Sacred Images

Biblical and patristic studies on Sacred Images

Sacred images are a stimulus for faith. We venerate the image he represents not the object itself or representation.

One of the most frequent objections is accusing Protestant as idolatry veneration of images. In this section these objections in the light of Scripture are analyzed.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about Images

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in SpanishEnglish and Portuguese.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Our last conversation was very interesting, and now we would like you to give us an answer to this. If the Bible and your own catechisms has the commandment about not making images, why do you do them? Isn’t the Bible clear when it says that they’re forbidden? “You are not to craft for yourselves an idol or anything resembling what is in the skies above, or on earth beneath, or in the water sources under the earth. 5 You are not to bow down to them in worship or serve them” (Exod 20, 4-5).

Joseph: Ok, allow me to explain you exactly what we believe about it.

Pauline: Please.

Joseph: Before everything, you have to understand that images for us have not the same meaning that they do for pagans which considered them like gods. We don’t adore them, and we perfectly know that they’re just representations, for either Christ or his saints.

Pauline: But you do them equally.

Joseph: Yes, but here we have to understand what the commandment meant, and what exactly was the prohibition to make images. Do you think that it was about any kind of images?

Michael: No, obviously not. The problem is not to make an image, but to adore it.

Joseph: Exactly! And the proof is in the same meeting tent[1] that was built under holy command and was full of images, the same thing as the Temple that also had images of entities that are in heaven, as the angels, and that are in the ground, as the animals. Even the Ark of the Covenant itself had two huge angels in the superior area (Exod 25, 18-19; 26,4; 1 Kings 6, 18-19. 23-29. 32-33. 35) It becomes clear that these images were not violating the prohibition given by God.

Michael: Yes, I know that, because they didn’t adore them.

Joseph: We agree then that the text must not be taken out of context, and what is forbidden is not the making of the images itself but their adoration. Another proof that the commandment is not about any kind of image, not even religious ones, is that the Jewish word פֶּסֶל (pésel) is used that means “idol”, while in the same language, there are words to refer other kind of images that are non -idolatrous but representative, as for example the word “tselem” or the word “pittuach” to refer to representative or decorative images.

Also, the commandment starts by saying “You are to have no other gods as a substitute for me” (Exod 20,3). So, an appropriate translation that is closer to the Jewish text and the context would be “You are not to craft for yourselves an IDOL or anything resembling what is in the skies above, or on earth beneath, or in the water sources under the earth” (Exod 20,4).

And if an image is not an idol, this means an image that is considered as a god by itself it is not a problem and we can have our temples full of them, as did Solomon’s Temple. After it was rebuilt, it was visited by Jesus and he didn’t complain about the presence of images.

There is also the case of the Bronze Serpent (Num 21,9), whose construction was ordered by God, and was not a problem until some people, who were corrupted, started to adore it and it had to be destroyed (2 Kgs 18,4).

Pauline: But when you pray and go on your knees before them, you’re adoring them. That’s the question.

Joseph: Remember that during our last conversation we talked about the gesture of kneeling has a different meaning depending on the intention behind it. When we do it before an image, we do it as an act of veneration.

Pauline: A veneration act before an object. In the examples that you gave in our previous conversation, we saw that the fairs do kneel before prophets and God’s men without adoring them, and I can understand that because they were living people, plaster images cannot listen or hear?

Joseph: We know that the images do not see or hear because they’re just that: images, but for us, a gesture towards the image is actually directed to the one represented by it. When the elder people of Israel kneeled before the Ark of the Covenant, they were not getting on their knees before a wooden box, but before God.

Besides, if you remember well our last conversation, we also talked about those who already have the beatific vision and realize through God what’s happening. If this is like that, why wouldn’t they realize that a veneration or reverence act was performed before an image of them?

I understand that a veneration act of a Catholic externally can seem like an act of an idolatrous pagan that adores the image itself, but there is a substantial difference that is inside the heart of the person who performs it, on its intention, and how he considers the meaning of the image.

Pauline: You see it that way, but, how can we know that all Catholics understand it like that? That is not what it seems when we see you getting on your knees before an image.

Joseph: We must not forget that we can’t see inside people and accuse them of idolatry based on the appearances that expose us to fall into a reckless judgment.

Even when I was little and without great religious knowledge, when I saw an image and touched it,  I was able to understand that the image was not God, and not even the saint who was represented, but I considered that by touching it, it was somehow blessed by God and some of that blessing could pass through it. It was certainly a simple faith, like those who look for the shadow of Saint Peter to get covered and healed (Acts 5, 15), or those who healed by touching the hankies of Saint Paul (Mark 5, 26-31). Do you think that those people believed that they were being healed by hankies, mantles or shadows?

Michael: Of course not. They were healed by the power of God.

Joseph: The same thing happens with the faith of the simple people. Even the more humble know deep in their hearts that an image is not a god, not to mention God Himself.

Here in our country (Venezuela), a portentous miracle occurred in the year of 1669 when the plague drastically reduced the population. As we know the desperation was so big that the caraqueños (those living in the city of Caracas) took out an image of Jesus, the Nazarene, which was occupying one of Saint Paul, the Hermit, church’s altars and made a procession with it. During the procession, they claimed the plague had passed, and when the prayers were more felt, the Nazarene’s image touched the branches of a lemon tree making the fruits fall. The caraqueños exclaimed that it was “a miracle!” and ran to their houses to make infusions with the lemons, and when the sick ones drank it, they healed.  Who do you think healed them? The image of the Nazarene or the faith of those people that saw this event as a providential answer to their prayers? Don’t you remember what the Bible says about the one who has faith as a mustard seed? (Matt 17, 20).

Pauline: That is another thing I don’t understand, carrying images in processions? What’s the possibility of that?

Joseph: It is another veneration act from God’s people. It is not very different to what the Jewish made when they took the Ark in a procession, and even the King danced before it. Everyone understood that David’s act was directed to God, not the Ark of the Covenant: “…So David went out joyfully and brought up the Ark of God to the City of David from Obededom’s home. After those who were carrying the ark of the Lord had taken six steps, he sacrificed oxen and fattened animals, dancing in front of the Lord with all of his strength and wearing a linen ephod. So David and the entire assembly of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and trumpet blasts.” (2 Sam 6,12-15).

Michael: Fine, but remember that the Bible also prohibits making images of God. Remember that it also says: “Therefore, for your own sake, be very careful, since you did not see any form on the day that the Lord your God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire. Be careful! Otherwise, you will be destroyed when you make carved images for yourself—all sorts of images in the form of man, woman, any animal on earth, any winged bird that flies in the sky, any creeping thing on the ground, or any fish in the sea. Do not gaze toward the heavens and observe the sun, the moon, the stars—the entire array of the sky—with the intent to worship and serve what the Lord your God gave every nation.” (Deut 4, 15-19).

Joseph: If you carefully read the text, there is the cause of the prohibition. It was forbidden to represent God with images so the people of that culture were not able to think that God had the shape of a creature. Remember when they tried to represent God as a golden calf (Exod 32, 4)? That was what was being warned. But God then revealed His human shape, as Christ is the “Image of the Invisible God” (Col 1, 15) and they did touch and see him.

Michael: Let’s take that as true and that it’s not forbidden to make images of Jesus Christ. How do you explain that also images of God Father are done? Isn’t that forbidden?

Joseph:  Representations are purely symbolic that show Him as an old man of many days[2] to mean that eternity exists and that all things come from Him. Today, the risk of someone thinking that God Father is an old man with a white beard does not exist, and those images aren’t done to be adored.

Pauline: I think that it’s better to not take risks, if images are just that, representations, they’re not indispensable for our salvation. The best thing is not to have it and not to expose anyone to fall in the sin of idolatry.

Joseph: What happens is that we Catholics do not believe that that is the solution to the problems we have in the Church. We’re not going to destroy all the images just because any Catholic can misunderstand the teachings from the Church. The solution to the problem is, on the contrary, to catechize them so they reach maturity on faith and avoid falling in this kind of mistake. The same thing happens with the saints: we can’t deny the great truth that implies to recognize that we have a family in heaven that loves us and intercedes for us, just because someone can fall into an excess and give them God’s place. Don’t mutilate, neglect but get deeper, clarify, and explain. This is always the way we must think about taking these problems, because we can’t deny a truth just because there is the risk of someone misunderstanding it.


[1] Translated in some Bibles as Gathering Tabernacle, testimony tabernacle, etc., in the biblical language it is generally used to name the mobile sanctuary tent-shaped of the Jewish people before the building of the Solomon’s Temple, built under God’s commands and with His instructions.

[2] The figure of God as an “Ancient of Days” is inspired in the book of Daniel 7, 9, where the prophet sees Him with “clothes white as the snow, and the hair on his head was like pure wool. His throne burned with flaming fire”.