Veneration of Images.

Catholic History

THE idolatrous worship of images is vehemently condemned in the Scriptures, and in the Old Testament two forms of idolatry are specially reprobated. First, we find denunciations of worship paid to images of false gods, such as Moloch, Astarte, etc. Here the whole meaning and intention of, the religious act was bad. No respect was due to such a divinity as Baal; to worship him was an act of treason against the living God, so that there could be no possible excuse for venerating his image, But besides this, the law and the prophets condemn worship given to images of the true God. It seems clear that the calfworship begun at Mount Sinai, and continued in the northern kingdom at Bethel, etc., was meant as the worship of the true God set before Israel in this symbolical form.1 But this worship also is denounced _ e.g. by Amos and Osee _ and was really idolatrous, because it conveyed false notions of God, who is a pure spirit, so that although e.g. Jeroboam professed to worship Jehovah, he was really serving a god of his own imagination. To prevent such idolatrous errors, to which the Jews were constantly tempted by the example of the surrounding heathen, the Hebrew worship was regulated in each detail by God. Images they had in their tabernacle and the Temple, for the cherubim were placed in the holy of holies, and the walls and pillars were adorned with figures of psalms, pomegranates, etc. But these figures were placed in the tabernacle from which the pattern of the Temple was taken by the express ordinance of God, and the Israelites were by no means left to their own discretion in the use of sacred images and symbols.

The prohibition of idolatry conveyed in the first commandment continues, it is needless to say, in full force. Idolatry is evil in its own nature, and necessarily a sin of the deepest dye, whoever it may be that commits it. Moreover, it is impossible to commit this sin without falling into the gross and brutal error of identifying a lifeless image with the divinity. Therefore the Council of Trent (Sess. xxv. De Invocatione, etc.) not only reprobates the delusion that the godhead can be really portrayed by material figures; it also states that in images there is no divinity or, "virtue, on account of which they are to be worshipped, that no petitions can be addressed to them, and that no trust is to be placed in them."

At the same time the Tridentine Fathers, following the Second Council of Nicæa, advocate the true use of images. The danger of idolatry has at least to a very great extent passed away from Christian nations. Further, God Himself has taken a human form which admits of being represented in art. So that the reasoning of Moses in Deut. iv. 15 no longer holds, and on the whole matter the liberty of Christians is very different from the bondage of Israelites. Images according to the Tridentine definition are to be retained and honored, but abuses and all occasions of scandal to the rude and ignorant are to be removed. The object of images is to set Christ, his Blessed Mother, the saints and angels before our eyes, while the council adds that "the honor which is given to them is referred to the objects (prototypa) which they represent, so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, we adore Christ and venerate the saints, whose likenesses they are." "The council," says Petavius, "De Incarnat." xv. 17, "could not have declared more expressly that the cultus of images is simply relative (schetikon); that they are not in themselves and strictly speaking (per se el proprie) adored or honored, but that all adoration and veneration is referred to the prototypes, inasmuch as images have no dignity or excellence to which such honor properly appertains." We cannot imagine any better exposition than that of this great theologian, who, among many other merits, is always distinguished for his sobriety and his avoidance of useless subtleties. His words explain the doctrine of the Church and remove all possibility of scandal, when we find the Church in the Good Friday office inviting the faithful to adore the cross. It is the suffering Savior, not the dead wood, which Catholics adore.

The use of images in the Church dates from the very earliest times. The Church no doubt was cautious in her use of images, both because the use of them in the midst of a heathen population might easily be misunderstood, and also because the images might be seen and profaned by the heathen persecutors. It is, as Hefele and De Rossi maintain, for this latter reason that the Council of Elvira, in the Year 306, forbade the placing of "pictures in the churches, lest what is worshipped and adored should be painted on the walls." Certainly the Church of that time did not reject the use of Christian art _ witness the numerous sacred pictures recently brought to light in the Roman catacombs. Many ancient works of art which have come down to us from the old Spanish church _ e.g. the beautiful sarcophagi of Saragossa _ prove that there was no difference of feeling or opinion on this matter between Spanish and Roman Christians. But whereas the Roman churches were under, the Spanish were above, ground. Hence the anxiety of the council to avoid the mockery and actual danger which the sight of images might have created.

We can trace the veneration of images and the Tridentine doctrine concerning it through the whole history of the Church, but here a few instances must suffice. The early Christian poet Prudentius speaks of himself ("Peristeph." ix. 9 seg.) as praying, before an image of the martyr Cassian. We read that at a conference held between St. Maximus and the bishop Theodosius the Fathers present bent the knee to the images of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The principles of Gregory the Great on the respect due to images are well known. When Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, removed images from the church on the ground that they had proved an occasion of idolatry, Gregory tells him (Ep. ix. 105) that he ought not to have broken images placed in the church as means of instruction, not objects of adoration. In sending Secundinus images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and St. Peter and St. Paul, Gregory writes (Ep. ix. 52): "I know you do not ask for the image of our Savior to worship it as God, but that, being reminded of the Son of God, you may be inflamed anew with love of Him whose image you long to see. And we on our part do not prostrate ourselves before it as a divinity, but we adore Him whom by means of the image we bring to mind in his birth, in his passion, or as He sits on his throne."

Two qualifications must be made to the doctrine stated in a previous part of this article. We have said that no images can really resemble the divine nature, which is immaterial. But there is no harm in symbolical representations of the Holy Trinity, or of the divine Persons singly. The contrary proposition was condemned by Pius VI. (Synod of Pistoia, prop. 69), in the bull "Auctorem fidei." Again, though images have no virtue in themselves, God may be pleased to give special graces at particular shrines. This is taught in the same bull, and the words of St. Augustine (Ep 78) are aptly quoted : "God, who divides special gifts to each according as He wills, was not pleased that these [marvels] should take place in all the shrines of the saints."

1 See Exod. xxxii. 5, where Aaron calls the idolatrous feast a feast to Jehovah; and 3 Kings xxii. 6, from which it appears that prophets who sanctioned the calfworship were still considered prophets of Jehovah. "Ye did not see any likeness on the day that the Lord spake to you on Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest ye should act wickedly and make for yourselves a graven image," etc,

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