Statues and Holy Pictures
by Sebastian R. Fama

Objections to the making and veneration of holy pictures and statues are based on faulty interpretations of Scripture. Those who are opposed to such practices traditionally appeal to Exodus 20:3-5: "You shall not have other Gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow down before them or worship them."

God is not prohibiting the making of pictures and statues, but the deifying and worshipping of them. Note the first and last lines of the passage. Also consider what we find in Exodus 36:8 concerning the tabernacle curtains: "The various experts who were executing the work made the dwelling with its ten sheets woven of fine linen twined, having cherubim  embroidered on them." And Exodus 37:7, concerning the Ark of the Covenant: "Two cherubim of beaten gold were made for the two ends of the mercy seat…"

In 1 Kings we read some of what was in Solomon's Temple: "In the sanctuary were two cherubim, each ten cubits high, made of olive wood" (6:23). "This rested on twelve oxen" (7:25). Finally, "On the panels between the frames there were lions, oxen and cherubim" (7:29).

Why did God ask that images be made for His Temple and the Ark of the Covenant? Do you suppose that He didn't understand His own commandment? Except for one late period, we see that not even the Old Testament Jews understood Exodus 20 to be an absolute prohibition on images. When we consider all that the Scriptures tell us, we can see that the views of that one period were an extreme and unnecessary attempt to obey a commandment. We see this same sort of thing happening in Matthew 12:10, when Jesus is accused of violating the Law because he healed on the Sabbath. The spirit of the Law was abandoned for the letter of the Law.

Pictures and statues of saints are valued in the same way that pictures of friends and family are. They are not idols, but visible reminders of what they represent. For idolatry to exist, a person must worship something or think of it as if it were God. A man who kisses a picture of his wife and children is not practicing idolatry. He is merely expressing love for his family. The same applies to pictures and statues of saints. Idolatry is an interior disposition. It is wrong to judge interior motives by what we think we see.

The lives of the saints are inspirational. Their images remind us of their testimony, which can encourage us in our own walk with God. In the early Church, when 99% of the people couldn't read and there were no readily available texts, statues, pictures and stained glass windows were the common man's Bible.

If Exodus 20 were to be taken in the strictest sense, just think what it would mean. Not only could you not have images of saints, but also no pictures of friends or family, no statues of George Washington, no paintings of Martin Luther, no picture Bibles, and no dolls or teddy bears. After all, if the Bible strictly prohibits the making of images, then you can't do it for any reason.

The idea that the early Christians refrained from making images is a myth that has been refuted by archaeology. There are a number of examples that remain from the first centuries. The Catacombs were covered with paintings of the saints. One notable example of a sacred object being venerated in the early Church can be found in the city of Herculaneum. Herculaneum and Pompeii were destroyed by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. Herculaneum was totally buried and was only uncovered in modern times. In one of the houses archeologists found a kneeler that was placed in front of what was once a cross or crucifix. Eusebius talks of color portraits of Peter, Paul and Jesus that remained to his own time (325 AD). He also mentions a statue of Jesus and the woman cured of a hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34). He relates that the statue was in front of the woman's home (The History of the Church 7:18). Now if such practices are wrong but were common in the first century, why is there no condemnation of them in the New Testament? Certainly such a "blasphemy" would not have been overlooked.

Copyright © 2001 

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