More years ago now than I care to remember, I belonged to a lively circle of Christian artists (or "artists who happened to be Christian," as we preferred to style ourselves). We would gather for monthly fellowship meetings around Southern California and share stories of how we were faring in the tricky business of balancing our artistic and spiritual vocations out in the wide world.
On one occasion, we were invited to meet at a prosperous, non-denominational, Evangelical church. Our hosts were kind enough to show us around beforehand, and as we toured their sparkling modern facility, I couldn’t help noticing that there was not a speck of visual art to be seen anywhere, inside or out. There were no paintings, no statues, no stained glass. There were no crosses either—let alone a crucifix—in fact nothing besides crisp lettered signage to indicate that the place had any Christian or religious affiliation whatsoever.
As I eventually discovered, there was in fact one concession to visual art amid the office-beige hallways and institutional carpeting. In the sanctuary—which looked like a nicely appointed concert hall—was a broad stage, empty but for microphone stands and a drum-kit, above which was suspended a trinity of large projection-screen TVs. The featured programming consisted of abstract swirls of color of the kind seen on computer screen savers, interrupted occasionally by inspiring nature photos—and, yes, a few samples of actual Christian art. All of it was coordinated to the rockin’ beat of the music ministers. It could have been a church that worshipped at the altar of MTV.
No Graven Image?
It was certainly odd for me, a Catholic, to see other Christians choosing to create an essentially image-free environment for themselves, but not surprising. I’d heard enough from my fellow Christian artists about the indifference—if not outright hostility—to visual art they had met with in their own denominations. I knew too that the old Reformers had adopted an anti-image stance in horror of "popish idolatry" and that many of the more strictly reformed churches still supported it and criticized the Catholic Church on that basis—although our hosts explained that their minimalist décor stemmed not so much from those doctrines (the pastor was happy to have our artists’ group meet there) but fear that the unchurched folk they wished to attract would be put off by a lot of overtly Christian or "churchy" paraphernalia.
I have no doubt that that policy was successful, given prevailing secular prejudices—but it and all other forms of aniconism run exactly counter to Catholic teaching and practice regarding images. I say I knew all that, all those years ago, and I had every confidence in the wisdom of the Church’s position, but I don’t know if I could have explained exactly where that position came from, or why images in the church are not only unobjectionable but a positive good.
I might have begun at least by pointing out that on a practical basis, images have been central to the faith and to the proclamation of the gospel since the earliest days of Christianity. Certain types of images—icons—have even been recognized as equal in status to Scripture (a scandal to Protestantism), although all images called to service in the Church are more than accessory decorations. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote to the bishop of Marseilles, in sacred images "the illiterate see what they cannot read," a valuable function, and not their only justification (as we shall see).
Yet, from the beginning too, long before the Reformation, there were objections to bringing images into the church.
The Second Commandment forbids not just the making of images to be adored or served, like golden calves, but all images—a recognition of their powerful hold on us. So powerful was this hold that the prohibition didn’t stick: The Jews at later times not only fell into idol-making again but produced representational art actually dedicated to Yahweh (most notably in the furnishings of Solomon’s Temple and the ancient synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria). Even God himself directed that the Ark built to house the tablets should be adorned with a pair of golden cherubs, and that Moses should make a bronze serpent (Ex 25:18, Nm 21:8-9). Still, the fear that images would promote idolatry and draw people away from the right worship of the invisible God was deeply ingrained in Hebrew culture.
But it was not just Israel who feared the power of images. Among the Greeks, Plato famously criticized images for leading the mind farther away from the "real reality," and for their potential to corrupt morals—not entirely dissimilar objections. For him, an image was a copy of a copy of an ideal form. For example, my cat, Katherina, is an image of the ideal cat, so a painting of Katherina is an image of an image, twice removed from the ideal cat—a crude approximation at best.
(Ironically, practitioners of idealized art styles believe that an artificial image can be a better representation of the ideal than any physical example—think of all those "perfect" Greek statues that improve on the actual human form.)
Perhaps on similar grounds, science often has preferred to describe the physical world using abstract formulas and mathematical symbols instead of potentially misleading and partial illustrations. (That attitude has changed dramatically in recent decades with the availability of computer graphics and the realization that public funding is easier to secure when people can see where their money is going.)
Bent on Reduction
With the advent of Christianity, the previous philosophies were reshaped by the "new economy of images" wrought by the Son of God (CCC 2131). God’s form, hidden from Moses, was revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. So by the second century—as unlikely as it was in an offshoot of Judaism—catacomb paintings and carved sarcophagi were common. Moreover, they initially looked very much like pagan Greco-Roman art. Once Christianity was legal, these early forms were surpassed by richly frescoed and mosaicked church interiors.
But centuries after Christian art was a fait accompli, debate over its legitimacy still seethed. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian denounced its potential for idolatry and argued, as Plato had, that artistic images were luxuries that encouraged immorality and materialism. Pope Gregory the Great’s defense of images came as a rebuke to the bishop of Marseilles, who had ordered saints’ images destroyed when some in his flock apparently began to show them excessive devotion. But it was in the East that the campaign against images, particularly images of Jesus, reached crisis levels, culminating in the violence of Byzantine iconoclasm: During the eighth and the ninth centuries, countless icons and holy images were destroyed, an irreparable loss to the Church and history.
The conflict was addressed in 787 by the Second Council of Nicaea, which unequivocally condemned idolatry but just as emphatically approved the full use of images in the Church and their veneration. Image-making was legitimized by the Incarnation of Christ, who said of himself that those who had seen him had seen the Father. If Jesus, the living Image of God, could be seen by human eyes, then surely his portrait could be taken, and any reverence shown to such a portrayal was really directed to him, the Prototype.
Nevertheless, those putatively authoritative pronouncements didn’t stick either. A second major phase of iconoclasm occurred in the century after the council. Bouts of iconoclasm and aniconism continued to agitate the Church in later centuries, coming from such figures as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who succeeded for a time in banning art from Cistercian churches (because "men admire beauty more than they venerate sanctity"); Protestant iconoclasts like Zwingli and Calvin (but not Luther); English Puritans and their spiritual heirs; all the way to contemporary "renovators" who wish to remove images on the principle that they distract the people from their active participation in the liturgy. We still hear the argument that images are unbecoming luxuries, to be sacrificed for the sake of appearances (or less honorably, to accommodate shrinking maintenance budgets).
To this internal ecclesial opposition, we could add external attacks from the likes of French and communist revolutionaries and other anti-religious, ideological crusaders, including those who today demand that the Church sell off her art treasures for the relief of the poor and the hungry. Bizarrely, even the art world has at times turned against itself in the last century, spawning reductionist art movements like minimalism, conceptualism, and non-objective styles that advocate against imagery of any kind. Radical anti-art movements like Dadaism not only bite, but devour the hand that feeds them.
All this fuss over something that is as naturally and universally human as words—that other seemingly inexhaustible font of controversy.
But the Bible teaches, and we believe, that we ourselves are made in the image of God.
That gets us to the root of any justification or defense of images. If it is absurd for humans to make and use images, how absurd is it for God to do so? And if we are images, is it surprising that we would harbor a deep affinity for them?
We Learn by Analogy
In fact, images are inescapable. If we ask why we need them in the Church, we might as well ask why we need them at all. The answer is that without them life would be very difficult, and we would find it virtually impossible to learn or to think or to know, or to be human. We are not angels or pure spirits but composite creatures, a unity of spirit and matter, and our way of knowing is composite as well.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that "it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from [the senses]" (Summa Theologiae I:1:1). When we receive information about the world outside us from our senses, we represent it to ourselves in the form of a mental image. That image, residing in the imagination, does not contain the actual substance of the world, but is its likeness (or phantasm). It is that likeness which the intellect studies and from which it abstracts whatever can be known about it. In short, our path to knowledge is indirect. We are built to learn using analogies and similarities, and that is what images are all about.
The practical flaw in this scenario is that there are many things not directly available to the senses, either because of their distance in time or space, or because they are beyond the capacity of sense to take in, being immaterial in nature.
The first limitation can be remedied in part by making words and images that express what we have learned personally and preserving them for the benefit of those who come after us—the basis of human art and education from time immemorial.
But to attain knowledge of spiritual things in the first place, images are not only useful but necessary. Of course, words have their necessary role, as witnessed by the words of revelation and Scripture, but the Church recognizes that man does not live by words alone: "Hence in Holy Writ, spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things" (Summa 1:1:1). Likenesses drawn from the material world are the means by which we access, through analogy and abstraction, the sacred history and invisible realities they stand for, those things which are, in the Catechism’s formulation, "beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God" (CCC 2500).
In this life, we do not see or know God in his essence, so he makes himself known to us "through the universal language of creation," its order, harmony, and beauty. "God is known by natural knowledge through the images of his effects," says Aquinas, for all of Creation is made in his image (Summa I:1:12). "From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator . . . for the author of beauty created them" (Wis 13:5,3). The illiterate might well have to learn from images, but that doesn’t mean the literate can do without them.
When Jesus, who is both the Word and the Image of God, appeared in the flesh, it remained impossible for human eyes to perceive his divinity. Instead, he spoke of the Father in parables, using "the likenesses of material things." He worked "signs and wonders" to allude to his divine power and mercy, which, like love and truth and goodness, are invisible in themselves. He cured physical diseases as a token of his ability to cure spiritual disease and to forgive sins. When he was transfigured, his blinding brightness was a visible analog of his infinite glory. And he bequeathed us those greatest of all "outward signs," the sacraments.
Images are woven into the fabric of the Church: The liturgy, the people, the priest, the building itself, all these are images—though it may take some effort to see them that way. Paintings and statues and stained glass are comparatively more obvious and accessible, and potentially more versatile and specific when it comes to the range of themes and episodes from sacred history to which they can they can point us.
Nevertheless, without a proper visual education, all the sublime theology in the world and all the beautiful lessons embodied in those images won’t do us any good. It is one thing to describe their potential and quite another to experience it in practice.
True enough, many Catholics regularly pray before statues or meditate on the crucifix and other art works. Some bring a favorite holy card or illustrated prayer book to Mass. Local and ethnic customs can add striking representations and reenactments to the parish mix. For most, images are perhaps never more "active" than during Advent and Lent, when elaborate crèches spring up and the Stations of the Cross rise from their ordinary-season torpor to become objects of reverential contemplation.
But many other Catholics pay no more attention to such imagery than they do to background music. No doubt for some it is a matter of spiritual temperament—they prefer to pray and worship with their eyes closed, or with music and words. Others, though, may have fallen into a Sunday rut: Habituation has reduced the church furnishings to innocuous visual "filler," colorful stuff that sets the expected religious ambiance, but never demands their lively appreciation. And unfortunately, if curiosity should move such folk to look more closely, they may find the symbolism inscrutable, the saints unidentifiable, and none of it any match for the graphics on their new gaming system at home. Even more unfortunate are the multitudes who attend modern churches destitute of images: They are either knowingly deprived or sadly unaware of what they are missing.
Indifference and visual illiteracy can be cured by education, but pastors and others must be willing to devote resources to the effort. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have repeatedly called for a renewal of sacred imagery in the Church, noting that "when faith, celebrated in the liturgy . . . encounters art, it creates a profound harmony, because each can, and wishes to speak of God, [to make] the Invisible visible" (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 18, 2009).
The Fabric of Creation
Debate over images in the Church is hardly yesterday’s news. Ecumenical encounters and the ongoing "reckovation" wars demonstrate that images are still quite capable of stirring confusion and passion. In the face of contemporary visual culture, with its myriad images (crushing numbers of them immoral or unedifying), the desire to simplify is understandable. A world without so much flash and clutter would be less fatiguing, and a church interior inspired by the austere grandeur of a Cistercian abbey might indeed be a salutary change.
Nevertheless, the place of images in the Church is secure. Their immediate purpose is show us the Bible and sacred history in living color, to provide a point of focus for contemplation, to reveal the beauty of God. But by extension they are a reminder that everything is connected to everything else, across time, across space. Everything is an image of something else. Every image is a link in a vast network of analogous and causal relationships, leading from image to original, from object to maker, and finally to the one Origin and Maker of all things, God. He created everything in his image, and we in turn may create images of God and everything in Creation, including ourselves. To do away with images would be to disunite everything, like an Internet made of nothing but unlinked pages.
Images are the way the cosmos is constructed. We think in images. We dream in images. We are an image.
Only one thing is not an image, and that is God.
Art Reveals God in Everything
Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality. This close proximity, this harmony between the journey of faith and the artist’s path is attested by countless artworks that are based upon the personalities, the stories, the symbols of that immense deposit of "figures"—in the broad sense—namely the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures. The great biblical narratives, themes, images and parables have inspired innumerable masterpieces in every sector of the arts, just as they have spoken to the hearts of believers in every generation through the works of craftsmanship and folk art, that are no less eloquent and evocative.
In this regard, one may speak of a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry. . . . The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the whole in the fragment, the infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity. Simone Weil wrote in this regard: "In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious." Hermann Hesse makes the point even more graphically: "Art means: revealing God in everything that exists."
—Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Artists, November 21, 2009
In some respects, image-making is a ridiculous and superfluous activity, whether it occurs in the Church or elsewhere. Why should artists labor to present us with an image when the reality is all around us? How is a picture of a sunset better than the sunset itself? Why not worship God directly "in spirit and truth" rather than via some bits of painted wood or chiseled stone?
Images are strange things. We might think of them mainly in the context of art, but the word casts a far wider net. An image is a likeness, a thing that looks like or is similar to another thing. It is therefore a kind of sign or symbol (a form that "points to" some other thing outside of itself), one whose shape is not arbitrary, but is copied in imitation of an original prototype or exemplar. That means that an image is both "like" and "unlike" at the same time: A painting of a landscape is not a landscape; an icon of Jesus is not Jesus, and although you may see yourself in your child, he is a separate being.
Images are, in other words, not entirely what they appear to be—and that can be a little spooky. Their form and their existence are derivative, dependent on the existence of the original, in the way that a shadow springs from its owner or a parasite lives off its host. And yet there are endless examples of images (in art and elsewhere) that live on independently long after their prototype (and their maker) has fallen to dust.
It is no wonder that images in all their guises carry an air of magic and mystery. We know they are easily worshipped or adored; the very act of making them can seem like a blasphemous grab at divine creativity.
Images fascinate and confound. They instruct and delight, inspire, provoke, enrage, illuminate, disgust, astonish, appall. We gaze at them in mirrors, scrutinizing our Doppelgänger self in a looking-glass world. They hold us spellbound as they pass by on television and movie screens. In photographs they preserve a frozen past, and may in turn call forth a host of virtual images preserved in our memories. Artistic images record the past, but can also display things that have never been or have only existed in the mind of the artist. We may be frightened by nightmare visions or be convinced that we are haunted by the ghostly figures of the dead. Some believe that the dependency between images and their prototypes runs in both directions: A photograph actually captures the soul, and needles poked into a magical effigy will make an enemy suffer agonies.