Many Catholics treasure the experience of being in a church amid the sacred art of paintings, mosaics, murals, and stained glass; along with statues of Jesus, Mary and the Saints. In some churches, paintings of the scenes of Jesus’ torturous route toward Golgotha serve as illustrated Stations of the Cross. In considering paintings, spectacular murals come to mind such as the circular painting of Mary, Star of the Sea on the ceiling over the nave in the church of the same name in San Francisco; or the spectacular “Trinity Dome” of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. depicting the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, 18 saints, 2 archangels and the 4 evangelists! As we experience the celebrations of the Feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph this month, who doesn’t have a favorite statue of St. Patrick holding a shamrock, such as at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, CA? https://churchwonders.com/churches-shrines/california-churches/cathedral-of-the-blessed-sacrament-sacramento-ca/. Of course, we all have a favorite statue of St. Joseph, as many churches have beautiful statues of the Guardian of the Redeemer cradling the Baby in one arm and holding a stem of lilies (representing purity) in the other. Engrossing depictions of Jesus, Mary and special Saints abound in the beautiful stained glass of St. Helena’s Church in Grafton, NE https://churchwonders.com/st-helenas-catholic-church-grafton-ne/.
These works of sacred art are pleasing to behold and observe for their aesthetic beauty. They may also hold some personal memories in churches with which we have a history. The images can be a source of focus for prayer, contemplation, and meditation. But whatever the objective is for the observer, they are placed in the church to enhance the experience of the visitor to the sacred space - for what purposes that they are not in the church was “officialized” at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 in response to the Iconoclasm Heresy.
Worship of idols has long been prohibited in Judaism, Christianity and the Catholic Church with the ban declared in the First Commandment which states, “I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.” This commandment is a condensed version of the verses in the two books of the Bible which address the Ten Commandments: Exodus Chapter 20 and Deuteronomy Chapter 5. However, this ban is not a prohibition of sacred images, but rather a prohibition against having gods other than the One True God, and, against adoration of the images.
In early Christianity, numerous sacred images are found on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313, large basilicas were constructed and decorated with intricate mosaics and statues. Over the centuries, the amounts of physical objects in the churches grew and increasingly began to include relics of saints which drew pilgrims from afar to see and venerate the vestiges of the cherished saint. These practices were considered by some to be idolatrous and eventually, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III led a campaign to ban the use of all images in churches and severely punished those who did not adhere to the decrees. It was a difficult period for many “iconodules” during the 8th and, again, in the 9th centuries, as those supporters of the use of sacred images were tortured, excommunicated, and even killed. The Iconoclasm Heresy was temporarily paused by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 which included a declaration that restored the use of images, but explained that the veneration of the images was applied to the saint depicted in the image, and not the image itself. The Council also reiterated that true worship was reserved for God alone. A second iteration of the heresy arose during the 9th century, but ceased with the death of the initiator Theophilus in 842 when his widow Theodora directed the restoration of images.
Lesson 17 of the Baltimore Catechism outlines the beliefs related to “honoring the Saints, Relics and Images”. Some excerpts from Lesson 17 follow:
220. When does the first commandment forbid the making or the use of statues and pictures?
The first commandment forbids the making or the use of statues and pictures only when they promote false worship.
221. Is it right to show respect to the statues and pictures of Christ and of the saints?
It is right to show respect to the statues and pictures of Christ and of the saints, just as it is right to show respect to the images of those whom we honor or love on earth.
222. Do we honor Christ and the saints when we pray before the crucifix, relics, and sacred images?
We honor Christ and the saints when we pray before the crucifix, relics, and sacred images because we honor the persons they represent; we adore Christ and venerate the saints.
223. Do we pray to the crucifix or to the images and relics of the saints?
We do not pray to the crucifix or to the images and relics of the saints, but to the persons they represent.
Read more of Lesson 17 at https://www.catholicity.com/baltimore-catechism/lesson17.html