The veneration of sacred pictures and images is as old as Christianity itself. In the Catacombs representations are found of Christ, of the Mother of God with the divine Child, and of biblical scenes from the Old or New Testament, calculated to strengthen the Christians in times of persecution, by reminding them of God’s omnipotence and of a future resurrection. With the spread of Christianity the veneration paid to images increased. Pictures, statues, and crosses, were seen not in the churches alone, but on the market-place and highways. In the eighth century the Emperor of the East prohibited the veneration of images; the figures of the saints were broken to pieces or burned, the paintings on the walls of the churches were whitewashed over, and any persons who persisted in venerating images were punished (this was called the iconoclastic movement). The veneration of images answers to a need of our human nature; we respect the portraits of those whom we love or esteem; moreover it is the will of God that man, who lost true happiness for the sake of material things, should regain it by means of material things. The Jews were strictly forbidden to make images or bow down to them (Exod. xx. 4), because they had a strong propensity towards idolatry, and the Son of God had not then become man. In spite of this prohibition there were two golden cherubim, one on each side of the propitiatory in the Holy of holies (Exod. xxv. 18), and we also read of a brazen serpent in the wilderness, whereon the Israelites were commanded to look that they might be healed (Numb, xxi. 8).
By sacred pictures or statues are meant representations of Christ, of the saints, or of the truths of religion.
The manner in which Our Lord is ordinarily depicted is familiar to all of us; the expression of His countenance is grave and benign, His eyes are blue, His hair is of a ruddy brown, curling and parted in the middle, His beard is short, and a burning heart is often placed upon His breast. The Mother of God is represented in various ways: as Help of Christians she holds the divine Child in her arms; as Mother of dolors, the dead Christ is laid across her knees; as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception she is as she appeared at Lourdes, in a white robe, without her Infant Son; as Queen of heaven (Apoc. xii. 1) with her head encircled with twelve stars and the moon beneath her feet. The most celebrated and well-known pictures of the Mother of God are: (1) The painting in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, supposed to be the work of St. Luke; (2) The Madonna di San Sisto, painted by Rafael; (3) The miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, painted upon wood, and dating from the thirteenth century, in the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome. The representations of the saints are easily recognized; they have a nimbus round their head, and are accompanied by emblems either of their office, of the special virtue that distinguished them, or by the instruments wherewith they suffered martyrdom. The four Evangelists are known by their symbols: St. Matthew has an angel in human shape beside him, because his gospel begins with the genealogy of Our Lord; St. Mark has a lion, because he speaks in the opening chapter of a voice crying in the wilderness; St. Luke is accompanied by an ox, because he begins with Zacharias sacrifice; St. John by an eagle, because his gospel begins with sublime and lofty truths. We also call those sacred pictures which portray some great truth, such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, or purgatory; or some event recorded in Holy Scripture. The three divine persons are represented under the form they have assumed when appearing to men. But all delineations of the Godhead do no more than give an idea of certain attributes or actions of the Deity, for it is not within the power of man to make an image of God.
Pictures or statues of saints, by means of which or before which miracles have been worked, are called miraculous images.
There are a great many places of pilgrimage on the continent of Europe where an image of Our Lady is to be seen, by means of which extraordinary favors and graces have been and are obtained. Among these Einsiedeln in Switzerland, Alt-Otting in Bavaria, Kevelaer in the Rhineland may be mentioned. It is also well known that many cures have been effected through devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague (a wax statue in the church of the Carmelites in that city), especially at the time of the pestilence in 1713. The Empress Maria Teresa had a great veneration for that image; she worked a robe for it with her own hands, richly embroidered with gold, many of these miraculous images have been preserved from destruction in a marvelous manner; they have, for instance, been in the fire without being burned. Many signal cures have been wrought in a moment, in answer to prayers offered before them. Such miracles are permitted by God as an attestation to the truth of the Catholic Church, and it would be a sin on the part of any Catholic to deny their authenticity. A strict investigation is made of these miracles by the Holy See, and then the statue of the saint is crowned.
Above all representations of the saints or of holy things, we venerate the cross of Our Redeemer.
There ought not to be a single church, or altar, or cemetery, with out a crucifix. Such is the honor in which the Church holds the cross of Christ, that she allows no sacrament to be administered, no Mass to be celebrated, no act of divine worship to be performed unless in presence of the crucifix. The cross is seen on the crown of the monarch, on the breast of the bishop, arid it is awarded as a decoration to men of merit. The cross is in the hand of the dying Christian when he draws his last breath, and it accompanies him to the grave. This sacred symbol ought to be found in every Christian household; it does not speak well for the inhabitants of a house if none but secular pictures adorn its walls.
1. We honor the images of the saints by giving them a place in our dwellings; we say our prayers before them, we salute them respectfully, we adorn them with offerings, we make pilgrimages to their shrines.
The reverence we pay to the image of a saint is not paid to the picture or image itself, but to the individual it represents; that is, to Christ, or some one of the saints. When we adore the cross we adore Him Who died thereon. By showing respect to the portrait of a king, we testify our respect for the monarch, and disrespect manifested to his portrait is a personal affront to himself. When the book of The Gospels is kissed, it is the Word of God therein contained that is venerated. Thus when we kiss our parents or our children, we express the love and fondness of our hearts, and in venerating images, we express our love for the persons they represent. And when incense is burned, or tapers lighted before the images, it is as a symbol of the light of the Holy Ghost and the virtues wherewith the saints were endowed. It is not from the images themselves that we ask help, it is from God, through the intercession of the saints. None but the heathen imagine that there is any virtue or supernatural power in the image itself. Moses did not think that his staff worked miracles, but God Who powerfully assisted him.
2. Through venerating the images of the saints, efficacious and oftentimes supernatural graces are obtained; they are also useful as a means of avoiding distractions in prayer, and affording us a silent admonition.
St. John Damascene says that the Holy Spirit surrounds the images of the saints with a certain halo of grace. Wherever the cross is erected, the malicious designs of the evil one are defeated. How often a soul sunk in sin has been touched and converted by the sight of an image; how often have pictures comforted and encouraged devout persons, especially at the moment of death! While gazing upon an image we pray with greater recollection; images are steps whereby we ascend more easily in spirit to heaven. And as one’s prayers, when offered at the shrine of some saint are more fervent, so they are more readily granted; the ex-votos hung beside the image testify to the efficacy of the saint’s intercession they are also a constant admonition to us; either by placing vividly before us one of the truths of religion, or exhorting us to imitate the example of the saint. The work of the artist does indeed often prove more influential than the words of the preacher, for the impressions we receive through the ear have less effect upon the mind than those which we receive through the eye. St. Gregory the Great calls pictures the books of the unlearned. In the Middle Ages, before there were any printed books, pictures were widely disseminated among the people. From those times we date the crib, the sepulchre, the stations of the cross, etc.
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