Protestantism, Iconoclasm and the Veneration of Images

z7“Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: . . .”

These are the words of the first commandment after, “You shall have no gods besides me.”  Most Protestant ecclesial communities make this the second commandment.  They take this literally, taking this passage out of its proper context and ignoring passages where the Israelites validly venerated images.  Now I know you must be thinking, “That’s not a picture of a Protestant pastor; that’s a Muslim imam.”  I’ll explain why I chose the picture for this.  Now, because of ISIS’ iconoclastic raid, when I hear of Protestants smashing Catholic statues and icons, I think of Muslims doing the same thing.  There was a time when it was common for Protestants to go on iconoclastic raids as it has been for Muslims for 1400 years.  In the Dutch Reformation, the Calvinists despised Catholic veneration of images of God, angels and saints; so when they took over their former Catholic churches, they destroyed crucifixes and other images.  They had no respect for the arts.

This same controversy appeared from the Byzantine Empire in the 8th century and many such as Saint John Damascene, critic of the iconoclastic religion of Islam, wrote fiercely in defense of reverence to images.  “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God,” he said, “not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood” (Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth [New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003], p. 86).  Around the same time, the Second Council of Nicaea dogmatically defended the use of images, saying the following.

“These honourable and venerable images, as has been said, we honour and salute and reverently venerate: to wit, the image of the incarnation of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that of our spotless Lady the all-holy Mother of God, from whom he pleased to take flesh, and to save and deliver us from all impious idolatry; also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who as men appeared to the just. Likewise also the figures and effigies of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, also of the God-speaking Prophets, and of the struggling Martyrs and of holy men. So that through their representations we may be able to be led back in memory and recollection to the prototype, and have a share in the holiness of some one of them.” (Session 3)

These images are merely representations of the prototype which basically means “the first form”.  In Sacred Scriptures we see God represented as many things and in many things.  God is depicted as the potter, the husband, the bridegroom, the winegrower, etc.  Humankind reflects God as He made it in His image and likeness (rf. Genesis 1:26); yet we are called to honor each other, so we honor the physical image of the spiritual image and likeness of God.  The Israelites were mandated by God to build the Ark with two cherubim on top (rf. Exodus 25:18) and they are called by the Psalmist to bow before it or in its direction (rf. Psalms 99[98]:5, 132[131]:7); they danced before it in procession (rf. 2 Samuel 6).  God ordered the Israelites to build a bronze serpent for people to look upon so that they may be healed (rf. Numbers 21:8-9).  Obviously they did not worship these images, but worshipped God who was represented by these images which they venerated.  In fact, images of men, lions, cherubim and palm trees are depicted along the walls of the Temple (rf. Ezechiel 41:17-21).

Here is a video of one Protestant pastor destroying a statue of a saint whom he mistakes for the Blessed Virgin Mary, but is actually Saint Teresa of Avila.

Many will say these images were okay because God commanded them and made a Covenant with them.  He made a Covenant with us too.  Ordering the Israelites to make images shows it must be okay in some forms.  We are not bound to the ceremonial precepts of the Law as I mentioned earlier.  We now have a new economy ofbecause of Christ’s Incarnation as the Catechism states (no. 2131).  In the early days Christians often worshipped in the presence of images in the Catacombs and needed candles due to their being subterranean caves.  Saint Jerome for example wrote, “We would enter the galleries dug into the bowels of the earth…Rare lights coming from above land attenuated the darkness a little…We would proceed slowly, one step at a time, completely enveloped in darkness.”  Here is an example of the Last Supper.


Here is another of Jesus Christ Pantocrator.


Another of Madonna and Child.


Saint Clement of Alexandria explained, “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” (Paedogogus 3:11).  Saint Eusebius of Caesarea says this.

“Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Saviour deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there. For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. . . 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 7:18:1-4)

For more information:

In Defense of Holy Images: 8 Pearls of Wisdom from St. John Damascene


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