Art, for centuries, has been a method of communicating different information on the history and truths of people. The prehistoric human used art to communicate or record their great historical stories and achievements. One example of this is the images found in the Lascaux Cave in Southwestern France. Many centuries later the Egyptians used hieroglyphics to communicate tales of their royalty, society and of their gods. Today, Catholics and many other Christians, use images to communicate the truths of faith as well as stories of the virtuous elders that went before us. But the question arises, after hearing so many people speak against images, is using sacred images unacceptable? The first commandment does state that we should not have any graven images, doesn’t it? So why do we allow these images? Is God displeased with our use of images?
“You shall not make for yourself any graven image”
First it is important to realize that the first commandment, found in Deuteronomy, does in fact state that “you shall not make for yourself any graven image”. God says, “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….” (Deut 4:15-16). This was commanded to them because God transcends all human works and therefore cannot be truly represented with images made of him by the human hand. But, in the Old Testament, God did allow for symbolic images to be made to point the Israelites toward salvation. An example of this was the bronze serpent erected by Moses to cure the people of the deadly serpent bites they had received in the desert. Another example is found in the book of Exodus when it reads that
“Bezalel made the Ark of acacia wood…He made two cherubim from hammered gold and placed them on the two ends of the atonement cover. He molded the cherubim on each end of the atonement cover, making it all of one piece of gold. The cherubim faced each other and looked down on the atonement cover. With their wings spread above it, they protected it” (Exodus 37: 1, 7-9).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that the images are not that which receives the worship that is due to God alone but rather, “‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone” (CCC 2132). And so it is that the use of sacred images is not idolatry or the worship of “the golden calf”, but rather they are signs pointing to the reality of God and to the relationship humans are called to live with him.
Man’s use of Art to express his Relationship
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that man, who is created in the likeness and image of God, uses his artistic abilities, which is an ability distinctive of the human person, to express the truth of his relationship with his creator. Man uses this creative ability to communicate the truth and love of God, which comes from God or is returned to God by man. “Art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man” (CCC 2501). Sacred art should always point in the direction of God, since God is the ultimate goal for all men. For this reason, “sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God” (CCC 2502).
Jesus as the Image
This beauty of truth and love was made visible to mankind through Christ since he “reflects the glory of God” and is consubstantial with the Father. He brought forth the face of God to the earth. Jesus makes this clear when he says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (John 14: 9-10). It is through Christ that we are able to recognize that he is the one “in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’” (2502). He is the visible presence of God on earth. This same beauty is also reflected in the most holy Virgin, the angels and saints.
Creation of Sacred Art
Sacred art should always be created with the utmost reverence for it all is meant to express the realities of heaven, pointing mankind to those realities, leading all people to a deeper relationship with God. On this point the Catechism states that
For this reason bishops, personally or through delegates, should see to the promotion of sacred art, old and new, in all its forms and, with the same religious care, remove from the liturgy and from places of worship everything which is not in conformity with the truth of faith and the authentic beauty of sacred art (CCC 2503).
All sacred art should and must be in conformity with the truths of faith and never simply to advance man’s own agendas. The church has made it clear that Sacred Art should be done in great taste and with great respect and fear of the Lord.
We have seen in society many attempts to bring “shock value” into art by using scandalizing images to communicate an idea of the artist. There have been recent artists that have taken sacred images of our Lady of Guadalupe and turned them into “modern art”. Some of these pieces depict our Lady in very offensive ways while others depict her in a more respectful, yet still, borderline offensive. For this reason the church entrusts her leaders to discern and choose appropriate art for her. Not just anything is appropriate for use as Sacred Art.
Images and Advent/Christmas
During this advent and Christmas season, remember that the images we use and venerate do not stand as the actual presence of God or the Saints, but rather are windows that helps us look into the full reality of what is in heaven and what is around us constantly calling us to holiness and faith. Be not afraid to put up your statues of Jesus, Joseph and Mary and pray through them to the heavenly courts.
These images are like the photos we have of our beloved who have gone on, especially those who have taught us important life lessons; each time we look at their photos we are reminded of what impact they had on our lives. So are the images of our beloved ones in the faith who have gone before us and who were given the title of Saint.
Always remember that all who have gone to their eternal rest in heaven are not dead but are alive. We believe that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. Mark says, “He is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:27, NAB).
So, let us remember the beauty of our Faith through the sacred images that God has given us through human vessels and let us celebrate the wonderment of heaven.