Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes toward Images


By Steven Bigham


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Steven Bigham at Shakespir
Copyright © 2004-2016 by Steven Bigham


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Published by Orthodox Research Institute
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© 2004 Orthodox Research Institute

Translated from the French: Les chrétiens et les images: Les attitudes envers I’art dans I’Église ancienne, 1992.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author or publisher.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2004094564

ISBN 0-9745618-6-X


In 1987, an international symposium was held in Paris to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicæa II. In the first of a series of articles presented at that symposium, Sister Charles Murray was asked to deal with an old problem: the attitude of the early Christians toward images. Even though this is an old question, it is very much alive today. Sister Murray opened her article with these words: “The subject that was suggested to me for my contribution to the symposium was the following: ʽEliminate once and for all the idea that the Christians of the first centuries were iconophobic.ʼ”1 It is obvious that the theological and historical grounding of Christian art, in general, and of the icon, in particular, still arouses great interest. For all iconophiles, that is, those who accept the dogma of Nicæa II, but especially the Orthodox who claim that the icon has a sacramental and mystical character, it is naturally disquieting to hear the claim that the early Christians were aniconic and iconophobic. If this claim is true, the theology and the veneration of the icon are seriously undermined. It is, therefore, natural for iconophiles to attempt to disprove the thesis according to which the early Christians had no images whatsoever (aniconic) because they believed them to be idols (iconophobic). It is equally natural for iconophiles to want to substantiate, as much as this is possible, their deep intuition that the roots of Christian iconography go back to the apostolic age. The study in this book has the same objective as that given to Sister Murray: “Eliminate once and for all the idea that the Christians of the first centuries were iconophobic.” We do not pretend to have achieved this goal “once and for all,” but we hope to have considerably weakened the notion and credibility of the alleged hostility of the early Christians to nonidolatrous images. A more balanced evaluation of this question can thereby be established among scientific researchers.

1. Murray, Sister Charles, “Le problème de l’iconophobie et les premiers siècles chrétiens” [The Problem of the Fear of Images and the First Christian Centuries], Nicée II: Actes du colloque international Nicée II, F. Boesplug and N. Lossky, eds., Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 1987, p. 39.




1.1 Aniconic and Iconophobic

1.2 Icon, Idol and the Hostility Theory

1.3 Absolute or Relative Prohibition

1.4 The Argument from Tradition


2.1 Introduction

2.2 A Theoretical Framework

2.3 The Application of the Hypothesis: The Old Testament

2.4 The Illuminated Bible

2.5 Between the Exile and Herod the Great

2.6 From Herod the Great to the Destruction of the Temple: Josephus and Philo

2.7 After the Destruction of the Temple: Rabbinical Judaism


3.1 Introduction

3.2 The New Testament

3.3 Traditions Relating to the New Testament

3.4 The Pre-Constantinian Literature

3.5 The Archeological Monuments


4.1 Introduction

4.2 At Paneas, the Statue of Christ and the Woman with a Hemorrhage: The History of the Church VII, XVIII

4.3 At Paneas, the Statue of Christ and the Woman with a Hemorrhage: Commentary on Luke 8:43-48

4.4 The Image of the Three Visitors to Abraham: The Proof of the Gospel, V

4.5 The Cross in the Hand of a Statue of Constantine: The History of the Church IX, IX, 10

4.6 A Cross in the Hand of a Statue of Constantine and Inscription: The Life of Constantine, I, XI

4.7 Rejection of Christ’s Image: The Letter to Constantia

4.8 Evidence from The Life of Constantine

4.9 Analysis of the Data

4.10 Conclusion

Annex: Texts in Translation



1.1 Aniconic and Iconophobic.

There is hardly a book on Christian art that does not have some pages, even a whole section, describing the Christian attitude toward images in the first three centuries. These Christians were supposed to be aniconic and iconophobic^2^. The word aniconic refers to the absence of painted, drawn or sculpted images. It is a descriptive term that makes no value judgment and does not claim to explain the absence of images. By saying that the early Christians were aniconic, those who make this claim mean simply that they had, produced or ordered no images whatsoever. There is no attempt to give a reason for their “imagelessness.”

The word iconophobic, on the other hand, attempts to explain the situation described by the word aniconic. Being composed of two Greek roots meaning image and fear, iconophobic attributes to the first Christians a fear, a hostility, an aversion toward all images because the Bible, the Gospel, forbid them.

There is a theory, then, stating that the early Christians had no images and were hostile to them because their religion forbade figurative art. This theory, which we will call the hostility theory, is accepted as an established fact by nearly all researchers in the field. We cannot note all the books that have adopted this point of view, but we can mention a few that show how this idea dominates the intellectual landscape:

In general, Christian writers up to the middle of the fourth century either repudiated the use of art in the Church, or they ignored it so completely that one might suppose it did not exist3.

During the second century—exactly when is not known—the Church’s bias against representational art broke down, and some pagan myths and symbols were adopted by the Christians; a few, like the fish and the peacock, are still in use if somewhat self-consciously4.

We are even more interested to know the position of the apologists on the subject of the use of Christian images, but the documents are rather rare. It seems that we can characterize the attitude of the writers of the first three centuries by reticence, if not by hostility5.

Christian art owes very little to the Church, except perhaps tolerance. Art entered the Church and was so insignificant, so modest that it was some time before anyone noticed that it even existed and that it wanted to live, to continue to exist, and to be recognized. When Christians finally understood this ambition, it was too late to fight or discourage figurative art. Faces, symbols, allegories, and historical scenes infiltrated the Church every where, captured the Christian imagination, beat back ignorance, and took a prominent place such that it had to be tolerated6.

We should not be surprised to see that Christians, thinly distributed in the Roman Empire, show a conscious hostility to images. They were inheritors of the tradition of Israel and had only contempt for pagan idols which represented the gods and whose representations in Athens made the Apostle Paul burn with indignation at the sight of a whole city filled with idols7.

When the Christians abandoned their negative attitude to ward imagery, adopting a repertory of images and using it in such sacred places as mausoleums and cemeteries, they had serious reasons for doing so . . . among traditionally aniconic religions, Christianity was not alone in providing itself with an iconography in the first half of the third century. . . We have no reason to believe that the Manichean mission, with imagery as a propaganda instrument, provoked the Jews and Christians of the Levant, inviting them to abandon their traditional rejection of figurative art8.

For it must not be forgotten that they are the earliest figurations of a religion which had originally dispensed with any iconography and, failing to divine the enormous importance religious imagery was later to assume, had begun by ruling it out entirely. It is evident that when, around the year 200, the Christians broke with this rule, they had good reasons for doing so. . .9

Like all ideas, the theory about the hostility of the first Christians toward images has a history, and it is possible to trace the main outlines of that history. If we set aside the arguments of the Byzantine iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries, the modern history of this idea does not go back very far. Two recent studies try to follow the thread of the hostility theory back to its source.

1) Paul Finney10 sees its source in the liberal Protestant tradition, especially in the thought of Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89). Ritschl and his even more eminent disciple, Adolf von Harnack, who continued and developed his master’s thought, did not actually deal directly with early Christian art; nonetheless, they laid the foundations on which other Protestant scholars were to build. For liberal Protestantism, Christianity is essentially defined in moral and ethical terms. Jesus preached an ethical religion, and his preaching gave birth to the core, essential teaching, of the young Christian community. Church history, according to this school of thought, is a series of compromises that led to the secularization and Hellenization of the Gospel message, in other words, to a progressive loss of its original purity. Liberal Protestantism considers the introduction of art into the Church as but another aspect of the Hellenization, even the paganization, of Christianity. Three other authors at the beginning of the 20th century dealt with the question of art in the primitive Church and openly adopted the hostility theory: Ernst von Dobschiitz11, Hugo Koch12 and Walter Elliger13. For these writers, the development of a Christian sacramentalism was an obvious sign of Christianity’s wandering away from its pure and primitive core. This was all the more true since a mystical presence and force were attributed to images. It is clear that such a sacramental approach could have no place in an ethico-practical interpretation of Christian teaching which was the basis of liberal Protestantism.

2) For Sister Charles Murray14, Ernest Renan15 is the source of the hostility theory. Renan stated that since Christianity had its roots in Judaism, an obviously iconophobic religion, it also had to be iconophobic like its parent. Murray then names Dobschütz, Koch and Elliger, as did Finney. Theodore Klauser16 took up where the others left off and developed the thesis of a purely spiritual Christianity in line with the Protestant tradition. Klauser postulated that the people, despite their Christianization, were still under pagan influence and introduced art into the Church in the face of the more conservative influence of the clergy. The iconophobia of the clergy eventually had to give way to lay pressure from beneath. Ernst Kitzinger17 based his work on that of Elliger, especially on his collection of patristic texts that supposedly “canonized” the hostility theory. Finally, three more recent researchers have reinforced the hold of the hostility theory on scholarly opinion: J. D. Breckenridge18, L. W. Barnard19 and G. B. Ladner20. A very recent German work by Hans Georg Thümmel21 continues to promote and defend the hostility theory by the traditional method: amassing texts and interpreting them with little reference to the contribution of archeology or ancient Christian art. A French author, Pierre Prigent, has recently published a text22 inspired by Klauser’s basic theories, especially an aniconic and iconophobic ancient Christianity along with the split between a conservative clergy and a liberal laity. He presents and interprets pagan and ancient funerary art to highlight the Christian cultural heritage.

Leonid Ouspensky23 thought that the source of the theory went back to Edward Gibbon in the eighth century, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In his chapters on early Christianity, Gibbon described primitive Christianity as unshakably opposed to images due to its Jewish origin.

Whoever was the first author to conceive and express the theory—in fact, there may be several sources—it is certain that the modern form of the theory has progressively gained ground until, as now, it dominates nearly all scholarly studies. One point is constantly repeated in all the presentations; we can even say that it is the backbone of the hostility theory: the early Christians were aniconic and iconophobic because they were converted Jews; as such, they inherited the monolithic attitudes of traditional and normative Judaism. This Judaism supposedly rejected every kind of religious art as well as any liturgical use whatsoever of images, due to a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment.

On the basis of this supposition, the early Christian images that have survived into our time, along with the patristic writings that de scribe them, bring the advocates of the hostility theory face to face with a problem: how to reconcile the apparent contradiction between their fundamental supposition, on the one hand, and the literary texts and artistic monuments, on the other. The development of the theory of early Christian hostility toward figurative art is the result of just such an effort at reconciliation. It says that, with time, Christians changed their attitude and adopted what their predecessors had categorically rejected. The evaluations of the importance of this turn-around vary with the point of view of the evaluator, so we have a whole gamut of interpretations running from the paganization of a pure and spiritual Christianity, on one end, to a necessary development that resulted from changed historical conditions, on the other. No one, however, questions the change in attitude and practice.

When the hostility theory was being developed, our knowledge of ancient Judaism was much more limited than it is today. The artistic monuments we know about today were all still underground. It is easy to see why no one questioned the notion that Judaism was monolithically iconophobic, but throughout the 20th century, our accepted ideas about the attitudes and the practices of ancient Judaism have gone through a radical revision, and this especially as a result of recent archeological discoveries. Once again, artistic monuments, this time Jewish ones, have challenged the advocates of the hostility theory to reconcile the sup posed Jewish aniconia and iconophobia with the Jewish artistic monuments found in archeological digs. Even though everyone recognizes the debt that Christianity owes to Judaism, it just may be that the content of that inheritance has been misjudged. If our notions on the nature of Jewish iconophobia have to be rethought, our ideas on an early Christian iconophobia cannot escape a major reworking. It would not be the first time in human history, however, that such an intellectual reformulation was deemed necessary and that new knowledge shook the theoretical structures of what before seemed obvious to everyone. Recent studies and archeological discoveries have imposed just such a reevaluation of the received ideas about ancient Judaism and Christianity, especially about their attitudes toward figurative art.

1.2 Icon, Idol and the Hostility Theory.

Even though the modern form of the hostility theory is not very old, the content of the idea is not new to the 20th century. During the Byzantine iconoclastic crisis of the eighth and ninth centuries, the opponents of icon veneration based their op position, at least in part, on their belief that Christianity held the middle ground between Judaism and paganism. They said that Christians rejected the bloody sacrifices of the Jews and the idolatry of the pagans.


Nevertheless, we shall say what must be said in refutation of them, too:
Because the catholic Church of us Christians stands in the middle between Judaism and paganism, she shares the usual ritual of neither. Instead, she walks the new path of piety and of worship handed down by God, without acknowledging the bloody sacrifices and holocausts of Judaism; despising also the sacrifices as much as the entire practice of making and worshiping idols—of which abominable art paganism is the leader and inventor. For, having no faith in the resurrection, it [paganism] invented a plaything worthy of itself in order to present, by means of mockery, something that does not exist.24

The Emperor Constantine V, who was one of the most eminent iconoclastic theologians, expressed the opinion that despite their aniconic and iconophobic beginnings, Christians had yielded to the seduction of the devil and had reintroduced idolatry into the churches in the form of icon veneration.25

But, again, the aforesaid creator of evil, not wishing to see her [the Church] being comely, did not refrain from using at different times different means of wicked ingenuity in order to subdue the human race to his power; thus, with the pretext of Christianity, he reintroduced idolatry unnoticeably by convincing, with his subtleties, those who had their eyes turned to him not to relinquish the creation but rather to adore it, and pay respect to it, and consider that which is made as God, calling it with the name “Christ.”

This interpretation of early Church history, along with other icono clastic ideas, was expressed in the decree, Horos, of the iconoclastic council of Hieria (754) convoked by the Emperor Constantine V to give a conciliar and dogmatic grounding to his efforts to impose the iconoclastic reforms on the Church26

During the first period of iconoclasm (726-780)^27^, the iconoclasts claimed that an icon was an idol, and since the Christian iconophiles venerated icons—created objects—the iconoclasts called them idolaters. The iconophiles counterattacked by clearly distinguishing between an idol and an icon and, consequently, between the worship given to God alone and the veneration given to icons and other sacred objects and persons.

For, having followed men of impiety who put faith in their own minds, they have accused the holy Church, which has been joined to Christ the God, and they have made no distinction be tween the holy and the profane, calling the icon of the Lord and those of his saints with the same name as the wooden symbols of the idols of Satan28.

To them who consider the declaration of Holy Scripture against idols as referring to the venerable icons of Christ our God and of the saints: anathema!29

The strength or weakness of the modern form of the hostility theory, as well as of Byzantine iconoclasm itself, depends on whether an icon is distinguished from an idol, veneration from worship. In fact, the second foundation stone of the hostility theory, after the inheritance of iconophobia from the Jews, is a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment:

You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth be neath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. . . (Ex 20:45)

. . . beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you . . . be drawn away and worship them and serve them. . . (Dt. 4:1617)

What, in fact, is the purpose of the biblical prohibition? How are we to understand it? The iconoclastic argument and the hostility theory both claim to see an absolute rejection of figurative art by the Jews and the early Christians. It is essential, therefore, for this way of thinking to give the word image the widest possible range of meaning. If, on the other hand, it is possible to distinguish between different kinds of images, then the following questions become quite natural: What is the intention of the Second Commandment? Is it to prohibit all kinds of images or only certain categories of images?

For iconophiles, and for the position we propose to defend in this study, it is essential to distinguish clearly between an idol, that is, an image created to be worshiped as God or as a god, on the one hand, and an icon, on the other. If the iconoclasts confused two categories of figurative images and if the advocates of the hostility theory continue to evaluate the attitudes of Jews and early Christians toward figurative art by using only one category of images, then the results of their historical analyses are greatly flawed.

This is the heart of the problem: by studying the first three centuries of Christian history with a definition of the word image that does not take into account the multiple shades of meaning the word can have and then by interpreting the texts of Christian authors of that period through a prism that ignores legitimate distinctions between an idolatrous, cultic art and a non-idolatrous, liturgical art, certain historians and theologians have misread the attitudes of Jews and early Christians. The ferocious struggle that the Christians waged against idolatry has been falsely interpreted as an absolute rejection of all figurative art. We hope to show that the hostility theory collapses of its own weight as soon as we make the most elementary distinction between an icon and an idol. If we reexamine early Christian writers in the light of this distinction and if we take into account the relevant archeology, we will see that the hostility theory is no longer tenable.

[* 1.3 Absolute or Relative Prohibition.*]

We need to consider here an interesting element in the argument advanced by the iconoclasts and the modem advocates of the hostility theory. Neither for the former nor for the latter is the Second Commandment to be interpreted as an absolute ban on all figurative art. Thanks to historical documents30 of the iconoclastic period, we know that those who fought against icons and their liturgical veneration were not fully aniconic in that they forbade all kinds of images. In the Life of St. Stephen the Younger^31^, who died around 764, a text written by the Deacon Stephen in 806, and in the history called Theophanes Continuatus, we read passages that show how the iconoclasts destroyed images of Christ and the saints but preserved profane ones:

In every village and town, one could witness the weeping and lamentation of the pious, whereas, on the part of the impious, [one saw] sacred things trodden upon . . . churches scraped down and smeared with ashes because they contained holy images. And wherever there were venerable images of Christ or the Mother of God or the saints, these were consigned to the flames or were gouged out or smeared over. If, on the other hand, there were pictures of trees or birds or senseless beasts and, in particular, satanic horse races, hunts, theatrical and hippodrome scenes, these were preserved with honor and given greater luster.32

The tyrant [Constantine V] . . . converted the church into a storehouse of fruit and an aviary: for he covered it with mosaics [representing] trees and all kinds of birds and beasts, and certain swirls of ivy leaves [enclosing] cranes, crows and peacocks, thus making the church, if I may say so, altogether unadorned.33

At that public spot the six holy Ecumenical Councils had been depicted by the pious emperors of olden times. . . These the new Babylonian tyrant had at that time smeared over and obliterated, and portrayed in their stead a satanic horse race and that demon-loving charioteer whom he called Ouranikos [heavenly]—so much he loved him. . .34

For this reason holy pictures were taken down in all churches, while in their stead beasts and birds were set up and depicted, thus evidencing his [Theophilus’] beastly and servile mentality.35

Among the Reformers of the 16th century, there were those who preached and practiced a violent and radical iconoclasm based on a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment. There are even today some Protestants who have absolutely no liturgical art in their churches, but for most Protestants of the past and present, the Second Commandment has not been interpreted in a way that forbids all figurative art, either profane or religious. We have only to cite the stained-glass windows in Protestant churches, the portraits of the Reformers and all the other figurative art produced in Northern European countries. We can easily imagine the modern advocates of the hostility theory seated in a church in Germany or England surrounded by images of Christ, Mary and other biblical personalities without in the least being disturbed in their prayers.

It is, therefore, quite evident that for the most ferocious iconoclasts of Christian history, certain Byzantines of the eighth and ninth centuries as well as some Reformers of the 16th century, the essential question was the possibility of a liturgical art and its veneration, rather than the existence of figurative art itself. We see, then, that the distinction between an image/icon and an image/idol is accepted by everyone, even during the second period of iconoclasm (815-843), when the iconoclasts officially accepted this distinction. In the decree of the iconoclastic council of St. Sophia of Constantinople (815), the bishops confirmed the decree of the council of Hieria (754) and condemned the making and veneration of images. They stopped short, however, of calling icons idols. Despite their de sire to support the Emperor Constantine V and his council, which in no uncertain terms had equated the making and veneration of icons with idolatry, the bishops in 815 refused to carry their thinking to its logical conclusion. They, thus, fell into a contradiction: they reaffirmed the position of Constantine V and his council but themselves distinguished an idol from an icon.

This council [Hieria in 754] . . . confirmed and fortified the divine doctrines of the holy Fathers and followed . . . the six holy Ecumenical Councils. . . Furthermore she [the iconophile Empress Irene] confounded our worship (latreutiké proskynésis) by arbitrarily affirming that what is fit for God should be offered to the inanimate matter of icons. . . Wherefore, taking to heart the correct doctrine, we banish from the Catholic Church the unwarranted manufacture of the spurious icons that has been so audaciously proclaimed, impelled as we are by a judicious judgment; nay, by passing a righteous judgment upon the veneration of icons that has been injudiciously proclaimed by Tarasius, and so refuting it, we declare his assembly invalid in that it bestowed exaggerated honor to painting . . . we decree that the manufacture of icons is unfit for veneration and useless. We refrain, however, from calling them idols since there is a distinction between different kinds of evil.36

This loss of rigor characterizes the second period of iconoclasm and is also apparent in the action of Emperor Leo V the Armenian (813-820). Although he was an iconoclast, the emperor, nonetheless, wanted to conclude a compromise with the patriarch St. Nicephorus (810-815). The following proposition was made to the patriarch: frescoes and mosaics, which the faithful could not venerate, would be permitted if the patriarch prohibited the veneration of icons and removed portable icons from near the floor. The patriarch refused all compromise, and the emperor inaugurated the second iconoclastic crisis37. What is clearly apparent here is that the emperor did not object to the existence of icons, even in churches, but rather to their veneration.

We now come to something very strange in the argumentation of the Byzantine iconoclasts, of the moderate Reformers of the 16th century and of the modern advocates of the hostility theory: all these Christians can conceive, and put into practice, the distinction between an idolatrous figurative art (an idol) and a non-idolatrous, figurative art (an icon), but they believe that the Christians of the first three centuries, and the Jews also, were incapable of making and acting on such a distinction. Why, in reality, are those who identify themselves with the supposed aniconic and iconophobic tradition of the early Christians less aniconic and less iconophobic than those same early Christians? Even if we accept the idea that the ancient Christians were aniconic and iconophobic, the advocates of the hostility theory must admit that they themselves do not perpetuate the early Christians’ theoretical and practical purity with regards to images. If they claim that ancient Christianity and Judaism preached and practiced an absolute prohibition of figurative art based on the Second Commandment, those who admire this hypothetical rigorism and associate themselves with it are not quite up to the standards of their ancestors in the faith. They themselves are guilty of adopting practices similar to those which they condemn on the iconophile side.

This contradiction between the theory and practice of the Byzantine iconoclasts and Protestants, on the one hand, and the assumed theory and practice of the early Christians, on the other, exists only if we assume the hostility theory. If we assume, however, that the Christians of the first three centuries were as capable as nearly all other Christians of distinguishing between an idolatrous and a non-idolatrous image, then the problem disappears. By accepting this theoretical distinction, and by attributing it to the early Christians, we thereby eliminate a false problem of Church history: the existence of a radical change, an abandonment, a corruption, a paganization, etc.—the word to describe the change differs according to the theological position of the author—with regards to their attitude toward figurative art. If we set aside the notion of an ancient, radically aniconic and iconophobic Christianity, we have the possibility of conceiving Church history in terms of continuity, rather than of rupture, on the question of images. We can also take more seriously the position of the Fathers of Nicæa II who claimed that the inspiration of Christian art goes back to the Apostles.

1.4 The Argument from Tradition.

The argument from Tradition is of great importance in the debate about the early Christians’ attitude toward figurative art because during the iconoclastic crisis, both the advocates of icon veneration and the iconoclasts themselves appealed to Tradition. The iconophiles claimed that they alone continued the doctrine and customs of the Apostles, while the iconoclasts claimed that they represented the lost apostolic Tradition and wanted to restore it. The question between the two groups was precisely about the content and the continuity of this Tradition. On the one hand, the iconophiles said that the Tradition had never been lost or essentially corrupted; the iconoclasts said the opposite, that is, that there had been a discontinuity, a rupture that required a purification and a restoration. For both sides, the idea of continuity of doctrine and customs was important. A basic aspect of the doctrine of Holy Tradition was at stake: the reception of a deposit and its faithful preservation and transmission from one generation to another through history.

Few defenders of the idea of Tradition claim that nothing has changed since the beginning of the Church, and everyone recognizes that all the changes that have taken place have not necessarily been for the good. We can easily see in the New Testament itself several theological tendencies, both practices and beliefs, that no longer exist or have been radically changed. A healthy doctrine of Holy Tradition makes a place for changes, and even corruption and restoration, throughout history while still affirming an essential continuity and purity. This concept is otherwise known as indefectibility: the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This theoretical framework, indefectibility, takes change and evolution into account but denies that there has been or can be a rupture or corruption of Holy Tradition itself.

The Reformers of the 16th century as well as the modern advocates of the hostility theory, do not share with the advocates of icon veneration a common doctrine on Holy Tradition. The Reformers generally rejected the doctrine of Holy Tradition by substituting the doctrine of sola scriptura. In their scientific approach, the hostility theoreticians are not inclined to deal with the historical question of Christian art on the basis of a supposed continuity of Holy Tradition. By their methodology, these scholars align themselves with the 16th-century Reformers at least in that they do not work with the doctrine of Holy Tradition as a guarantor of continuity and fidelity. They try rather to show the discontinuities and the mutations throughout history. For the Protestant Reformation and the advocates of the hostility theory, the declarations of Nicæa II, as well as those of the Orthodox apologists of that time, to the effect that the production and veneration of images have their roots in the apostolic period, appear pious, naive, unscientific and unworthy of consideration. Gervais Dumeige, a Catholic, expressed himself in this way:

In studying the tradition, John [of Damascus], with more good faith than historical sensitivity, did not hesitate to push the origin of images back to Christ and to the Apostles them selves. This statement, somewhat surprising for us, is based on the belief, for John a proof, that Christ sent his own portrait to King Abgar and that the woman with an issue of blood erected a statue of Christ at Paneas (Cæsarea Philippi).38

Those who contest the position of Nicæa II on the apostolic roots of Christian art agree that the hypothetical change in attitude and practice took place during the first three Christian centuries. This period is also crucial for the defenders of apostolicity. At the same time, there is no obvious and scientifically convincing theory that integrates both a doctrine of Holy Tradition and a belief in the apostolicity of Christian images: no theory that explains the change between the New Testament, which is thunderingly silent on the question of Christian images, and the post-Constantinian period in which images were received nearly everywhere.

Whether it was a transition from the silence of the New Testament to the proliferation of images after Constantine, or whether it was a corruption of the pure, primitive Gospel, the first three centuries are the pivotal period for all parties. We must, therefore, examine the authors of this period, not to see what they said about Christian images since they said almost nothing, but to see what they thought about the notion of Holy Tradition. Were these authors conscious of being in historical continuity with the Apostles? Was the idea of Holy Tradition part of their intellectual world?

By reading the authors of the first three centuries on Tradition, as well as the numerous studies on the subject39, we see that the words paradosis and traditio, along with the idea of continuity which they represent, were in fact very much present in their works. Tradition is a key concept for a good number of pre-Nicæan writers. St. Irenæus of Lyons, for example, appealed to the true apostolic traditions in his attack against the Gnostics. We can say with little fear of being contradicted that the Christians of the first three centuries were very aware of living in the wake of the Apostles; they lived in and by apostolic doctrine, practice and preaching. These Christians were proud of having received and faithfully transmitted the apostolic Tradition. We can suppose, then, that they would have been very surprised, even scandalized, at hearing that in their time they had forgotten or rejected elements of the pure and pristine Gospel—aniconia and iconophobia—by accepting and promoting figurative art.

We must not, however, be naive. In this period, there were accusations of treason, especially in the realm of Church discipline; Tertullian is a good example. But the serious accusation of the advocates of the hostility theory, namely, that the early Christians compromised themselves by accepting quasiidolatrous practices, runs squarely against the highly developed awareness among these Christians that they taught only what came from the Apostles themselves. In the context of a tenacious attachment to doctrinal and disciplinary continuity, to the preservation of the apostolic deposit, the burden of proof falls on those who explain the development of Christian art as a rejection of the primitive, iconophobic norm.

Let us now examine the claims of Nicæa II in regards to the apostolicity of images. The definition of the council makes a distinction, which has become classic, between Tradition in the singular (with a capital T) and traditions in the plural (with a small t). At this point, we are not dealing with the notion of Tradition, but rather with traditions seen as historical customs accepted by the Church during her historical pilgrim age. The Church has more or less been aware of the development of these customs. Some were born at a certain period, in a certain region, developed through time and space, and died; for example, celebrating Easter on the same date every year regardless of the day of the week. These customs are not required or defined by the Gospel itself, but they were not forbidden either. It is possible, however, for one or more of these traditions to become the subject of controversy. It is possible for some of them to rise to the dogmatic level if the Church must defend herself against those who claim that such and such a practice is incompatible with the Gospel. As long as a custom remains uncontested, it has a certain freedom to develop, but once it becomes a bone of contention, it comes under Church scrutiny and can even require a universal judgment, for or against, if the controversy becomes a matter of doctrinal interest for the whole Church.

Figurative, Christian art is in this category of customs. It is one of the practices which the Church adopted and “baptized40 and which, in the eighth and ninth centuries, became the center of a bloody debate: Were Christian images and their veneration compatible or incompatible with the Gospel? As a custom, Christian art has been subject to the ups and downs of history, to the different cultures in which it has developed, to the styles and tastes of various periods, etc. In and of itself, Christian art is not necessary in the sense that it is impossible to imagine a Christianity without images; the Gospel does not explicitly require the making of im ages. Nonetheless, once adopted, Christian art became such an important support to the proclamation of the Gospel that its conscious rejection had very serious repercussions. With time, the Church invested so much energy in its sacred art that a simple custom became an essential witness to the preaching of the Gospel. Once again, images are not necessary, as are baptism, the Eucharist, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, etc. without which we cannot even conceive of Christianity as we know it now. Images became essential, in time and through the blood of the martyrs, because their rejection implied a weakening or even a denial of the Incarnation itself.

It is possible to imagine—at least theoretically—a historical road other than the one the Church has actually lived through during 20 centuries: What would Christianity be like if God had chosen the Japanese instead of the Jews . . ., if Christ had come at another period. . ., if the Church had taken root in the Persian Empire . . ., if Constantine had not become a Christian . . ., if Martin Luther had become Orthodox…? Nonetheless, the real and unimaginary history of the Church is as we know it, and inside this history Christian art was born, developed, was contested and received universal approbation. It, thus, became integrated in Christianity not just as a tradition, a custom, but as an integral part of Holy Tradition.

It is, therefore, not a contradiction to say that Christian iconography is a custom, a tradition, even an accident of history, and to believe that the open rejection of images and their veneration implies the loss of something essential to the Gospel itself. If we understand the place of “the traditions of the Church” in the Orthodox defense of icons, then it is less troubling to proclaim the dogmatic importance of a, at the beginning, humble and accessory custom.


2. Finney, Paul Corby, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, pp. 3-14.

3. Lowrie, Walter, Art in the Early Church, W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1969, p. 11.

4. Gough, Michael, The Origins of Christian Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1973, p. 24.

5. Miquel, Pierre, “Images (Culte des),” Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Beauchesne, Paris, 1970, p. 1508.

6. Leclercq, Henri, “Images (Culte et querelle des),” Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et de Liturgie 7/1, Librairie Létouzey et Ané, Paris, 1926, p. 182.

7. Dumeige, Gervais, Nicée II, Éditions de l’Orante, Paris, 1978, p. 17.

8. Grabar, André, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1968, pp. 14, 23 & 29.

9. –——-, Early Christian Art, Odyssey Press, New York, p. 67.

10. Finney, pp. 7-10.

11. Dobschütz, Ernst von, Christusbilder, Leipzig, 1899.

12. Koch, Hugo, Die altchristliche Bilderfrage nach den literarischen Quellen, Gottingen, 1917.

13. Elliger, Walter, Die Stellung der alten Christen zu den Bildern in den ersten vier Jahrhunderten, Leipzig, 1930.

14. Murray, Sister Charles, “Art and the Early Church,” The Journal of Theological Studies XXVIII/2, October 1977.

15. Renan, Ernest, Histoire des origines du christianisme : Marc Aurèle et la fin du monde antique, 6e édition, Paris, 1891.

16. Klauser, Theodore, “Erwägungen zur Entstehung der altchristlichen Kunst,” Z.K.G., LXXVI, 1965; “Die Äusserungen der alten Kirche zur Kunst,” Gesammelte Arbeiten zur Liturgie-Geschichte, Münster, 1974.

17. Kitzinger, Ernest, “The Cult of Icons in the Age before Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8, Harvard University Press, 1954.

18. Breckenridge, J. D., “The Reception of Art into the Early Church,” Uberlegungen zum Ursprung der fruehchristlichen Bildkunst (9e Congresso Internationale di Archeologia Cristiana), Rome 1975.

19. Barnard, L. W., The Græco-Roman and Oriental Background of the Iconoclastic Controversy, Leiden, 1974.

20. Ladner, G. B., “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 7, 1953.

21. Thümmel, Hans Georg, Die Frühgeschichte der östkirchlichen Bilderlehre Texte and Untersuchungen zur Zeit von dem Bilderstreit, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1992.

22. Prigent, Pierre, L’art des premiers chrétiens: L’héritage culturel et la foi nouvelle, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1995.

23. Ouspensky, Leonid,

24. Sahas, Daniel, Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth-Century Iconoclasm, (The Acts of the Council, sixth Session, fourth volume), University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1986, p. 101.

25. Ibid., p. 62.

26. Anastos, Milton, “The Argument for Iconoclasm as Presented by the Iconoclastic Council of 754,” Late Classical and Medieval Studies in Honour of Albert Mathias Friend, Jr., ed. Kurt Weitzmann, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 177-88. Theology of the Icon I, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978, p. 36.

27. Ostrogorsky, George, “Die Schrift Kaiser Konstantin V gegen die Verehrung der Bilder und das erste ikonoklastische Konzil,” Studien zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Bilderstreites, Breslau, 1929, pp. 7-46; H. Hennephof, editor, Textus byzantinos ad iconomachiam pertinentes, Brill, Leiden, 1969.

28. Sahas, p. 177, the definition of Nicæa II.

29. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/02/synodicon-of-orthodoxy.html: from the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on Orthodoxy, a text read on the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, to commemorate the restoration of icons in the churches in 843.

30. Theophanus, Chronographie, PG 108, 957-1009, edited by C. de Boor, Leipzig, 1883-85; Theophanes Continuatus, PG 109, 15-225, edition of I. Bekker, Bonn, 1838; Nicephorus, Breviarium, (Historia Syntomos), PG 100, 876- 994, edition of C. de Boor, Leipzig, 1880.

31. Vita S. Stephani junioris, the Deacon Stephen, PG 100, 1069-1186. See Auzépy, Marie-France, La Vie d’Étienne le Jeune par Étienne le Diacre, Brookfield, VT, Variorum Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1997.

32. Mango, Cyril, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 322-1453, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1986; Vita S. Stephani iunioris, loc. cit., p. 152.

33. Ibid., pp. 152-153.

34. Ibid.

35. Théophane Continuatus, p. 159.

36. Ibid., the decree of the iconoclastic council of 815, pp. 168-169.

37. Mango, Cyril, “Historical Introduction,” Iconoclasm, Ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Centre for Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, University of Birmingham, 1977, p. 5.

38. Dumeige, p. 75.

39. Congar, Y. M. J, “Les Pères et l’Église ancienne,” La Tradition et les traditions: I & Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 1963, pp. 41-121; Henri Holstein, “La tradition chez Irénée et Tertullien,” La Tradition dans I’Église, Éditions Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1960, pp. 61-88; R. P. C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, SCM Press, London, 1962. See the detailed bibliographies in these and other books.

40. Wladimir, Weidlé, The Baptism of Art: Notes on the Religion of the Catacomb Paintings, Dacre Press, Westminster, 1950.



[* 2.1 Introduction.*]

The preceding chapter allowed us to question the theory that the early Christians were hostile to all figurative art. It is important, however, to consider one element of that theory: the claim that the early Christians inherited the Jewish attitude toward images. What, in fact, was that attitude toward figurative art? The thesis we propose in this study is that Jews have never absolutely refused images, except obviously, idols; this discriminating attitude opens the door to a nonidolatrous, liturgical use of images. It is now our task to present the literary and archeological evidence that supports this thesis.

It is not difficult to understand how a faulty notion of ancient Judaism’s attitude toward images could have been created, sustained and propagated. Those who developed this idea, as well as those who defend it today, generally came from a Protestant or modernist milieu in which iconoclastic and anti-traditional attitudes prevailed. Rabbinical literature in the first Christian centuries was relatively inaccessible, and, thus, little known to those scholars, and the archeological discoveries of our century were still unknown.

We have, therefore, in the hostility theory an example of the classical error of reading present-day conditions and attitudes back into a previous period. This same charge was made against Orthodox Christians at the time of the iconoclastic controversy when an apostolic authority was claimed for Christian figurative art. Each camp, therefore, used the same argument in order to undermine its adversary’s position.

It is not our goal in this study to defend the historicity of the legends and interpretations that claim that the apostolic Christians had and used images as we know them today. There is, in fact, no positive evidence at this time that can support such claims. There are, however, several negative, theoretical arguments that undermine the credibility of an apostolic origin for Christian images. Our goal here is to remove those negative road blocks, thus, opening the road to a more serious consideration of iconophiles’ basic intuition that the roots of Christian art go back to apostolic times. Having opened the theoretical space to such an affirmation, we can hope that further research and archeological discoveries will provide historical proof for what at the moment is believed but not proved.

2.2 A Theoretical Framework.

In an article that is now more than 75 years old41, J. B. Frey tried to explain the new archeological discoveries of Jewish art in a theoretical framework other than that of a rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment, that is, an absolute refusal of any kind of image. Frey assumed an interpretation of the Second Commandment that relativizes the prohibition of images by closely linking two verses: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image. . .” and “you shall not bow down to them and serve them. . .”42 He interpreted history and literature in terms of an alternation between a more rigorist current and a less rigorist current:

from Solomon to the Exile, a more open attitude;

from the Exile to the first century A. D., a more rigorist attitude;

from the Second to the fifth centuries, a period of remarkable openness;

in the fifth and sixth centuries, a growing rigorism, even iconoclasm.

We can easily accept Frey’s interpretation of the Second Commandment and his thesis of two currents, one rigorist, one liberal, but it is not necessary to link these two attitudes in a historical succession, one alternating with the other. It is not certain either that Frey would have been quite so strict on the question. It is more likely that the two tendencies always co existed. Diverse historical, cultural and geographical conditions favored one or the other of the two tendencies. Neither of them, however, was able to gain a victory that allowed the elimination of the other. We would like to show that the alternation was not between those who absolutely re fused images and those who were willing at all costs to develop a Jewish art; it was rather between those who wanted to restrain figurative art and those who wanted to enlarge the category of permitted, non-idolatrous images. This latter category of images has existed in theory from the beginning and has in fact always contained concrete Jewish images.

In 1934, Frey formulated the thesis of an alternation between strict and liberal tendencies; he may even have been the first to do so, but since that time, his thesis has steadily gained ground, especially against the notion of a uniform and normative Jewish hostility toward figurative art. Carl Kraeling43 also agreed that several alternating periods must be distinguished: liberal from the monarchy to the Exile; strict from the restoration to the Hellenistic period. He also identified a second period of liberal practice at the beginning of the second century. Writing about this period, M. Simon said that “images acquired the right to exist in Judaism not in the lovely period of PhiIonian Hellenism but rather in the time and under the auspices of the Amoraïm, the authentic successors of the Pharisees44.” Finally, while contesting certain points of Frey’s article, J. Ouellette adopted Frey’s opinion about a lack of hostility toward im ages in Jewish antiquity. He wrote the following:

A methodical examination of the literary and archeological evidence has convinced a growing number of scholars that ancient Judaism, through its long history, never sustained a rigidly and uniformly hostile attitude toward figurative representations. Even if, at certain periods, we notice a definite hesitation about images, nothing allows us to conclude that there was an absence of artistic gifts or that there was a complete lack of creative imagination among those who, at all times and places, accepted the Second Commandment as an essential element of their faith in the Torah.45

Let us suppose then that we can see an alternation in attitudes and practices—rigorist and liberal—at different eras and in different Jewish writers. How can we explain this phenomenon in a simple, clear and elegant way? An explanation is also required from those who believe that the Jewish attitude has always been constant, rigorist and negative. Is it enough to explain the phenomenon essentially, but not exclusively, in sociological, cultural and non-theological concepts, as J. Gutmann seems to do?

Each Jewish society and later Christian structure brought forth, through interpretation, a new rendering of the Second Commandment. Thus many Second Commandments have taken shape throughout history. The Commandment, although based on the original biblical injunction, means something quite different in each new historical context and must be evaluated from that standpoint. Divergent attitudes toward images, and varying interpretations of them cannot be understood in terms of a literal binding law. Rather, they need to be viewed in terms of the differing environments which produced such divergent positions.46

We feel that we must answer “no” to our preceding question; it is not sufficient to use non-theological categories to deal with this question even though cultural factors have their role to play and must be taken into consideration if the phenomenon of Jewish art is to be explained in depth. The question of images, however, remains essentially theo logical since it deals with God’s revelation to his people, with his Law and with faithfulness to that revelation. We must, therefore, look for a theological explanation of a phenomenon that, within certain limits, has undergone the influence of history and necessary adaptations. We must look for the real interpretation of the divine revelation, in this case the Second Commandment, and judge human practices in its light, while at the same time realizing that the revelation must be expressed in ever changing, human history. It is important to insist that the revelation and its true interpretation precede the evaluation of human ideas and actions. In this way, we can determine whether human ideas and actions con form to the revelation. It is not history, human cultures, mentalities, etc. that determine the content of the Second Commandment. If the will of God, expressed in the Second Commandment, really imposes a rejection of all im ages, man’s practices can in no way change that fact. We can be faithful or unfaithful to the will of God, but we cannot change it. This is precisely the theological aspect of the question of images and why the authentic interpretation of the Second Commandment must be established so that Jewish and Christian conduct can be judged.

What then is the simple, clear and elegant interpretation that ex plains the changing attitudes and practices of ancient Judaism concerning images? It is based on a reading of the Second Commandment that clearly distinguishes between an idolatrous art, obviously forbidden, and a non-idolatrous art, either symbolic, decorative or pedagogical. This latter kind of art is allowed in a context where the danger of idolatry is minimal or nonexistent. This interpretation is not artificially imposed on the biblical text from the outside, but rather derives directly from the text itself. By reading Dt 5:8-9 together as the expression of one idea, we arrive at a prohibition of idolatrous art alone. By reading the two verses separately as two commandments, we eliminate the category of non-idolatrous art. If we reread all the historical, archeological and literary evidence in the light of these two categories of art, we will see that the theory of Jewish hostility toward all figurative art is untenable.

2.3 The Application of the Hypothesis.

Let us begin with a few Old Testament events that demonstrate the distinction described above. They show how it operated in a period when, according to the theory that claims an absolute rejection of images in Israel, we ought to find very stringent practices. We can, first of all, eliminate those events that obviously associate images and idolatry: for example, 1) the golden calf that the people erected when Moses was late in com ing down from the mountain (Ex. 32); 2) the statue of Nabuchodonosor (Dn 3-4); 3) the statue of Zeus that Antiochus Epiphanes set up in the Temple (1 M 1:41-64); 4) the statue of himself that Caligula wanted to put in the Temple. Other examples of idolatry could be cited, but let us study rather the examples which undermine the credibility of the rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment and which confirm the thesis of at least two kinds of images.

The cherubim on the ark of the testimony: Ex 25:122. We have here images of angelic beings, even made of gold like the calf in Ex. 23, which are not in the least likely to become idols or to take God’s place, because, as his throne, he sits between them. Placed so close to God himself and so intimately linked with the worship of the true God, the cherubim could never be separated from that worship and become themselves the object of misdirected, idolatrous worship. The cherubim on the Ark of the Testimony are a real problem for the advocates of rigorism, because God himself ordered Moses to have them made. The untenable contradiction in the divine commands disappears if we assume a relative interpretation of the Second Commandment that allows for non-idolatrous, liturgical images.

The embroidered cherubim in the tabernacle: Ex 26:1, 31. God also ordered that cherubim be embroidered on ten curtains of fine linen for use in the tabernacle. It seems that there were at least ten cherubim, one for each curtain, but the text does not specify the exact number of cherubim. In addition, God ordered that a veil be placed between the Holy and the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle. This veil was also deco rated with cherubim, though the text again does not state their size or number. What we said above for the sculpted cherubim on the Ark of the Testimony is equally valid for these images.

The praise of Bezalel: Ex 31:1–11. After having ordered Moses to prepare the tabernacle and its furnishings, God designated Bezalel, son of Uri, to be the master workman, to design and to execute all the art work necessary for the tabernacle. Oholiab, son of Ahisamack, was also named along with all the other men “that they may make all that I have commanded you. . .” Among other things, these workers made the mercy seat whose two ends were decorated with the winged cherubim. The praise which God gives to Bezalel and the other artists, seeing that their task was to sculpt golden figurative images, would be contradictory and out of place in the context of an absolute prohibition against the making of all images. God’s words go beyond simple praise; their tone comes close to that of a special consecration, as in the case of a prophet:

I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze . . . and I have given to all able men ability that they may make all that I have commanded you.

We have clearly ex pressed in this passage, the distinction between the two kinds of images: when an artist, an image maker, sculpts non-idolatrous, liturgical images for the glory of God, he is praised and blessed by God. The natural corollary follows, however: if an artist makes idols, he will be condemned.

The bronze serpent: Nm 21:4–9. God again orders that a “graven image” be made, an image of something “that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” a bronze serpent. The purpose of making the serpent was to serve as an antidote to the poisonous snakes God sent to punish the people who spoke against him and Moses. By looking at the bronze snake, those who were bitten would not die. This story shows how a sculpted image can be used in a non-idolatrous way, but according to the rigorist interpretation of the Second Commandment, this image should not have been permitted. Centuries later, however, when this image—was it really the snake Moses made, or a reproduction?—became an object of idolatrous worship, King Hezekiah destroyed it and other objects of idolatrous worship with which Israel had contaminated itself (see 2 K 18:1–4). This episode shows how an object, an image, normally not considered to be an idol, can become one. Idolatry is determined by a person’s intention and attitude toward an image, and not by the image itself. Who would go so far as to say that museums that contain paintings or statues of mythical deities are pagan temples? Who would even use the word idol to talk about these images? (We will see later how the rabbis thought of ways to neutralize, that is “deidolize,” idols.) Since the Israelites offered idolatrous worship to the serpent, a thing that previously was not an idol, became one. It is interesting to note that Hezekiah did not seem at all concerned that the image of the serpent, at least the one made by Moses, existed by divine command. For Hezekiah, whatever the origin, human or divine, of an image that has become an idol, it deserves to be destroyed.

Solomon’s temple: 1 K 6:23–35 & 7:15–37. Solomon’s Temple was a veritable art gallery; it is also a nightmare for the advocates of the rigorist interpretation. For the Temple’s Holy of Holies, Solomon had two enormous cherubim sculpted out of wood and covered in gold. The king also had cherubim, palm trees and open flowers sculpted on all the walls of the Temple, and the door to the Holy of Holies was covered with these same images. He also put carved pomegranates on the capitals of columns. The molten sea sat on 12 bulls, and on the frames of the panels that formed the 10 stands, he put lions, bulls and cherubim.

We can use the same argument here as in the case of the cherubim in the desert tabernacle: where there is no risk of turning worship of God toward sculpted images, this figurative art can have a place in worship. On the basis of this principle, Solomon felt quite free to put such images in the Temple, and by so doing, he introduced new types of non-idolatrous images, new in comparison with the tabernacle in the desert. It is important to note that beside all the reproaches that subsequent biblical authors made against Solomon, the wise king was never criticized for having broken the Second Commandment. Flavius Josephus, however, did reproach Solomon for having introduced bulls and lions into the Temple, for him a violation of the commandment. We will examine this reproach later on and see that it is absolutely unique in all of Jewish literature.

Solomon’s Throne: 1 K 10:18–20. Solomon had lions carved on his throne, a place obviously less holy than the Temple, but nonetheless of great importance. It was the royal seat of the Lord’s anointed:

The king also made a great ivory throne [which] had six steps, and at the back of the throne was a calf’s head and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions stood there one on each end of a step on the six steps. The like of it was never made in any kingdom.

The biblical author not only did not criticize these “graven images,” but he was manifestly impressed by them and quite proud of the king’s glory as revealed in his throne.

• Ezekiel’s vision: Ez 41:15–21. After 25 years of captivity, the Prophet Ezekiel had a vision in which he saw the Temple restored. He described the various furnishings of the Temple whose interior, the Holy, was decorated with cherubim and palm trees: “Every cherub had two faces: the face of a man toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side.” It not impossible that the cherubim on the Ark of the testimony, and in Solomon’s Temple, also had human faces, but the biblical text does not make this clear. Ezekiel, on the other hand, clearly introduces, at least in theory and assuming these images did not already exist, a new element into the category of permitted images: the human face. The lions and palm trees have already been noticed. The prophet did not speak of an Ark decorated with cherubim or of sculpted cherubim in the Holy of Holies, following Solomon’s example. Nonetheless, since Solomon had giant cherubim sculpted for the real Temple, it is not impossible that Ezekiel would have put them in the future Temple, but in describing the Holy of Holies, Ezekiel spoke only about its measurements, nothing about its furnishings. Concerning the prophet’s attitude toward images, we can deduce nothing from his silence regarding the cherubim in the Holy of Holies, the molten sea and the bronze basins held up by bulls and lions. This omission is less significant since he placed cherubim with human and lion faces in the restored Temple.

The real, but mitigated, praise of the engraver: Ec 38:27.

So it is with every workman and craftsman, toiling day and night; those who engrave seals, always trying to think of new designs: they set their heart on producing a good likeness, and stay up perfecting the work.

In this passage, the author praises Jewish engravers and other gifted and able craftsmen. He uses the same tone for farmers, blacksmiths and potters (38:24–39:1–11) that are necessary for every city. The skill and usefulness of these workers do not compare, however, with the wisdom of the scribe who in his leisure time “devotes his soul to reflecting on the Law of the Most High.” The author’s evaluation of these crafts in relation to the scribe—they are obviously on a lower level—is not what is important here. Our attention is drawn rather to the fact that a biblical author had no trouble praising workmen who made non-idolatrous im ages, even if they were only seals. The text itself does not mention what kinds of images were carved on the seals, but it says that there were always “new designs.” Nothing prevents us from supposing that the engravers carved plants, animals and human beings on their seals. The oldest existing Jewish seal dates from 922 to 746 B. C. depending on the factors chosen for its dating47. A lion is carved on the seal. It is less sur prizing to allow the possibility of carved animals and humans on Jewish seals when we take into account that at a later period, that of the rabbis, even pagan gods, under certain conditions, could be carved on seals.48

The condemnation of artistes: Ws 13–15. The campaign against idolatry and artists who use their talent to produce idols is some times cited as proof of the Old Testament’s antipathy against all images and artists. In this vein, B. Cohen has written the following:

The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, who lived during the first century before the C. E., frowned upon the fruitless labor of the painter for another reason [other than idolatry]. According to him, the art of painting “leadeth fools into lust,” an evident allusion to Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who fell in love with a statue of Venus.49

It is quite true that the author makes some very severe statements against various kinds of artists:

No invention of perverted human skill has led us astray, no painter’s sterile labour, no figure daubed with as sorted colours, the sight of which sets fools yearning and reverencing the lifeless form of some unbreathing image. (Ws15:4-5).

It is obvious, however, that the author’s fury is directed against idols and artists who make them. Nothing is said about non-idolatrous images, nor the artists who make them.

In describing the origin of idol worship, the author of Wisdom de scribes the progressive transformation of images into idols, images which at the beginning were not idols. For example, he notes the father crying about his prematurely dead son. The father had a portrait made to which eventually the family gave disproportionate veneration (Ws14:5ff). Another example is the worship of kings thought to be gods. At first, their images were simply honored, but that veneration progressively turned into idolatry (Ws 14:16–20). In both cases, the real problem seems to have been not the existence of images of human beings, whether portraits or statues, but rather the transformation of honor and veneration into idolatrous worship. This is the same transformation, in a pagan context, that we saw in the biblical story of the bronze serpent which became the object of idolatrous worship. It is possible that the author of Wisdom thought that this transformation was inevitable due to the weakness of foolish men carried away by their passions and the seductive power of images. It is also possible, however, for “intelligent men,” that is those who know and worship the true God, not to fall into the same trap as the pagans.

Most of the Old Testament passages noted in this section have always been, and still are, part of the standard answers of those who defend Christian images and their veneration against all kinds of iconoclasm based on the Second Commandment. In that sense, we have not brought forward new material. St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images^50^ in the eighth century, as well as modern authors51, have noted them, but it is nonetheless important to bring together the biblical evidence which sup ports the thesis presented in this study.

2.4. The Illuminated Bible.

A certain number of scholars of ancient Christian art believe that behind the Christian tradition of biblical illumination, and behind ancient Christian art in general, there stands a similar tradition of Jewish biblical illumination. According to this theory, the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, was illuminated some 200 years before Christ. The “Jewish hypothesis,” as it is called in scholarly literature, supposes that the Jews of Alexandria adopted the pagan practice of illuminating classical texts, such as Homer and Euripides, and applied it to the Bible. Such scholars as Dimitri Ainalov and Josef Strzygowski, at the beginning of the 20th century52, Charles Morey, Kurt Weitzmann and C. O. Nordstrom, in the middle of the century53, all proposed and defended the thesis that Christian art was inspired by a preexisting Jewish art, namely the illumination of the Septuagint. Goodenough54 declared that Philo had an illuminated Septuagint in front of him when he commented on certain biblical texts and stories. Kretschmar55 analyzed two paintings from the Dura-Europos synagogue and concluded, along with others, that they had their inspiration in Jewish drawing books now lost.

The Jewish hypothesis causes as many problems as it resolves. It supposes the existence of a Jewish artistic tradition which has left no trace, either in art or in literature. If we consider that the oldest Christian illumination, the Cotton Genesis in the British Museum, dates from only the fifth or sixth century A. D., it is not surprising, assuming, of course, that pre-Christian, Jewish book illuminations did exist, that none has survived. Very few illuminations from antiquity, pagan or Christian, have survived. In pagan antiquity and the Christian empire, the number of potential clients wanting such works would have been rather small. In the case of Jews, however, the number of potential buyers of illuminated Bibles would have been even smaller. The number of such luxury items must also have been very small, and when we take into account the fragility of the material on which the images may have been painted, it would, indeed, be amazing if any had come down to us. If the Jewish hypothesis is historically grounded, if there were in fact illuminated, Jewish Septuagints, one wonders, on the other hand, why there is no mention of them in Jewish literature.


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Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes toward Images

This book aims at combating the Hostility Theory which claims that the Christians in the pagan Roman Empire had no images and rejected them as idolatrous. Did the early Christians, during the first three centuries, 33–313, have images in their churches or places of worship and homes? If they did not, was that because they thought that all images were idols or close to being idols? Did they think that making and having images of Old Testament people and events as well as of Jesus, the apostles and New Testament events was a violation of the 2nd Commandment? Those who accept the Hostility Theory say “No, they had no images” and “Yes, they were against images as a violation of the 2nd Commandment.” There are two words to describe this situation: aniconic, that is having no images and iconophobic, that is. being against them as idols. There are Christian scholars and many believers who accept the Hostility Theory. They say that the introduction of images into the primitive Church was indeed a pollution and corruption of the pure New Testament Gospel. Most of the first Christians were converted Jews, and, according to the Hostility Theory, they carried over with them into their new faith the Jewish hostility to images. It was the pagan, Greek converts who brought with them their love of images (iconophilia) and introduced images into the Church. Such a paganization, as the Hostility Theory claims, eventually lead to Catholic and Orthodox “idolatry” which the Protestant Reformation wanted to cure by returning to the pure Gospel of the New Testament. The author of this study believes that the Hostility Theory has no grounding and is a false interpretation of the Christianity of those early times and argues, on the basis of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the writings of Christian authors of the period and archeological evidence, that in fact neither the Jews nor the early Christians thought all images were idols and were quite capable of distinguishing theoretically between idolatrous and non-idolatrous art as well of producing such images for the purpose of expressing their faith, and this they did in both word and image.

  • Author: Steven Bigham
  • Published: 2016-01-20 18:50:08
  • Words: 78715
Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes toward Images Christians and Images: Early Christian Attitudes toward Images