Images, Veneration of
IMAGES, VENERATION OF
The phrase refers to those exterior acts of honor or reverence directed to God, the angels, or the saints through some artifact of the representative or symbolic arts. Veneration is a religious act, an act of worship; and images can include not only pictures, icons, statues, and symbols, but also ritual acts such as the Sign of the Cross,
the crowning of statues, processions of the cross, the Way of the Cross, and other symbolic acts of worship. The practice of veneration of images has a distinctive and continuous tradition in Christian history, with roots in the Old Covenant, and with natural counterparts in the religious practices of paganism. The doctrinal development is related to the history of religious practice. It is in this broad historical frame of reference from paganism to Christian renewal that the full meaning of the Catholic position on veneration of images can be understood. The following summary traces those parallel lines of development.
The veneration of images is natural to man. The religious practice of veneration of images is related to the natural inclination of man to express his thoughts and feelings in various forms of art. "It is natural for man to imitate" is axiomatic, and its correlative, "Man delights in imitation," assures the spontaneous practice of imitative arts, whether in image-making or in dramatic or ritual acts. Since man has always expressed his most profound thoughts, needs, and desires in art forms, it is normal that man's religious beliefs and sentiments should be channeled through every form of artistic expression. art is rooted in human nature and sacred art is the expression of religious belief.
Images in Pagan Religions. The pagans employed art forms corresponding to and expressing their beliefs. Some pagans, awed by the phenomena of nature, worshiped the sun, the moon, etc. This worship was expressed in various art forms—ritual dances, offerings, incantations, and the like. These ritual acts themselves became sacred, honored, and venerable because of their association with the gods. Other pagans made use of totems in a form of animal worship. Often they made images of the sacred animals, which they sometimes believed to possess hidden powers and divine qualities worthy of adoration. However, it should be noted that not all paganism involved idol worship, for not every figure was an idol, but was sometimes an image representing or symbolizing a force or power considered to be divine. idolatry is itself a degenerate form of paganism. This was the form of paganism practiced in the Gentile nations surrounding Israel: "They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of four-footed beasts, and of creeping things" (Rom 1.23). This fact has important bearing on the use of images in the worship of the Chosen People.
Images in the Old Testament. Consideration of the use of images in the Old Testament centers on two factors—the milieu of idolatrous polytheism in which the Old Covenant was established between the Chosen People and the one true God, and the conditions (the Commandments) of that covenant revealed by God. The First Commandment, a condition of the lasting covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites, was "Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth below, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them" (Ex 20.3–5). The implication is clear: once God has revealed Himself as the one true God, then in distinction to the Gentiles, Israel was to worship the unseen God; Israel was to avoid paganism; thus, to attempt to represent the God of Israel in idols was an abominable practice in imitation of idolators, but it is not verified by fact that the Israelites understoon the Commandment to be an absolute prohibition of the use of an image in authentic worship of the true God. If "veneration of images" is understood in a broad sense to include not only "graven things," but ritual acts, symbolic representations, and sacred signs, the Old Testament is replete with sensible representations of divine truth, and these representations were honored, reverenced, and venerated. Far from being condemned by God, the use of sensible material adorned by human art was directed by God, and demanded by Him as integral to the worship due Him. The ark of the covenant, a sensible sign of the sacred covenant, was held in honor by the Jews; the temple itself was a sign of the presence of God. Although they were not idols to be adored, they were sacred signs to be reverenced and venerated. Even the use of carved images of creatures was generally not considered forbidden. Great carved figures of beasts (Ez 1.5; 10.20) stood over the Ark of the Covenant itself (Ex 25.18–22; 1 Kgs 6.23–28;8.6–7). Examples of such images include fruits, flowers, trees, lions, bulls, and others too numerous to mention here (Nm 8.4; 1 Kgs 6.18; 7.36; 10.19–20).
During the Maccabean period, however, a strong reaction arose against the use of any kind of carved image of living creatures (Josephus, Antiq. Jud. 1.17. 6.2). It was unlawful to have images or pictures or any representation of a living thing in the temple (Josephus, De bello Jud. 1.1.33 (4).2; cf. also Tacitus, Hist. 5.4). This severe interpretation of the law did not last. Although faithful Israelites always resisted idol worship, the use of images— pictures, symbols, carvings, etc.— continued and became very much a part of the culture of the Jews of the Diaspora.
There are a number of Jewish catacombs, cemeteries, and sarcophagi containing examples of pictures, wall and ceiling paintings, and carved figures of every kind of creature (cf. H. Leclercq, Manuel d'archéologie chrétienne 1.4:95–528). That such images had a place of honor can be surmised not only from the fact that they are associated with sacred rituals, but from their association with the very artifacts of worship (e.g., the figures supporting the seven-branched candlestick; see Leclercq, op. cit., 522).
Although such usage does not throw much light on the kind or degree of veneration, or on the doctrinal basis of the practice, it reflects, at least, that these Jews did not consider the use of images—whether pictures or carvings of creatures—or sacred symbolics—whether in material artifacts or ritual acts—as forbidden in the worship of the true God. Further, such an understanding does give historical continuity to the development of Christian art and symbolics in the earliest days of Christianity.
Images in the New Testament. The use of images in early Christian worship cannot now be reasonably questioned in view of the modern discoveries of archeology. Although there were some who doubted the early Christians employed images in worship (e.g., Erasmus), it can no longer be doubted, for the Christian catacombs are veritable galleries of early Christian art. Scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the symbolism of palms, the vine, etc., the chi-rho monograms, and even mythological figures adorn the holy chambers of sacred worship and burial. Typical of Old Testament scenes are Daniel in the lion's den, Noah and the ark, and Moses striking the rock. From the New Testament there are the Nativity, the visit of the wise men, the baptism of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, the marriage feast at Cana, and Christ teaching the Apostles. Examples of symbolism are a woman lifting her hands (symbolizing the Church) and harts drinking from a fountain (flowing from the symbolic Chi Rho monogram). Among memorials are to be found the Cross, Christ the Good Shepherd, the Madonna, SS. Peter and Paul, and martyrs. (see bible cycles in art; art, early christian)
Doctrine. Very little was written about the veneration of images during the early period of Christianity. In one sense, then, little is known about the doctrinal basis of veneration as practiced by Christians of that time. Yet the very number of images associated with worship, their location in places of honor, the absence of controversy about images at a time when much religious teaching was aimed at protecting the true faith in the face of public hostility, the casualness of the few references made to images (e.g., St. Ambrose, Ep. 2, Patrologia Latina, ed. J.P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 17:821; St. Augustine, Cons. Evang., Patrologia Latina 34:1049; Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum 2.17, Patrologia Latina 71: 215) all testify to the perfect orthodoxy of their understanding of the use of images. In a sermon St. Basil (d. 379) suggested that painters gave St. Barlaam more honor by making pictures of him than Basil himself could do with words (Or. in S. Barlaam, Patrologia Graeca. ed J. P. Migne [Paris 1857–66] 31:488–489). This reveals what must have been the general attitude of early Christians to images. The paintings, etc. were an expression of their thoughts and feelings, and perhaps a better expression than words of the honor and reverence they felt for Christ, the Apostles, the martyrs, and the saints. Far from being an abuse of their faith and worship, the use of images was a spontaneous and reverent expression of their faith in the word of God and their love for Christ, His mother, His Apostles, and His Church. No more doctrinal justification or explanation was needed for a practice that was a simple, normal, instructive, and appealing expression of the true faith.
During the era of development of Christian art after Constantine, when Christians began to build basilicas adorned with mosaics, carvings, and statues, images were venerated with more elaborate ritual. Especially in the East, the means of showing respect and of honoring persons of high station (e.g., reverence to the empty throne as a symbol of civil authority) were employed in the rituals of religious reverence. Thus bows, kisses, incensing, and other ritual acts were used in reverence to images of Christ, the altar, the cross, etc. Such traditions of reverence became fixed ceremonials. Some of the practices spread to Rome and the West, but usually in less elaborate form.
Doctrinally, this era, from Constantine to the eighth century, evidenced no change from the earlier era of Christian worship; but ritually, the practices—now enjoyed in greater freedom, manifested more publicly, and exercised with more elaborate pageantry—were more susceptible to misunderstanding and abuse. That abuses did creep in, and that these did to some degree contributed to the Iconoclast persecutions (726) can hardly be doubted. The Iconoclasts, whether from a misunderstanding of orthodox practice, or from the existence of real abuses, or from political motives, made many charges of idolatry, superstition, and magic in the use of images. (see iconoclasm).
Nicaea II (787) was the result of the Iconoclast persecutions. The council, in its seventh session, clarified the confusion that had arisen over the ritual use of images in worship and, while correcting excesses, allowed wide range of practice according to the customs of various nations. The council distinguished adoration (λατρεία; in Latin, latria ), which according to Catholic faith is due only to the divine nature, and the respect and worshipful honor (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν) given to Our Lady, angels, saints, and holy men. Further, the council made clear that the veneration of images is not directed to the image, but to the person worthy of honor. "For honor paid to an image passes on to its prototype; he who worships an image worships the reality of him who is painted in it" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 601). Thus the council defined the doctrinal basis for the pious custom of ancient times. The practice of early Christianity was to continue and be embellished according to the customs of the times, but now with the clear teaching of the Church to direct it and enable it to avoid the excesses of idolatry, superstition, and magic.
The practice of veneration of images, however, awaited the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas to find its place within the total synthesis of Catholic doctrine and, consequently, to find its own fullest explanation. St. Thomas treats of two kinds of worship: latria, the adoration due to God alone, and dulia, the honor or homage due to distinguished persons. Adoration is an exterior act of the virtue of religion that is directed to God (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 84.1–3). Honor or veneration is a part of the virtue of observance, which pays homage to those in a position of dignity. Thus, the adoration of God and homage to saints are distinct but complementary elements in worship. With regard to the use of images, St. Thomas placed the question within the broader context of sacred signs. He showed the difference between the sign as a thing in itself and the sign as referring to the thing signified. It is as a sign—a category that includes the Sacraments, sacred symbolics, ceremonial rites, etc.—that the use of images should be understood. "There is a twofold movement of the mind toward an image: one toward the image as a thing in itself; another toward the image insofar as it is a representation of something else…. Therefore, we must say that no reverenceis shown to Christ's image as a thing—for instance, carved or painted wood…. It follows therefore thatreverence should be shown to it insofar only as it is an image" (Summa theologiae 3a, 25.3). Since the worship given to an image reaches and terminates in the person represented, the same type of worship due the person can be rendered to the image as representing the person: the worship of latria, to Christ as the Divine Word; dulia, to the angels and saints.
Bibliography: h. leclercq, Manuel d' archéologie chrétienne depuis les origines jusqu'au VIIIe siècle, 2 v. (Paris 1907). f. x. kraus, Geschichte Handbuch der christlichen Archäologie (Paderborn 1905). w. palmer, An Introduction to Early Christian Symbolism (London 1885). j. p. reid, Anatomy of Atheism (Compact Studies; Washington 1965). d. rover, "Poetics of Maritain," Texts and Studies (Washington 1965) esp. 68–78. d. sabbatucci et al., Encyclopedia of World Art (New York 1959–) 4:364–382. m. elaide et al., ibid. 382–420. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art Chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 1955–59) 1:410–4:15.
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