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§ 100. The Worship of Images. Literature. Different Theories.

Comp. Vol. II., chs. vi. (p.266 sqq.) and vii. (p. 285); Vol. III. §§109–111 (p. 560 sqq.).

(I.) John of Damascus (chief defender of image-worship, about 750): Lovgoi ajpologhtikoi; pro;” tou;” diabavllonta” ta;” aJgiva” eijkovna” (ed. Le Quien I. 305). Nicephorus (Patriarch of Constantinople, d. 828): Breviarium Hist. (to a.d. 769), ed. Petavius, Paris, 1616. Theophanes (Confessor and almost martyr of image-worship, d. c. 820): Chronographia, cum notis Goari et Combefisii, Par., 1655, Ven. 1729, and in the Bonn ed. of the Byzant. historians, 1839, Tom. I. (reprinted in Migne’s “Patrol. Graeca,” Tom. 108). The later Byzantine historians, who notice the controversy, draw chiefly from Theophanes; so also Anastasius (Historia Eccles.) and Paulus Diaconus (Historia miscella and Hist. Longobardorum).

The letters of the popes, and the acts of synods, especially the Acta Concilii Nicaeni II. (a.d. 787) in Mansi, Tom. XIII., and Harduin, Tom. IV.

M. H. Goldast: Imperialia Decreta de Cultu Imaginum in utroque imperio promulgata. Frankf., 1608.

The sources are nearly all on the orthodox side. The seventh oecumenical council (787) ordered in the fifth session that all the books against images should be destroyed.

(II.) J. Dalleus (Calvinist): De Imaginibus. Lugd. Bat., 1642.

L. Maimbourg (Jesuit): Histoire de l’hérésie des iconoclastes. Paris, 1679 and 1683, 2 vols. (Hefele, III. 371, calls this work “nicht ganz zuverlässig,” not quite reliable).

Fr. Spanheim (Calvinist): Historia Imaginum restituta. Lugd. Bat. 1686 (in Opera, II. 707).

Chr. W. Fr. Walch (Lutheran): Ketzerhistorie. Leipz., 1762 sqq., vol. X. (1782) p. 65–828, and the whole of vol. XI. (ed. by Spittler, 1785). Very thorough, impartial, and tedious.

F. Ch. Schlosser: Geschichte der bilderstürmenden Kaiser des oströmischen Reichs. Frankf. a. M., 1812.

J. Marx (R.C.): Der Bilderstreit der Byzant. Kaiser. Trier, 1839.

Bishop Hefele: Conciliengesch. vol III. 366–490; 694–716 (revised ed., Freib. i. B. 1877).

R. Schenk: Kaiser Leo III. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Bilderstreites. Halle, 1880.

General Church Histories: 1) R. Cath.: Baronius, Pagi, Natalis Alexander, Alzog, Hergenröther (I. 121–143; 152–168). 2) Protest.: Basnage, Gibbon (ch. 49), Schröckh (vol. XX.), Neander (III. 197–243; 532–553, Bost. ed.; fall and fair); Gieseler (II. 13–19, too short).

The literature on the image-controversy is much colored by the doctrinal stand-point of the writers. Gibbon treats it with cold philosophical indifference, and chiefly in its bearing on the political fortunes of the Byzantine empire.

With the worship of saints is closely, connected a subordinate worship of their images and relics. The latter is the legitimate application of the former. But while the mediaeval churches of the East and West—with the exception of a few protesting voices—were agreed on the worship of saints, there was a violent controversy about the images which kept the Eastern church in commotion for more than a century (a.d. 724–842), and hastened the decline of the Byzantine empire.

The abstract question of the use of images is connected with the general subject of the relation of art to worship. Christianity claims to be the perfect and universal religion; it pervades with its leavening power all the faculties of man and all departments of life. It is foreign to nothing which God has made. It is in harmony with all that is true, and beautiful, and good. It is friendly to philosophy, science, and art, and takes them into its service. Poetry, music, and architecture achieve their highest mission as handmaids of religion, and have derived the inspiration for their noblest works from the Bible. Why then should painting or sculpture or any other art which comes from God, be excluded from the use of the Church? Why should not Bible history as well as all other history admit of pictorial and sculptured representation for the instruction and enjoyment of children and adults who have a taste for beauty? Whatever proceeds from God must return to God and spread his glory.

But from the use of images for ornament, instruction and enjoyment there is a vast step to the worship of images, and experience proves that the former can exist without a trace of the latter. In the middle ages, however, owing to the prevailing saint-worship, the two were inseparable. The pictures were introduced into churches not as works of art, but as aids and objects of devotion. The image-controversy was therefore a, purely practical question of worship, and not a philosophical or artistic question. To a rude imagination an ugly and revolting picture served the devotional purpose even better than one of beauty and grace. It was only towards the close of the middle ages that the art of Christian painting began to produce works of high merit. Moreover the image-controversy was complicated with the second commandment of the decalogue which clearly and wisely forbids, if not all kinds of figurative representations of the Deity, at all events every idolatrous and superstitious use of pictures. It was also beset by the difficulty that we have no authentic pictures of Christ, the Madonna and the Apostles or any other biblical character.

We have traced in previous volumes the gradual introduction of sacred images from the Roman Catacombs to the close of the sixth century. The use of symbols and pictures was at first quite innocent and spread imperceptibly with the growth of the worship of saints. The East which inherited a love for art from the old Greeks, was chiefly devoted to images, the Western barbarians who could not appreciate works of art, cared more for relics.

We may distinguish three theories, of which two came into open conflict and disputed the ground till the year 842.

1. The theory of Image-Worship. It is the orthodox theory, denounced by the opponents as a species of idolatry,531531    Its advocates were called εἰκονολάτραι, ξυλολάτραι, εἰδωδολάτραι. but strongly supported by the people, the monks, the poets, the women, the Empresses Irene and Theodora, sanctioned by the seventh oecumenical Council (787) and by the popes (Gregory II., Gregory III. and Hadrian I). It maintained the right and duty of using and worshipping images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints, but indignantly rejected the charge of idolatry, and made a distinction (often disregarded in practice) between a limited worship due to pictures,532532    τιμητικὴπροσκύνησις. For this word the Latin has no precise equivalent. The English word ” worship” is used in different senses. and adoration proper due to God alone.533533    λατρεία. adoratio. Images are a pictorial Bible, and speak to the eye even more eloquently than the word speaks to the ear. They are of special value to the common people who cannot read the Holy Scriptures. The honors of the living originals in heaven were gradually transferred to their wooden pictures on earth; the pictures were reverently kissed and surrounded by the pagan rites of genuflexion, luminaries, and incense; and prayers were thought to be more effective if said before them. Enthusiasm for pictures went hand in hand with the worship of saints, and was almost inseparable from it. It kindled a poetic inspiration which enriched the service books of the Greek church. The chief hymnists, John of Damascus, Cosmas of Jerusalem, Germanus, Theophanes, Theodore of the Studium, were all patrons of images, and some of them suffered deposition, imprisonment, and mutilation for their zeal; but the Iconoclasts did not furnish a single poet.534534    See § 94, p. 403 sqq.

The chief argument against this theory was the second commandment. It was answered in various ways. The prohibition was understood to be merely temporary till the appearance of Christ, or to apply only to graven images, or to the making of images for idolatrous purposes.

On the other hand, the cherubim over the ark, and the brazen serpent in the wilderness were appealed to as examples of visible symbols in the Mosaic worship. The incarnation of the Son of God furnished the divine warrant for pictures of Christ. Since Christ revealed himself in human form it can be no sin to represent him in that form. The significant silence of the Gospels concerning his personal appearance was supplied by fictitious pictures ascribed to St. Luke, and St. Veronica, and that of Edessa. A superstitious fancy even invented stories of wonder-working pictures, and ascribed to them motion, speech, and action.

It should be added that the Eastern church confines images to colored representations on a plane surface, and mosaics, but excludes sculptures and statues from objects of worship. The Roman church makes no such restriction.

2. The Iconoclastic theory occupies the opposite extreme. Its advocates were called image-breakers.535535    Εἰκονοκλάσται(from κλάω, to break), εἰκονοκαύσται, εἰκονομάχοι, χριστιανοκατήγοροι. It was maintained by the energetic Greek emperors, Leo III. and his son Constantine, who saved the tottering empire against the invasion of the Saracens; it was popular in the army, and received the sanction of the Constantinopolitan Synod of 754. It appealed first and last to the second commandment in the decalogue in its strict sense as understood by the Jews and the primitive Christians. It was considerably strengthened by the successes of the Mohammedans who, like the Jews, charged the Christians with the great sin of idolatry, and conquered the cities of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in spite of the sacred images which were relied on for protection and miraculous interposition. The iconoclastic Synod of 754 denounced image-worship as a relapse into heathen idolatry, which the devil had smuggled into the church in the place of the worship of God alone in spirit and in truth.

The iconoclastic party, however, was not consistent; for it adhered to saint-worship which is the root of image-worship, and instead of sweeping away all religious symbols, it retained the sign of the cross with all its superstitious uses, and justified this exception by the Scripture passages on the efficacy of the cross, though these refer to the sacrifice of the cross, and not to the sign.

The chief defect of iconoclasm and the cause of its failure was its negative character. It furnished no substitute for image-worship, and left nothing but empty walls which could not satisfy the religious wants of the Greek race. It was very different from the iconoclasm of the evangelical Reformation, which put in the place of images the richer intellectual and spiritual instruction from the Word of God.

3. The Moderate theory sought a via media between image-worship and image-hatred, by distinguishing between the sign and the thing, the use and the abuse. It allowed the representation of Christ and the saints as aids to devotion by calling to remembrance the persons and facts set forth to the eye. Pope Gregory I. presented to a hermit at his wish a picture of Christ, of Mary, and of St. Peter and St. Paul, with a letter in which he approves of the natural desire to have a visible reminder of an object of reverence and love, but at the same time warned him against superstitious use. “We do not,” he says, “kneel down before the picture as a divinity, but we adore Him whose birth or passion or sitting on the throne of majesty is brought to our remembrance by the picture.” The same pope commended Serenus, bishop of Marseilles, for his zeal against the adoration of pictures, but disapproved of his excess in that direction, and reminded him of the usefulness of such aids for the people who had just emerged from pagan barbarism and could not instruct themselves out of the Holy Scriptures. The Frankish church in the eighth and ninth centuries took a more decided stand against the abuse, without, however, going to the extent of the iconoclasts in the East.

In the course of time the Latin church went just as far if not further in practical image-worship as the Eastern church after the seventh oecumenical council. Gregory II. stoutly resisted the iconoclastic decrees of the Emperor Leo, and made capital out of the controversy for the independence of the papal throne. Gregory III. followed in the same steps, and Hadrian sanctioned the decree of the second council of Nicaea. Image-worship cannot be consistently opposed without surrendering the worship of saints.

The same theories and parties reappeared again in the age of the Reformation: the Roman as well as the Greek church adhered to image-worship with an occasional feeble protest against its abuses, and encouraged the development of fine arts, especially in Italy; the radical Reformers (Carlstadt, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox) renewed the iconoclastic theory and removed, in an orderly way, the pictures from the churches, as favoring a refined species of idolatry and hindering a spiritual worship; the Lutheran church (after the example set by Luther and his friend Lucas Kranach), retained the old pictures, or replaced them by new and better ones, but freed from former superstition. The modern progress of art, and the increased mechanical facilities for the multiplication of pictures have produced a change in Protestant countries. Sunday School books and other works for old and young abound in pictorial illustrations from Bible history for instruction; and the masterpieces of the great religious painters have become household ornaments, but will never be again objects of worship, which is due to God alone.


The Council of Trent, Sess. XXV. held Dec. 1563, sanctions, together with the worship of saints and relics, also the “legitimate use of images” in the following terms: “Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honor and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshiped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles, who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ, and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images.” The Profession of the Tridentine Faith teaches the same in art. IX. (See Schaff, Creeds, II. p. 201, 209).

The modern standards of the Eastern Church reiterate the decision of the seventh (Ecumenical Council. The Synod of Jerusalem, or the Confession of Dositheus, includes pictures of Christ, the mother of God, the saints and the holy angels who appeared to some of the patriarchs and prophets, also the symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit under the form of a dove, among the objects of worship (proskunou’men kai; timw’men kai; ajspazovmeqa). See Schaff, l.c. II. 436. The Longer Russian Catechism, in the exposition of the second commandment (Schaff, II. 527), thus speaks of this subject:

“What is an icon (εἰκών)?

“The word is Greek, and means an image or representation. In the Orthodox Church this name designates sacred representations of our Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, his immaculate Mother, and his saints.

“Is the use of holy icons agreeable to the second commandment?

It would then, and then only, be otherwise, if any one were to make gods of them; but it is not in the least contrary to this commandment to honor icons as sacred representations, and to use them for the religious remembrance of God’s works and of his saints; for when thus used icons are books, writen(sic) with the forms of persons and things instead of letters. (See Greg. Magn. lib. ix. Ep. 9, ad Seren. Epis.).

“What disposition of mind should we have when we reverence icons?

“While we look on them with our eyes, we should mentally look to God and to the saints, who are represented on them.”

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