1902 Encyclopedia > Image Worship

Image Worship

IMAGE WORSHIP. In the present article the word " image " will be employed to denote any artificial repre-sentation, whether pictorial or sculptural, of any person or thing, real or imaginary, which is used as a direct adjunct of religious services. This definition of the word shuts out from present consideration, though at some points by an almost imperceptible boundary, the worship of all merely natural symbols, whether animate or inanimate, conventional or the reverse. Thus, for example, every form of animal worship is excluded by it, and also the cultus connected with memorial stones of which traces so unmistakable are found in the Old Testament and in almost every other ancient literature (the _____ or ________, lapides uneti, bcetyli. of classical writers). So far as images (_____, imagines) are merely more or less perfect productions of pictorial or plastic art, they fall to be treated under PAINTING, SCULPTURE, MOSAIC, &c.; so far as they have been regarded as aids to devotion and spiritual instruction, or made the objects of religious veneration, the history of their introduction and of the various aspects under which they have been viewed forms a large and not unimportant chapter in the history of religion in general and of the Christian church in particular. Only the outlines of that history can be indicated here.

Most religions of which the history has been traced give distinct indications of a primitive period in which " idols " were unknown. Thus in India " the worship of idols is a secondary formation, a later degradation of the more primitive worship of ideal gods" (M. Miiller). In the Vedic hymns it is the appearances of nature themselves that are worshipped as symbols of unseen deity; and the present image worship of the Hindus is most probably Post-Buddhistic in its origin. The testimonies of the Greek historians (Herod., i. 131 ; Strabo, p. 732; Diog. Laer., De Vit. Phil., proeem. 6) as to the absence of religious images from the worship of the ancient Persians is confirmed by all the more recent direct investigations into the primitive life of that branch of the Aryan race. There is the same concurrence of testimony as regards the ancient Greeks _} the powers of nature were in the first instance worshipped through natural symbols,—such as serpents, trees, meteoric stones,—and in some cases temples occurred which contained no visible symbol at all. Even in the Homeric poems, the allusions to images of the gods are but few : where an image is mentioned (as in II. vi. 301), it is evident that it was of the rudest description, and but little indebted to human art. The same remark applies to the cultus of ancient Rome. It was carried on without the nse of images until the comparatively late period at which the state entered into relations with Etruria, Magna Graecia, and Sicily. The date of the oldest statue in Rome, that of Diana on the Aventine, can be given with considerable precision as between 577 and 534 B.C. As regards the ancient Germans also, we have the testimony of Tacitus that down to his time at least their gods were still invisible and had neither temples nor images. And, whatever be our construction of the primitive history of the Semitic races, there can be little doubt, so far as the Jews at least are concerned, of the correctness of their own impres-sion that " idolatry," in the strict etymological sense of that word, was not the most primitive form of religion practised among them.

The decalogue contains a direct precept against the making of any " graven image" (pesel or pasil), for religious uses at least (Ex. xx. 4, 5 ; Deut. v. 8, 9; with which compare Deut. iv. 15-18). The "graven images" contemplated in the passage last cited are images of men, quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, and fishes; and the manner in which the prohibition is made is fitted to suggest that all these " likenesses " had made their appearance and already become objects of religious veneration prior to its pro-mulgation. Nothing certain, however, is known as to the "strange gods" alluded to in Gen. xxxv. 4 as having been buried by Jacob under the oak at Shechem; nor can much be said with regard to the "teraphim" which are first mentioned as having been worshipped in one of the branches of the family of Terah (Gen. xxxi. 19), but are often subsequently referred to as having been used in the time of the judges (Judg. xvii. 5 ; cf. xviii. 30), and at various stages throughout the history both of the northern and of the southern kingdom (Hos. iii. 4 ; Zech. x. 2 ; 2 Kings xxiii. 24). Sometimes they must have been but small; but from other passages it may be inferred that they may have been, occasionally at least, of human form and size (1 Sam. six. 13, 16). Much obscurity attaches also to the calf worship of which an instance occurred in the wilderness (Ex. xxxii. 4), and which was a prominent feature in the religion of the northern kingdom from the days of Jeroboam to the end; it is a disputed question whether the cult was of Egyptian or of purely Semitic origin. The difficulty in Lev. xvii. 7, and perhaps also in Deut. xxxii. 17, Ps. cvi. 37, is by some interpreters explained by a reference to the Egyptian goat worship (Mendes); if so, these passages contain no allusion to image worship. The various forms of the Baal cultus so often referred to in the Old Testament were no doubt Semitic; there are no explicit references to any images, however, in this connexion; and in point of fact (see BAAL) that deity was generally represented in his "high-places," not by images, but by obelisks or pillars. That the plastic arts, even in a religious connexion, were not wholly discouraged among the Jews, appears from what we read, not only about the brazen serpent in the wilderness, but also about the existence in tabernacle and temple of such figures as cherubs (Ex. xxv. 18-20; xxvi. 1; xxxvi. 35 ; 1 Kings vi. 23, 32, 35) executed in various materials, lions, oxen, lotus flowers, and pomegranates (cf. Ex. xxxi. 4, 5). The graphic descriptions of the process of idol-making, both "graven images" and " molten images " in Isa. xl. and xliv. (with which may be compared Wisd. xv.; see also the reference in Isa. xxx. 22 to molten images overlaid with a precious metal) show that the exercise of those arts was far from being confined, at the periods to which these passages relate, within the limits fixed by the second commandment. After the captivity, however, there developed itself among the Jews a steadily growing tendency to interpret the language of the law with the most stringent literality; and at the time of the Boman occupation the masses, under Pharisaic influences, showed a sensitiveness on the subject of images which in certain recorded instances led to very striking results. Thus, the existence of trophies in the theatre at Jerusalem was violently objected to; Vitellius found it necessary to avoid Judaea in his march from Antioch to Petra, lest the Holy Land should be defiled by the presence of the Boman eagles; at the outbreak of the Jewish war the house of Antipas at Tiberias was destroyed because it was adorned with sculptures (Joseph., Ant., xv. 8. 1, 2 ; xviii. 3. 1; Tit., 12). This aversion to every exercise of the imitative arts, as regards living things at least, passed over from Judaism to Mahometanism.

As regards the attitude towards religious images assumed by the primitive Christian church, several questions have often been treated as one which cannot too carefully be kept quite apart. There can be no doubt, for example, that the early Christians were absolutely unanimous in utterly condemning all heathen image-worship and the various customs, many of them obviously immoral, with which it was associated; it is needless to multiply citations from the fathers in proof of so undisputed a fact. A form of iconolatry specially deprecated in the New Testament was the then prevalent adoration of the images of the reigning emperors (see Rev. xv. 2). It is also tolerably certain that, if for no other reasons besides the fewness, obscurity, and poverty of the early converts to Christianity, the works of art seen in their meeting houses cannot possibly at first have been numerous. Along with these reasons would certainly cooperate towards the exclusion of visible aids to devotion, not only the church's vivid recollection of what Christ had been, and its living sense of His continued real though unseen presence, but also, during the first years, its constant expectation of His second advent as imminent. In point of fact it was a common accusation brought against the Christians by their enemies that they had " no altars, no temples, no known images " (Min. Fel., Oct., c. 10), that "they set up no image or form of any god " (see Arnob., Adv. Gent., vi. 1; similarly Celsus); and this charge was never denied. At a comparatively early date indeed we read of various Gnostic sects calling in the fine arts to aid their worship; thus Irenaeus (Ileer i. 25, 6), speaking of the followers of Marcellina, says that " they possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; and they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among men. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images after the same manner as the Gentiles" (cf. Aug., Be Hcer., c. 7). It is also well known that the emperor Alexander Severus round a place for several Scripture characters and even for Christ in his larariuin (Lamprid., Vit. Alex. Sev., c. 29). But there is no evidence that such a use of images extended itself at that early period to orthodox Christian circles; and the presumption is all the other way. The first unmistakable indication of the actual public use of the painter's art for directly religious ends does not occur indeed until the year 306 A.D., when the synod of Elvira, Spain, decreed (can. 36) that " pictures ought not to be in a church, lest that which is worshipped and adored be painted on walls." The scope of this prohibitioi. vas been very differently viewed by interpreters,—some thinking that all that is forbidden is any attempt at delineating the divine; others considering that the synod contemplated frescos only and not pictures, which could be more readily hidden from profanation in times of persecution; others taking the canon in the broadest sense as directed against the exhibition in churches of pictures of sacred subjects. In any case, and particularly if the last theory be adopted, it is evident that the use of sacred pictures in public worship was not at the beginning of the 4th century a thing wholly unknown within the orthodox church in Spain; and the presumption is that in other places, about the same period, the custom was looked upon with a more tolerant eye. Indications of the existence of allied forms of sacred Christian art prior to this period are not wholly wanting. It seems possible to trace some of the older and ruder frescos in the catacombs back to a very early century; and it is certain that Bible manuscripts were often copiously illuminated and illustrated even before the middle of the 4th century. An often-quoted passage from Tertullian {De Pudic., c. 10, cf. c. 7) shows that in his day the com-munion cup was wont to bear a representation of the Good Shepherd. Clement of Alexandria (Pcedag., iii. 11) men-tions the dove, fish, ship, lyre, anchor, as suitable devices for Christian signet rings.

During the 4th and following centuries the tendency to enlist the fine arts in the service of religion and the church may be said to have steadily advanced; not, however, so far as appears, with the formal sanction of any regular ecclesiastical authority, and certainly not without strong protests raised by more than one powerful voice. From a passage in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (Oral, de Laudibus Tlieodori Martyris, c. 2) it is easy to see how the stories of recent martyrs would offer themselves as tempting subjects for the painter, and at the same time be considered to have received from him their best and most permanent expression; that this feeling was very wide-spread is shown in many places by Paulinus of Nola (pb. 431), from whom we gather that not only martyrdoms, and Bible histories, but also symbols of the Trinity were in his day freely represented pictorially. Augustine (De Cons. Ev., i. 10) speaks less approvingly of those who look for Christ and His apostles "on painted walls" rather than in His written word. How far the Christian feeling of the 4th and 5th centuries was from being thoroughly settled in favour of the employment of the fine arts is instructively shown by such a case as that of Eusebius of Caesarea, who in reply to a request of Constantia, sister of Constantine, for a picture of Christ, wrote that it was unlawful to possess images pretending to represent the Saviour either in His divine or in His human nature, and added that to avoid the reproach of idolatry he had actually taken away from a lady friend the pictures of Paul and of Christ which she had. Similarly Epiphanius in a letter to John, bishop of Jerusalem, tells how in a church at Anablatha near Bethel he had found a curtain painted with the image " of Christ or of some other saint," which he had torn down and ordered to be used for the burial of some pauper. The passage, however, reveals, not only what Epiphanius thought on the subject, but also the fact that such pictures must have been becoming frequent. Nilus, the disciple and defender of Chrysostom, permitted the symbol of the cross in churches and also pictorial delineations of Old and New Testament history, but deprecated other symbols, pictures of martyrs, and most of all the representation of Christ. In the time of Gregory the Great the Western Church at last obtained something like an authoritative declaration on the vexed question about images, but in a sense not quite the same as that of the synod of Elvira. Serenus of Marseilles, on account of what he considered to be flagrant abuses, had ordered the removal and destruction of all sacred images within his diocese; this vigorous action called forth several letters from Pope Gregory (viii. 2, 111 ; ix. 4, 11), in which he utterly disapproved of that violent course, and, for the first time clearly drawing the distinction which has ever since been authoritative for the Roman Church, pointed out that " it is one thing to worship a picture and another to learn from the language of a picture what that is which ought to be worshipped. What those who can read learn by means of writing, that do the uneducated learn by looking at a picture. . . . That, therefore, ought not to have been destroyed which had been placed in the churches, not for worship, but solely for instructing the minds of the ignorant." Here it may be mentioned with regard to the symbol of the cross, that its public use dates from the time of Constantine, though, according to many Christian archaeologists it had, prior to that date, a very important place in the so-called " dis-ciplina arcani." The introduction of the crucifix was decidedly later, and originally the favourite combination was that of the figure of a lamb lying at the foot of the cross; the Trullan council in 692 by its 82d canon enjoined that this symbol should be discontinued, and that where Christ was shown in connexion with His cross He should be represented in His human nature.

It was not until the 8th century that the religious and theological questions which seem naturally to connect themselves with image worship were at last distinctly raised in the Eastern Church in their entirety, and argued in what from some points of view might fairly be called an exhaus-tive manner. The controversy began with the edict by which Leo the Isaurian, in the tenth year of his reign (726), sought to deliver the church from what he called "the idolatry of image worship." The text of that edict is not extant, but it seems to have been directed exclusively against such "idolatrous" homage as appeared to be involved in the established custom of prostration before them. The use of the strong word " idolatrous " at once led to a keen controversy, in which it was urged by the theologians that a " relative worship" (_________) might, without idolatry, be given to the image of Christ. Among those who took this ground was the famous John of Damascus, who retorted upon the iconoclastic emperor with charges of Judaizing and even of Manicheean leanings. Leo, unconvinced, but finding that his first edict had been wholly ineffectual, four years later (730) issued a second decree, of a more sweeping character than the first, inasmuch as all the holy images were ordered to be removed, and all recalcitrant bishops summarily ejected from their posts. This proceeding called forth .further arguments from the theologian of Damascus, through whose influence the iconoclasts were anathematized in such churches as were not too directly and entirely under the political influence of Constantinople. At the same time (730) Pope Gregory II. addressed to the emperor two important controversial letters in favour of images. They are preserved in the Acta of the second council of Nice. Apart from their direct historical importance, they are of considerable interest as literary and theological curiosities. To the objection which had of course been urged from the decalogue, he replied that the prohibition there was directed simply against the idolatry of Canaan, and could not have been intended in a sense inconsistent with the fact that Moses had been commanded to make cherubim and the like. Christ Himself was an image, the image of God. The charge that the icouoduli prayed to stones, walls, and pictures was easily met; and the further difficulty that six oecumenical councils had met and separated, but enjoined nothing about images, it was held, told distinctly against the iconoclasts, for the same councils had equally failed to urge upon men the duty of taking their necessary food. Heedless of Gregory's remonstrances, the emperor continued, during the remaining twelve years of his life, to carry on the struggle with but little effect; the religious use of images was too intimately interwoven, not only with the church life, but also with the domestic habits of his people, to yield even to the most determined efforts of an arbitrary despotism. In 741 Leo was succeeded by Constantine Copronymus (741-775), who fully shared the iconoclastic views of his father, and in 754 convoked a council, attended by three hundred and thirty-eight bishops, but never recognized as oecumenical, which under his influence declared all reverencers of images to be men who had lapsed into idolatry ; decreed that " Christ in His glorified humanity, though not incorporeal, was yet exalted above all the limits and defects of a sensuous nature, too exalted therefore to be figured by human art in an earthly material after the analogy of any other human body" ; and pronounced anathema on all who attempted to express by visible colours the form of the Logos in His incarnation, and on all who delineated dumb and lifeless pictures of the saints, which could never serve any profitable end. All images whatso-ever of sacred persons or things were ordered to be ejected from Christian churches ; and to set them up either in public or in private buildings was forbidden under the gravest ecclesiastical penalties. The stringency of these decrees was justified by arguments drawn from reason and Scripture, as well as by appeals to such names as those of Gregory, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Epiphanius, andEusebius. The attempt to enforce the decisions of the council as imperial laws was in many instances marked by oppressiveness and cruelty, and the general feeling of the com-munity, fostered diligently by a numerous class of its most energetic and pious members, the monks, continued unchanged in its aversion to iconoclasm ; and, although at the end of his reign Constantine succeeded in imposing upon every citizen of Constantinople an oath never again to worship an image, there can be little doubt that in a vast number of households secret leanings to image worship had been intensified rather than weakened by repressive measures. During the early part of the brief reign (775-779) of Leo IV. Chazarus, the stringency of the law was somewhat relaxed, until it was discovered that the empress (Irene) was herself a secret iconolater, when she was brought into disgrace, and numbers of her accomplices were seized and imprisoned. On the death of Leo, Irene became regent for her infant son Constantine, and, as was to be expected, used the power which she now possessed in favour of the cause she had long had at heart. With the assistance of the monks, after an abortive attempt to hold a synod at Constantinople in 786, there met at Nice in 787 a general council (the seventh oecumenical), the proceedings of which are of considerable historical importance. It was there decided that, not only the figure of the cross, but also other holy images (Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, and saints), whether painted or executed in mosaic or other material, might be set up in churches, placed on holy vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by highways, and were to be honoured with acnrao-jixos and Trpoo-Kvvrjcri<;, though not with XcLTpeia, which is given to the divine nature alone. The decrees, which were signed by all present, were afterwards solemnly ratified at a final session (the eighth) held in Constantinople, and thus, after a struggle of sixty-one years, the worship of images asserted in the Greek Church that ascendency which, with only one brief interruption of a few years, it has ever since maintained.

The decisions of this Eastern council were in full harmony with the personal views and practices of the popes, who, however, were compelled to show considerable moderation in the attitude they assumed. The Latin Church also, as is shown by the writings of Agobard of Lyons and Claudius of Turin, contained strongly iconoclastic elements, which, if full scope had been given them, might conceivably have altered very considerably the current of Western opinion. On political as well as on religious grounds, however, it was felt to be inexpedient to push matters on either side to extremes; very important therefore at this juncture was the step taken by the emperor Charlemagne in the publi-cation of his De Impio Imaginum Gultu Libri IV., com-monly called the Libri Carolini, in which, condemning alike the fanaticism of iconoclasts and the superstition of iconoduli, he maintained the right of images to exist for pur-poses of commemoration and ornament (propter memoriam rerum gestarum et ornamentum). At the synod of Frank-fort-on-the-Main, held in 794, his general position was maintained, and adoration of images (adoratio et servitus imaginum) was wholly condemned. Great injustice was done, however, to the fathers of the second Nicene council when they were accused of maintaining that the same worship ought to be given to images of saints as to the Holy Trinity,'—a doctrine which they had been at special pains to repudiate. The settlement which had been obtained in 787 did not subsist entirely undisturbed even in the Eastern Church. In 815, two years after Leo the Armenian had ascended the throne, a council convoked by him at Constantinople formally abolished the decrees of Nice, and again banished the images from the churches. The new controversy, with which the name of Theodore of the Studium is still more prominently associated than was that of John of Damascus with its previous phase, went on with vicissitudes very similar to those which had formerly occurred during the reign of Leo and his suc-cessors Michael (820-830) and Theophilus (830-842). At length, during the regency of the empress Theodora, the decrees of Nice were reaffirmed by a synod at Con-stantinople, and the banished images were triumphantly and finally reintroduced into the metropolitan church on the day which on the first Sunday in Lent is still cele-brated throughout the Greek Church as a great festival under the name of loprr] or _________. One incident in this second iconoclastic controversy had been the mission of an embassy by Michael Balbus to Louis the Pious in 825. The reply was given through the synod of Paris, held in that year : in open disagreement with the opinions of Pope Hadrian I., the relatively neutral ground taken up at the synod of Frankfort was maintained.

Down to the close of this period the "images" spoken of in ecclesiastical controversy are almost entirely pictures or mosaics,—the religious use of sculptures, and particularly of statues (____, _____, ____), being little known, and, so far as known, disapproved. This distinction does not indeed appear in the actual decrees of the council of Nice; but it is clearly drawn in the statements of the patriarch Germanus and by Stephen Bostrenus, as quoted in the proceedings (Act. ii.). Such remains of Christian antiquity as the statue of Hippolytus, recently dug up at Ostia, and usually assigned to a date not later than the 5th century, as also the sitting figure of St Peter, dating from the same period, now seen in St Peter's, Rome, have no immediate connexion with the subject of this article. The same remark applies to the still earlier statue at Paneas referred to by Eusebius (H. E., vii. 18), said to have been raised in honour of Christ by the woman mentioned in Matt. ix. 20 ; if it was really intended to represent Christ at all and not rather the emperor Hadrian, it was, at all events, obviously no object of special veneration. About the 9th century, however, " graven images " seem to have become more common. Thus in the treatise Be Imaginibus (c. 31) of Agobard of Lyons (ob. 840), there is an obvious controversial allusion to molten or moulded statues of angels or holy men. With the gradual introduction of the architecture commonly known as Gothic, there came in a great advance in plastic art. The new cathedrals gave scope for and even demanded a wealth of decoration formerly unknown, until it seemed as if, not only the entire Biblical history, but all the Acta Sanctorum, were to be artistically told in wood and stone. The earliest extant sculptures in stone or stucco cannot be carried farther back than the 11th century. But the discussion of their date and character belongs to the artistic rather than to the religious side of the subject.

At the period of the Reformation it was unanimously felt by the reforming party that, with the invocation of saints and the practice of reverencing their relics, the adoration of images ought also as matter of course to cease. The leaders of the movement were not all, however, per-fectly agreed on the question as to whether these might not in some circumstances be retained in churches. Luther, it is well known, had no sympathy with the iconoclastic outbreaks which history mentions as having taken place with some frequency at this period; he classed images in themselves as among the "adiaphora," and condemned only their cultus ; so also the " Confessio Tetrapolitana" leaves Christians free to have them or not, if only due regard be had to what is expedient and edifying. The " Heidelberg Catechism," on the other hand, emphatically declares that images are not to be tolerated at all in churches. This position, which is that of all the reformed churches, has an obvious connexion with their view as to the division of the decalogue, they following Origen on this question while the Lutherans adhere to the Philouic arrangement (see DECALOGUE),

At the council of Trent (session xxv.) the Church of Rome finally formulated the doctrine on the subject of images which is still of authority within its communion. That doctrine is avowedly based on the decrees of the second council of Nice. It is declared that images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other saints are to be set up and retained, especially in churches, and that " due" honour and veneration are to be accorded them by kissing and prostration. Warnings are appended, however, against their superstitious abuse somewhat in the spirit of Gregory the Great's letter and of the decision of the Frankfort synod.

The Greek Church continues tenaciously to adhere to the decrees of the second Nicene council, and has not yielded to any of the artistic impulses which have elsewhere made themselves so powerfully felt. The sacred pictures which abound everywhere, and are treated with extraordinary reverence and affection, are for the most part very defective aesthetically. Indeed the preference seems to be given to those executed in rude archaic style, and even now the painter of pictures intended for religious uses must bear iti mind the monk's famous criticism on Titian. Nude or incompletely draped figures are forbidden, and only half lengths are permitted " ut omnis stultae cogitationis occasio tollatur." No representation of the Godhead or of the Trinity is attempted. Although it is in the records of a Constantinopolitan council that the earliest extant notice of the crucifix occurs, that symbol is not now used in the East.

The literature of the subject is immense. The most important monographs are—from the Catholic point of view, Maimbourg, Histoire de l'Hérésie des Iconoclastes (Paris, 1679-82); from the Protestant, Daillé, De Imaginibus (Leyden, 1642), and Spanheim, Historia Imaginum restituta (Leyden, 1686). For the acts of the councils, Labhé or Mansi must be consulted ; the learned compilation of Goldast, Imperialia décréta de cultu imaginum in utroque imperio promulgata collecta et illuetrata (Frankfort, 16Ü8), will also be found useful. Compare Schlosser, Gesch. der bilderstürmenden Kaiser (Frankfort, 1812). The sections relating to image worship in the great work of Chemnitz (Examen Cone. Tricl., pars 4) are characterized by learning and moderation. The whole subject is treated, of course, in all the church histories ; with most fulness and insight in that of îfeander. The iconoclastic controversy is dealt with also in the histories of Gibbon and Milman. Copious archaeological details are also given in Augusti's Denkwürdigkeiten, vol. xii. (Leipsic, 1831). (J. S. BL.)


1 See Sehoemann, Griech. Alterthumer. ii. 197 sqq

The above article was written by: Rev. J. Sutherland Black.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries