It was the mid-8th century AD, and the Western and Eastern Church were already decades into a dispute about relics and Holy Images.  An abbot was tied up in a sack and thrown into the sea to drown.  His crime? Refusing to trample a sacred image. The Pope in Rome and the Emperor in the East exchanged strongly worded letters, the first defending the proper use of icons (sacred images of Christ, Mary or other saints) while the latter continued to violently enforce his hatred for them.  The iconoclasts (those who smash images) stripped churches of all their icons insisting that they were idols, while some complained that the paintings of flowers and fruit which now covered the walls of their churches made them look like groceries stores rather than places of worship.  Those who supported the use of icons were referred to as image worshipers.   But the Church was careful to clarify the difference between veneration and worship, and upheld the proper place of sacred images, condemning the iconoclasts as heretics.  It would not be the last time, however, that Catholics would be accused of idolatry for their love of statues and paintings of holy things.  In fact it remains one of the common misconceptions about Catholics among Protestant Christians.  They say we worship statues.   What is, in fact, the purpose of all these images, statues and icons? What good do we gain from having them as part of our tradition?

Icons and the Incarnation

A correct understanding of the rightful place of religious images and statues in Christian worship hinges on one’s appreciation of the significance of the Incarnation: the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becoming man in the Person of Jesus Christ.   For the Hebrews, God, who is Existence Itself, is strictly non-material: uncreated, spiritual Being.  The sheer divide between the material universe and its Creator was, for the Jews, so great that no one was even permitted to spell His name in full (consider how casual we are these days!), let alone make an image of Him.  Hence the second commandment: Thou shalt not make any graven images.  For thousands of years there was, if you will, a great silence—a great anticipation—for a glimpse of God.  The event that broke this silence was Mary’s fiat: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.”  It was then in human history that God mingled with matter—He became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1).

The Catechism explains the implications of this event with regards to icons, quoting one of the great defenders of sacred images, St. John of Damascus:  “Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men I can make an image of what I have seen of God… and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.” (Art 1159)

The purpose of icons

In the 16th Century the archaeological discovery of the catacombs (where the earliest Christians met together in secret) uncovered walls which were decorated with images of the faith and dispelled the myth that the early Church had any objections to this kind graphic celebration of holy things through art.   But like everything the Church teaches to be true, the proper use of icons was only defended and formally defined when it first came under attack; before then it was simply common practice.  Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th Century wrote to Bishop Serenus, who had removed all icons from his diocese, the following words:

“Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book.”

The words of this wise pope point to a few very important reasons to use sacred images.  Firstly, we adore (or worship) God alone.  The next point is that the appearance of the icon provides us with a picture of “what we must adore.”  They express the stories of the faith without text so that “they who know no letters may yet read.” And lastly, in destroying them, we destroy these avenues for Christians to know and love God better.

Veneration

You may be relieved to hear that Catholics don’t worship statues (or saints or Mary for that matter)—but then why do we venerate them?  This is still a source of confusion for many, and where a lot of misunderstanding occurs.  I’m speaking about kissing the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin, or kneeling in front of a crucifix to pray.  Without going into a theological explanation regarding the difference between veneration and worship, the following example might help demonstrate how human and innocent these customs are when done in their true spirit.  Imagine a man who carries in his shirt pocket or wallet a photograph of his wife and children.  He may even take that photograph out on occasions, hold it lovingly, kiss it, or whisper a few words to it.  We may call him overly sentimental, but not for a moment would we think this man was replacing his family with a photograph or practicing some sort of idolatry.  There certainly is an unhealthy human tendency to idolise material things, especially good things.  But there is an equally human yet healthy tendency to love material things for what they may signify to us or for whom they may be associated with.  And as Pope Gregory the Great said, we “learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore.”

Practically

History and theology are helpful but what I have personally learnt in practice with regards to icons has yielded much insight and understanding.  Having grown up meeting in church buildings that looked little different to conference centres, the stained glass windows, icons and statues of Catholicism were to me strange at first.   Last year, however, I was eager to explore the gloriously adorned churches of Rome on my first visit of Italy.  Without a guide, and alone, I wondered in and out of chapels and basilicas, taking in the celebration of the Mass expressed by artists in stone, mosaic, architecture and paint.  A few of these images etched their place in my soul and it pleases me to bring them to mind now.

The first was a very unassuming chapel I came upon one day by chance and chose to sit in it for an hour or so writing letters and postcards to friends.  As my eyes adjusted to the light I noticed the vividly-coloured mosaic above the altar, depicting Christ enthroned in the clouds.  I was drawn back into that chapel again and again to pray in presence of that beautiful image.   It carried something of His kindness and His glory that fascinated me and caused my heart to worship.

The second memory was in the village of Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict.  I stayed with the monks and ate meals with them in silence, as is their custom.  I noticed that only a few of the walls had been painted with murals of Christ and His disciples, a crucifixion scene here, a few empty walls there and then a half painted mural of the Last Supper just opposite where I sat, with low scaffolds and a selection of paints set up against it.  Evidently the job was still underway and over the white parts of the wall outlines of the figures still to be painted could be seen in pencil.  It was not my taste of art, not then at least, and had I not been eating in that room in silence for a number of days in a row I don’t think I would have paid them much mind at all.  As I grew to know them, however, I grew to love them.  The faces of the Apostles which at first seemed plain and flat began to look very different to me, as if they had a kind of life in them.  I soon discovered that the artist was among us – the iconographer I should say.  In fact I was often eating and praying beside him without realizing who he was or that he was the man who lovingly added his brushstrokes to the walls of that chamber each day.  If you know anything about the process that iconographers go through to produce a painting you will know that it is a saturated in prayer.  No wonder the effect these paintings had on me, I could describe it no other way but that they were ministering to me each day as I looked on them and ate in their presence.

The last memory was from my return to Rome after being in Norcia and revisiting St Peter’s Basilica, aided by an audio guide on my cellphone.  The guide I was listening to certainly wasn’t Catholic but he made the point that if you want to drink in the magnificence and the meaning of St Peter’s Basilica you need to take on Catholic eyes for the experience. “Leave your Protestant sword at the door,” he said, and some equally pithy sayings for atheists and non-believers on how to approach the basilica properly.  My eyes where open and alive with wonder as I walked from pillar to pillar in a church the size of a football field listening as the guide pointed out paintings and statues and made comments on the architecture and most importantly its meaning.  Near the end of the audio guide I stood at the centre of the dome and, finally, was told to look up.  I don’t remember the words now, not that it matters – something about infinity, or the omnipotence of God and how Michelangelo had wanted that grandeur to be experienced by the ordinary man standing and looking up, as I was doing just then.  What I do remember are the tears that rolled down my cheeks as that feeling of greatness and awe filled my chest looking up at that high, high ceiling.

To artists

I myself am a songwriter and a musician.  If there’s one thing the Catholic spirit has done in me it has given me substance on which to thrive as an artist.  If God inhabited the material world, it is not only good but also beautiful.  If He explored it, so should we.  He has left traces of Himself everywhere. The Incarnation is the same mystery that inspired the great Catholic artists to write great Masses and adorn churches with breathtaking paintings that fill our hearts with joy and lift our eyes to Heaven.  The Catholic Church holds the secret to all truly great art: the Incarnation.  It’s time, I say, time for artists to apply their pens and brushes, their lyrics and harmonies and explore, uncover and tell of this mystery of the Incarnation which is at the heart of all the Sacraments, because the same Artist who worked in the womb of Mary, still longs to minister to us.


 

by Timothy Hutchinson Profile Tim Hutch