Religious Art

Catholic Teaching down the Centuries.


The iconoclasts, people who engage in "image-breaking", in the eighth and ninth centuries, tried to remove religious art that sought to represent God and the saints. One heresy went so far as to reject any depiction of the human body because they thought the human body was evil. However, the Church decided that such art could be permitted. Although our Protestant friends often disagree, these items have long been a part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. See, The Council of Nicaea (7th Ecumenical,787 AD) "[T]he honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented... " (you can look at part 6 of methods section in Awaken to Prayer.)

By the way, Catholics do not worship paintings, or statues. They are just a way of conveying something about God, and are not God themselves. It is quite clear to any thinking person that stone or paint cannot be God, but can only represent, or tell something about, some small aspect of God. He is far too great to understand fully, let alone represent fully. See, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1159-1162 below.

Pope Gregory indicated that the emphasis, with regard to religious art, is education:
"On the other hand, in Rome especially, we find the position of holy images explained soberly and reasonably. They are the books of the ignorant. This idea is a favorite one of [Pope] St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). He writes to an Iconoclast bishop, Serenus of Marseilles, who had destroyed the images in his diocese: "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" (Ep. ix,105, in P. L., LXXVII, 1027). But in the East, too, there were people who shared this more sober Western view." From the Veneration of Images article in the Catholic Encyclopedia at the New Advent Supersite. See also Iconoclasm.

St. Thomas Aquinas discuses idolatry in the "Summa Theologica", II-II:94. The twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent (Dec., 1543) repeats faithfully the principles of Nicaea II:

'[The holy Synod commands] that images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honor and reverence (debitum honorem et venerationem) are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols, but because the honor shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent... [W]e adore Christ and honor the saints whose likeness they bear... (Denzinger, no. 986).'" Veneration of Images. (Emphasis added.)

See the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Baltimore Catechism, and that of Pius X.

For an example of a catechetical use of art, as well as one that provokes meditation and a response such as repentance, see the Last Judgement painted by Michaelangelo on the wall of the Pope's Chapel, the place where popes are chosen. (cf. The Papal Election, and John Paul's rules on the Conclave.)

Today's teaching continues past teaching.

Note that modern liturgical practice requires that there not be a proliferation of images or statues and that there be only one such image or statue per saint inside the worship space of a church. These statues and images are not to be positioned in the worship space so as to distract from the worship service. See the Instructions to the Roman Missal, which are part of every Sacramentary, and the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops Liturgy Committee text Art and Environment..

From the Roman Missal: "Images for Veneration by the Faithful"
Sacred Images
"318. In the earthly Liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste, in that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have some part and fellowship with them.
Thus, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church's most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. For this reason, care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images. " General Instruction of the Roman Missal. (Third Typical Edition) © 2002, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved. Quoted here for educational purposes only. 17USC107.


From the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II:


Can. 1186 To foster the sanctification of the people of God, the Church commends to the special and filial veneration of Christ's faithful the Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, the Mother of God, whom Christ constituted the Mother of all. The Church also promotes the true and authentic cult of the other Saints, by whose example the faithful are edified and by whose intercession they are supported.

Can. 1187 Only those servants of God may be venerated by public cult who have been numbered by ecclesiastical authority among the Saints or the Blessed.

Can. 1188 The practice of exposing sacred images in churches for the veneration of the faithful is to be retained. However, these images are to be displayed in moderate numbers and in suitable fashion, so that the christian people are not disturbed, nor is occasion given for less than appropriate devotion.

Can. 1189 The written permission of the Ordinary is required to restore precious images needing repair: that is, those distinguished by reason of age, art or cult, which are exposed in churches and oratories to the veneration of the faithful. Before giving such permission, the Ordinary is to seek the advice of experts.

Can. 1190 §1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics. " Code of Canon Law §§ 1186-90.

From the the contemporary Catechism
Holy Images

"1159 The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new "economy" of images: Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that 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.[27]

1160 Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other: We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other's meaning.[28]

1161 All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the "cloud of witnesses"[29] who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man "in the image of God," finally transfigured "into his likeness,"[30] who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ: Following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her) we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, our inviolate Lady, the holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets.[31]

1162 "The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God."[32] Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart's memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful. " The Catechism of the Catholic Church.




2129 The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure...."[66] It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. "He is the all," but at the same time "he is greater than all his works."[67] He is "the author of beauty."[68]

2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.[69]

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons - of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new "economy" of images.

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it."[70] The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone: Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.[71] " The Catechism of the Catholic Church..

"2141 The veneration of sacred images is based on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It is not contrary to the first commandment." The Catechism of the Catholic Church..

(All the foregoing quotes from the Catechism are taken from the internet version. You can review this text using the table of contents or the index.)

Veneration of Holy Images an Apostolic Letter by Pope John Paul II.

"The believer of today, like the one yesterday, must be
helped in his prayer and spiritual life by seeing works that attempt
to express the mystery [of faith] and never hide it. That is why today, as in
the past, faith is the necessary inspiration of Church art....
Authentic Christian art is that which, through sensible perception,
gives the intuition that the Lord is present in his Church, that the
events of salvation history give meaning and orientation to our life,
that the glory that is promised us already transforms our existence.
Sacred art must tend to offer us a visual synthesis of all dimensions
of our faith." Pope John Paul II.

The Church needs art.

"12. In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God." Pope John Paul II Letter to Artists, 1999.


See Sacred Images for additional authoritative teaching on the religious use of images.

See the Saints section in our page on prayer, and in particular see Cardinal Gibbons on prayer to the saints.

Information on Icons from

Christian Symbolism, from the Anglican Tradition.

The word "veneration" is defined as: " ven-er-a-tion, n. 1. The act of venerating. 2. Profound respect or reverence..." American Heritage Dictionary.

Thus, saints are venerated in the sense of having profound respect for them. Icons and images are venerated only in the sense that we venerate, i.e. show respect for, the person depicted.

The word "cult" in the above text about saints is used in the sense of its second and third definitions:

" 2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual. 3. The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual. [ Latin cultus worship, from past participle of colere to cultivate; See k wel- 1 in Indo-European Roots.] " The American Heritage Dictionary.

"wor-ships or wor-ships v. tr. 1. To honor and love as a deity. 2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion. See ... revere." American Heritage Dictionary.

"Synonyms: revere worship venerate adore idolize. These verbs all mean to regard with the deepest respect, deference, and esteem. Revere suggests awe coupled with profound honor: "At least one third of the population . . . reveres every sort of holy man" (Rudyard Kipling). Worship implies reverent love and homage rendered to God or a god: The ancient Egyptians, who were polytheists, worshiped a number of gods and sacred animals. In a more general sense worship connotes an often uncritical but always very admiring regard: "She had worshiped intellect" (Charles Kingsley). Venerate connotes reverence accorded by virtue especially of dignity, character, or age: "I venerate the memory of my grandfather" (Horace Walpole). To adore is to worship with deep, often rapturous love: "O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!" ("Adeste Fideles")." American Heritage Dictionary.

An ancient christian might have said he worships the emperor, but not meaning he worships him as god, but in the sense of reverence, ie. "[t]o regard with awe, deference, and devotion." There have been titles used for living people like "your worship" that are similar to the use of "reverend" for ministers. It is something said out of deference. " Worship - Chiefly British - Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship." American Heritage Dictionary.

Never-the-less, modern American usage always uses "worship" according to its primary definition, to honor and love the Deity. Thus, worship is for God alone. Saints are venerated.

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The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith. The quotations are used for religious and educational purposes only. No commercial or other use is intended or permitted. Any copyrighted material is presented in reliance on 17USC107.

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