belongs the offering of sacrifices; as we see in the word idolatry, which means the giving of this worship to idols. Accordingly we never offer, or require any one to offer, sacrifice to a martyr, or to a holy soul, or to any angel. Any one falling into this error is instructed by doctrine, either in the way of correction or of caution” (Response to Faustus the Manichean XX §21).
Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431):
“Theodosius, the humble Christian, to the holy and Ecumenical Synod: I confess and I agree to (suntiqemai) and I receive and I salute and I venerate in the first place the spotless image of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and the holy image of her who bore him without seed, the holy Mother of God, and her help and protection and intercessions each day and night as a sinner to my aid I call for, since she has confidence with Christ our God, as he was born of her. Likewise also I receive and venerate the images of the holy and most laudable Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers and cultivators of the desert. Not indeed as gods (God forbid!) do I ask all these with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hands at the day of judgment, for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first. Likewise also I venerate and honour and salute the reliques of the Saints as of those who fought for Christ and who have received grace from him for the healing of diseases and the curing of sicknesses and the casting out of devils, as the Christian Church has received from the holy Apostles and Fathers even down to us to-day.” (Excerpts from the First Session)
St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome (AD 540-604):
“If for this instruction for which images were anciently made you wish to have them in the church, I permit them by all means both to be made and to be had. And explain to them that it was not the sight itself of the story which the picture was hanging to attest that displeased thee, but the adoration which had been improperly paid to the pictures” (Book 11, Letter 13).
“Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation” (Book 9, Letter 105).
St. John of Damascus (AD 676-749):
“From the Life of the Abbot Daniel, on Eulogius the Quarryman. Then he went away dejected, and threw himself before an image of Our Lady, and crying out, he said: ‘Lord, enable me to pay what I promised this man'” (Apologia Against those who Decry Holy Images).
“St Basil says, ‘Honouring the image leads to the prototype.’ If you raise churches to the saints of God, raise also their trophies” (Ibid.).
“A tradition has come down to us that Angaros, King of Edessa, was drawn vehemently to divine love by hearing of our Lord, and that he sent envoys to ask for His likeness. If this were refused, they were ordered to have a likeness painted. Then He, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, is said to have taken a strip of cloth, and pressing it to His face, to have left His likeness upon the cloth, which it retains to this day” (Ibid.).
“If you say to this that blessed Epiphanius clearly rejected our use of images, you must know that the work in question is spurious and written by some one else in the name of Epiphanius, as often happens. A father does not fight his own children. All have become participators in the one Spirit. The Church is a witness of this in adorning images, until some men rose up against her and disturbed the peace of Christ’s fold, putting poisoned food before the people of God” (Ibid.).
“Listen to what I am going to say as a proof that images are no new invention. It is an ancient practice well known to the best and foremost of the fathers. Elladios, the disciple of blessed Basil and his successor, says in his Life of Basil that the holy man was standing by the image of Our Lady, on which was painted also the likeness of Mercurius, the renowned martyr. He was standing by it asking for the removal of the impious apostate Julian, and he received this revelation from the statue. He saw the martyr vanish for a time, and then reappear, holding a bloody spear” (Ibid.).
Council of Trullo (AD 692):
“In some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God” (Canon 82).
The Avenging of the Saviour (AD 700):
“It is the woman called Veronica who has the portrait of the Lord in her house. And immediately he ordered her to be brought before his power. And he said to her: Hast thou the portrait of the Lord in thy house? But she said, No. Then Velosianus ordered her to be put to the torture, until she should give up the portrait of the Lord. And she was forced to say: I have it in clean linen, my lord, and I daily adore it. Velosianus said: Show it to me. Then she showed the portrait of the Lord. (Veronica was the woman who suffered for 12 years with the issue of blood.)”
Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (AD 787-788):
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all knoweth Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented . . .”
Who can say, then, that the veneration of images was just a modern invention of the holy Catholic Church?
It is, therefore, very clear that the veneration of sacred images has originated since the early times of Christianity but sooner rejected and attacked by those who misterpreted the Old Testament prohibitions.
The present day attack on images has its origin, however, in the 8th century with Emperor Leo, the Isaurian of Constantinople (AD 717-741) who needed gold, silver and precious stones to finance his planned invasion of Italy. That event was known in history as the Iconoclasm (image-breaking). Seeing that these precious metals and stones were easily available in religious images, he had them all confiscated, decreeing that the making of religious images was against the orthodox religion. He conveniently burned the wooden images but melted the metal ones into coins with his image. During Leo’s persecutions, Stephen, a monk, went to Leo and presented a coin bearing the imperial image: “Sire, whose image is this?” “It is mine.” The monk threw the coin down and trampled it. The emperor had him seized and condemned to a painful death. The monk’s last words were: “If I am punished for dishonoring the image of the emperor, what punishment is in store for those who dishonor the image of Christ and His Saints.”
Hence, Leo’s heresy did not survive the onslaught of the holy and learned men of the Church. So it disappeared for a while until the 16th century where it found fertile ground in the errors of Protestantism under the heretic Martin Luther.
Thus, the Ecumenical Council of Trent (AD 1545), in response to the Reformation, summarized the Sacred Tradition of the Church, defining: “Honor given to images is honor given NOT to them but to the prototype which they represent so that by honoring the image we really adore Christ, and venerate the Saints whose likeness the image represents.”
Be reminded that the image of Christ is meant to remind His disciples of His love, life and sufferings and their obligation to love Him in return by obeying His commands. The images of Mary, the holy Theotokos and the Saints are meant to remind the Church of how they loved God and obeyed the commands of Christ.
Do Catholics worship idols?
For certain, the Catholics do not worship idols. Why? From the very words of St. Leontius: “I honor the martyrs who destroyed idols and the saints who threw wooden idols into the fire. I honor the three young men of Babylon who refused to worship the golden idol. How can I worship idols?”
Remember also the words of St. Athanasius (AD 296-373), bishop of Alexandria: “We do not worship images as do the heathens. Our only purpose and desire is to see in the image a reflection of people we love. When then image is damaged, we throw it into the fire like scrap lumber.”
To the anti-Catholics: Why would the holy Catholic Church worship idols if she knows in the first place that “they have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat (cf. Psalms 115:4-8)?”
But, would you attack the image of Christ, Who is the image of the unseen God?
Like what St. John of Damascus (676 AD) had testified: “The devil, unable to attack God, attacked His image, man. Unable to attack the Blessed Mary, the Holy Theotokos, and the Saints, he attacks their images.”
Thus, St. Paul admonised: