Religious images in Christian theology have a role within the liturgical and devotional life of adherents of certain Christian denominations. The use of religious images has often been a contentious issue in Christian history. Concern over idolatry is the driving force behind the various traditions of aniconism in Christianity.
In the early Church, Christians used the Ichthys (fish) symbol to identify Christian places of worship and Christian homes. The Synod of Elvira (306 AD – 312 AD) “prohibited the exhibition of images in churches”. However, since the 3rd century AD, images have been used within Christian worship within parts of Christendom, although some ancient Churches, such as the Church of the East, have apparently long traditions of not using images.
Certain periods of Christian history have seen supporters of aniconism in Christianity, first with the movement of Byzantine Iconoclasm, in which Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Emperors Michael II, as well as Theophilus, “banned veneration of icons and actively persecuted supporters of icons.” Later, during the Iconoclastic Fury, Calvinists removed statues and sacred art from churches that adopted the Reformed faith.
It is believed that Christianity came to Judaism, which rejected figurative religious art as being too much like idol worship (see Ex 20:3).
At a point, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire which was under Constantine in the 4th century CE, it was not long before Roman practices of portraying and honoring their gods and emperors began.
Images of the divine and saints also began in Christianity. But although the saints are portrayed in statues, icons, paintings, and other media, they are not worshipped as God is. Rather, the Catholics venerate the saints, meaning that they honor them, give them respect, and show them devotion for what they have accomplished during their lives of faith.
According to John Coleman, saints generally having five characteristics namely:
They serve as exemplary models to all Faithful.
Saints are extraordinary teachers.
They are the worker of wonders or source of benevolent power.
They are intercessors.
They are possessors of a special, revelatory relation to the holy.
In short, they invite to see and relate to God anew.
Asking saints to intercede for us is not idol worshiping because they themselves are not the object of worship. We are asking for their help to make our case before God, just as you might have a friend advocate for you.
Today, religious imagery in the form of statues is most identified with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions. Icons are used extensively and are most often associated with parts of Eastern Christianity, although they are also used by Roman Catholics and Lutherans.
Since the 1800s, devotional art has become very common in Christian homes. Both Protestant and Catholic, often include wall crosses, embroidered verses from the Christian Bible, as well as imagery of Jesus.
Also, in Western Christianity, it is common for believers to have a home altar, while dwelling places belonging to communicants of the Eastern Christian Churches often have an icon corner.
Early Christian art used symbolic and allegorical images mainly, partly no doubt to avoid drawing attention during the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire. In the Catacombs of Rome Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), peacock, Lamb of God, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later, personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ’s death and Resurrection, Daniel in the lion’s den, or Orpheus charming the animals.
The image of “The Good Shepherd”, a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. The depiction of Jesus already from the 3rd century included images very similar to what became the traditional image of Jesus, with a longish face and long straight hair. As the Church increased in size and popularity, the need to educate illiterate converts led to the use of pictures that portrayed biblical stories, along with images of saints, angels, prophets, and the Cross (though only portrayed in a bejeweled, glorified state).
When the persecution of Christians ended, and the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, large churches were built and from the start decorated with elaborate images of Jesus and saints in mosaic. Small carved reliefs were also found on sarcophagi like the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. However large monumental sculpture of religious subjects was not produced, and in Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox art, it is avoided to the current day. It only reappeared in Carolingian art, among peoples who had no memory of pagan religious statues.
Paintings of Old Testament scenes are found in Jewish catacombs of the same period, and the heavily painted walls of Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria. Catholic and Orthodox historians affirm, on the basis of these archeological finds in the Catacombs, that the veneration of icons and relics had begun well before Constantine I.
Christian use of relics also dates to the catacombs, when Christians found themselves praying in the presence of the bodies of martyrs, sometimes using their tombs as altars for sharing the Eucharist, which was, and in Catholicism, Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy is, the central act of Christian worship. Many stories of the earliest martyrs end with an account of how Christians would gather up the martyr’s remains, to the extent possible, in order to retain the martyr’s relics. This is shown in the written record of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, a personal disciple of Saint John the Apostle.
Significant periods of iconoclasm (deliberate destruction of icons) have occurred in the history of the Church, the first major outbreak being the Byzantine iconoclasm (730-787), motivated by a strictly literal interpretation of the second commandment and interaction with Muslims who have very strict teaching against the creation of images. Iconoclasm was officially condemned by the Western and Eastern Churches at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD (the Western Church was not represented, but approved the decrees later).
This decision was based on the arguments including that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God was because no-one had seen God. But, by the Incarnation of Jesus, who is God incarnate in visible matter, humankind has now seen God. It was therefore argued that they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh.
The Libri Carolini is a response prepared in the court of Charlemagne, when under the mistaken impression that the Nicea Council had approved the worship as opposed to the veneration of images.
The emblem of the Moravian Church depicts an image of the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei in ecclesiastical Latin) with the flag of victory, surrounded by the Latin inscription: Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur (English: “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him”).
Different understandings of the use of images
Catholics use images, such as the crucifix, the cross, in the religious life and pray using depictions of saints. They also venerate images and liturgical objects by kissing, bowing, and making the sign of the cross. They point to the Old Testament patterns of worship followed by the Hebrew people as examples of how certain places and things used in worship may be treated with reverence or venerated, without worshiping them. The Ark of the Covenant was treated with great reverence and included images of cherubim on top of it (Exodus 25:18-22), and certain miracles were associated with it, yet this was not condemned.