‘You Must Not Bow Down to a Carved Image’
MANY church buildings are filled with images of Jesus, of Mary and of the “saints.” Hundreds of people are seen daily bowing down before these images, particularly in Roman Catholic lands.
People thus bowing down profess to be bound by the Ten Commandments, yet one of these says: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Ex. 20:4, 5.
Now, since it is obvious that the images are like something either in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters of the sea, and since people bow down to them, one might naturally conclude that here there is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. But not so, replies Cardinal Gibbons in The Faith of Our Fathers. According to him, “Every Catholic child clearly comprehends the essential difference which exists between a Pagan idol and a Christian image. The Pagans looked upon an idol as a god endowed with intelligence and the other attributes of the Deity. They were therefore idolaters, or image worshipers. Catholic Christians know that a holy image has no intelligence or power to hear and help them. They pay it a relative respect—that is, their reverence for the copy is proportioned to the veneration which they entertain for the heavenly original to which it is also referred.” But is it true that merely relative worship is accorded to images? No, it is not, as the following will show.
Does the guidebook for the famous cathedral at Chartres, France, for example, say, “Mary is worshiped by means of an image called ‘Our Lady of the Crypt’?” No, but it reads, “For many centuries Our Lady of the Crypt [an image there] has accepted the homage of her votaries.”
Besides, if it were true that the image is just to remind the worshiper of the particular “saint” to which he is praying, then any image of the one being prayed to would serve the same purpose. But it is a well-known fact that some images receive far more veneration than do others, some are considered far more efficacious, certain ones draw far larger crowds, and particular statues are often invoked for particular things.
Thus the guidebook at Chartres also says: “Our Lady of the Belle Verrière was once an object of veneration, and particularly invoked by women before childbirth.” Another instance that may be cited is the prominence of the image of “Jesus of Medinaceli” in the holy week processions by devout Spanish Catholics.
Cardinal Gibbons may distinguish between an image and an idol and insist that an image is merely an aid to worship, but when pilgrimages are made to a particular image, then the image has taken on a value of its own, in direct violation of God’s command against giving honor to a graven thing. That pilgrimages are made to particular images is shown by the Grand Dictionnaire Universal du XIXe Siècle (Larousse), Volume 12, page 519: “One day a hundred and ten deputies accomplished a pilgrimage to the Black Virgin at Chartres.”
In fact, this same encyclopedic dictionary truthfully says in Volume 9, page 574: “Idolatry signifies nothing else, etymologically speaking, than the worship of images. The most ancient Fathers of the Church formally forbade sculptured or painted representations in the temples and in all places where prayers were offered. It was toward the third or fourth century that the Church began to let go, in this regard, of its severity. . . . These representations of persons, of mysteries and of religious facts, promptly became objects of adoration, veritable idols, especially in the West.”
MORE THAN RELATIVE HONOR
If images are accorded merely relative honor, then all images of Jesus would be accorded the same honor, and images of him should be accorded more honor than those of anyone else. But not so. Certain images have miraculous powers attributed to them. Thus the book Pèlerinages célèbres aux Principaux Sanctuaires de Notre-Dame, by the Society of Saint Augustine, speaks, not of the “saints,” but of the images themselves as being miraculous. It says that St. Louis gave to the basilica at Puy “a miraculous statue that he had brought back from the holy land.” And it calls the images of Notre-Dame de Grâce at Lille “miraculous” images.
Showing further that the images were not just to remind people of the one to whom they were praying, but were considered to have value themselves, it says of Mater Boni Consilii (Holy Mother of Good Counsel) in Gensano, near Rome: “One encounters miraculous copies of the holy image in Spain, Belgium, Bohemia, Austria and America. The Augustinians and the Redemptorists work with the desire to spread the worship of Our Lady of Good Counsel and in every place where they erect altars to her crowds flock and heavenly favors multiply.”
Catholic authorities grant that in the eighth century of our Christian era some Catholics gave images more than relative honor in that they kissed the images and expected the images to heal the sick and stop a fire or a flood by some sort of magic. But twelve centuries later we find this more than relative honor still being accorded images. Anyone who has visited Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome knows that devout Catholics still kiss statues, in particular the toe of a certain image of Peter. Incidentally, there is reason to believe that this particular statue of Peter was taken from the ancient Roman temple the Pantheon and originally was a statue erected to Jupiter by the pagan Romans!
That even in modern times some sort of magic is attributed to these statues is evident from the Church-approved Mille Pèlerinages de Notre-Dame (A Thousand Pilgrimages to Our Lady), published in Paris under the Imprimatur Petrus Brot as recently as December 18, 1953. Of the image Notre-Dame de la Garde, it says in its third volume, page 108: “When the cholera came down with fury on Marseilles in 1832, the clergy and the people went up to the sanctuary and brought down the statue, took it through the city, and the terrible plague disappeared.”
“THE CHRIST OF PITY”
One of the most striking evidences that the images themselves are considered to have value is that prayers said before certain images were believed to have more value than prayers said before other images. To the point is the unusual story of the famous “Christ of Pity,” of the suffering Jesus. This image is quite likely responsible for much of the overbearing sadness of the religious art of the fifteenth century, in striking contrast with the great joy evinced by the apostles and other first-century Christians.—Luke 1:46-49; 1 Pet. 1:8.
There were a number of such images showing Christ dead in the arms of Mary. But of a related one, showing Christ alone, dead and with his arms folded across his chest, Emile Male, a leading French authority on religious art, asks in l’Art Religieux de la fin du Moyen Âge en France, page 100:
“How can one explain the success of this image? Why did it spread throughout all Europe in the fifteenth century? The reason is very simple: Because of the enormous indulgences that were attached to it. If, after having confessed, one would recite before a representation of the ‘Christ of Pity’ seven Paters, seven Aves and seven short prayers called ‘the orations of St. Gregory,’ one obtained six thousand years of ‘real pardon.’”
But that was only the beginning! He continues: “In the course of the fifteenth century, the pope increased the already surprising indulgences, and the number of years became prodigious. A manuscript in the Sainte-Genevieve Library [in Paris] speaks of fourteen thousand years, a retablea of Aachen [retable of the Mass of St. Gregory in a chapel of the cathedral at Aachen, Germany] speaks of twenty thousand years; and finally, the manuscripts and the Books of the Hours of the end of the fifteenth century do not announce less than forty-six thousand years of indulgence.” “But,” Male reminds, “in each case, as one has seen, it was necessary to have under one’s eyes the image of the Christ of Pity.”
Without digressing to question what basis there was for the figure of 46,000 years, and why at the end of the fifteenth century these few prayers should be esteemed almost eight times as valuable or efficacious as at the beginning of that century, the fact remains that all the foregoing disproves the claim made that the honor given images is relative and that they in themselves are not believed to have any powers. It is therefore historic evidence that God’s specific commands forbidding honor being given to images have been and are being violated by worshipers in the Roman Catholic communion.
UNKNOWN TO EARLY CHRISTIANS
The first-century Christians were familiar with their Bibles. We know that from the many quotations that they made from the Hebrew Scriptures throughout their writings. From it they knew that God’s approval or rejection of the nation of Israel had hinged directly on the action taken by that nation toward idols and image worship. They well knew that when Israel rejected all forms of image worship God blessed them, whereas when they set up images in direct violation of God’s command, and bowed down before them, he rejected them.—Deut. 4:23-28; Jer. 22:8, 9.
The first-century Christians took care that they would not suffer rejection because of image worship or idolatry as did the Jews. Thus neither Jesus nor any of his immediate disciples had anything to do with it. Plainly Paul warned: “My beloved ones, flee from idolatry.” And many years later the apostle John wrote: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”—1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21.
This position was not abandoned with the death of the apostles. The Jewish convert to Christianity, Dr. Augustus Neander, who, according to McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, is without peer as regards early Christian history, says in his book The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the First Three Centuries: “The use of images was originally quite foreign to the Christian worship and Churches, and it remained so during this whole period. The intermixture of art and religion, and the use of images for the latter, appeared to the first Christians as a heathenish practice.”
How far removed these early Christians were from worshiping images is seen from the words of Clemens of Alexandria as quoted by Neander: “We must not cling to that which is sensuous, but elevate ourselves to that which is spiritual; the habit of daily looking upon the Divine nature desecrates its dignity; and to wish to honour a spiritual being by earthly matter, is nothing but to dishonour it by sensuousness.” Neander also shows that it was the pagans who first made likenesses of Jesus Christ and the apostles: “Thus Eusebius says (H.E.vii.18) that heathens were the first who made pictures of Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul, whom they looked upon, after their heathen notions, as benefactors of mankind. This may easily be explained from the spirit of religious eclecticism [selectiveness], which then existed.”
However, it should not surprise us that gradually this sensuousness took over, for is it not an appeal to selfishness? It is easier to express sentiment toward a visible object than toward an Unseen One. Besides, did not Jesus and the apostles warn that there would be a falling away from the true faith after the death of the apostles? They did, and the facts show that their prophetic words were indeed fulfilled.—Matt. 13:25; Acts 20:29, 30.
True, God commanded the making of images, the cherubs of the mercy seat and representations of cherubs on certain curtains of the tabernacle. But note that these were hidden from view of the Israelites, and there is no intimation that the priests who did see them ever directed prayers to them. When once an apostate priesthood presumed to use the ark of the covenant with its carved cherubs as a charm, Jehovah God allowed the Philistines to capture it, to the great dismay of the Israelites and of aged high priest Eli in particular.—Ex. 25:19-21; Num. 4:5; 1 Sam. 4:3, 4, 11, 17, 18.
Jehovah God knows the heart of man, that it is treacherous and desperate. He knows how prone it is to worship the creature rather than the Creator; a striking example the Israelites gave in their worshiping the copper serpent Moses made in the wilderness. That is why Jehovah so explicitly and repeatedly forbade the making of images and bowing down before them. Cardinal Gibbons may claim that every Catholic child knows the difference between a proper religious image and a pagan idol, but what was done with images at the time of the cholera plague in France, above referred to, shows that not even the Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church knows the difference, for it ascribed and still ascribes power to these images. So those who would please Jehovah God will steer clear of all image aids to worship and will bow down solely before Jehovah God.—2 Ki. 18:4; Jer. 17:9.
a A retable is “a raised shelf or ledge above the table of an altar, on which are placed altar lights, flowers, etc.,” and inscriptions.—Webster.