Quotes About Religious Icons

Quotes about religious icons from throughout Christian History.

This page is to address the "veneration" of icons practiced by Eastern Orthodox Churches. I am still learning about the modern Eastern Orthodox Churches, but I do know already that they claim that the "veneration" of icons is at least very ancient and perhaps apostolic.

I found these quotes by doing searches in the early Christian writings for "images" and "paintings." If there are any early, positive references to icons, I did not find them even though I searched all the second century Christian writings for those terms. I did not pick and choose these quotes, and I left out many quotes that referenced Roman idol worship.

The quotes that follow, even when their target is pagan idolatry, have relevance to the religious icons of the Orthodox and the statues of the Roman Catholics. The Orthodox Church claims that their two-dimensional icons are not "images" like the Catholic statues, but Tertullian—whose testimony, I believe, carries some weight with Orthodox believers— disagrees:

it makes no difference whether a molder cast, a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol; … since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape. (On Idolatry 3)

Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150

We have strayed from the Immortal's ways
And worship with a dull and senseless mind
Idols, the workmanship of our own hands,
And images and figures of dead men. (Hortatory Address to the Greeks 16, citing the Sybil, a collection of Greek prophecies)

Melito of Sardis, c. A.D. 170

In this next quote, those who make religious icons could argue that they do not make statues of the invisible God, but the visible one; God come in the flesh: Jesus. I point out merely that all the quotes one finds about images in the pre-Nicene era are all like the following one, strongly against images. We find no pre-Nicene Christian arguing that it is okay for Christians to make and bow down to statues and religious icons because God became a man in Jesus. And of course, the issue is that Christians do not just bow down to images of Jesus, but to images of Mary and other mortals that they call saints (thus stealing a title given in Scripture to all followers of Jesus and applying it to just a few). Obviously, we will never find a passage in the pre-Nicene Christian writings defending bowing down to a statue or image of a man because we would never find early Christians defending bowing down to a man. How much less his image? If Peter himself forbad bowing down to him (Acts 10:25-26), then how much more would he forbid bowing down to a statue or image of himself?

There are, however, persons who say, "It is for the honor of God that we make the image." In order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every place, and is never absent, and that there is not anything done without him knowing it. Yet you--despicable man!--within whom he is, and outside whom he is, and above whom he is, have nevertheless gone and bought yourself wood from the carpenter's, and it is carved and made into an image insulting to God. To this you offer sacrifice, and you do not know that the all-seeing eye sees you, that the Word of Truth reproves you, and say to you, "How can the unseen God be sculptured?" Nay, it is the likeness of yourself that you make and worship. Just because the wood has been sculptured, do you not have the insight to perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone? (A Discourse Which Was in the Presence of Antoninus Caesar)

Irenaeus, A.D. 183 - 186

Others of them employ outward marks … They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted and others formed from different kinds of material. They maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world, such as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images just like the Gentiles. (Against Heresies I:25:6)

Clement of Alexandria, c. A.D. 190

For, in truth, an image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsmanís hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone: God, who alone is truly God. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4)

But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you … it leads you to pay religious honor and worship to images and pictures. (Exhortation to the Heathen 5)

And let our seals be either a dove, a fish, a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a shipís anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device. Then, if someone is fishing, he will remember the apostle and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, since we follow peace; nor drinking cups, being temperate [meaning avoiding drunkenness, not drinking, as Clement recommends wine for those older than youth]. (The Instructor III:11)

The law itself exhibits justice and teaches wisdom by abstinence from sensible images and by calling out to the Maker and Father of the universe. (Miscellanies II:18)

And again, "Donít wear a ring, nor engrave on it the images of the gods," enjoins Pythagoras. This is as Moses ages before enacted expressly, that neither a graven, molten, molded, nor painted likeness should be made, so that we may not cleave to tangible things, but instead move on to intellectual objects. For familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine. And to worship that which is not material with matter is to dishonor it by sensation. Therefore the wisest of the Egyptian priests decided that the temple of Athene should be hypaethral [open air, roofless], just as the Hebrews constructed the temple without an image. (Miscellanies V:6)

He who prohibited the making of a graven image would never himself have made an image in the likeness of holy things [i.e., by creating an image of them here on earth]. Nor is there at all any composite thing or creature endowed with sensation [made by God here on earth] like those in heaven. But the face is a symbol of the rational soul, the wings are the lofty ministers and energies of powers right and left, and the voice is delightful glory in endless contemplation. (Miscellanies V:6)

Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter, so that they too are inert, material, and profane. Even if you perfect the art, it partakes of mechanical coarseness. Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (Miscellanies VII:5)

Tertullian, c. A.D. 200

If we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, with which hawks, and mice, and  spiders are so well acquainted, does it not merit praise instead of penalty [Christians were punished for not worshiping Roman gods] that we have rejected what we have come to see is error? We cannot surely be made out to injure those whom we are certain are nonentities. What does not exist is in its nonexistence secure from suffering. (Apology 12)

Even at this day [idolatry] can be practised outside a temple and without an idol.†But when the devil introduced into the world craftsmen of statues, of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development. From then on every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry. For it makes no difference whether a molder cast, a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol; … since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape; lest any should think that only that  which is consecrated in human shape should be called an idol. (On Idolatry 3)

Enoch predicted that "the demons and the spirits of the angelic apostates would turn into idolatry all the elements, all the adornment of the universe, and all things contained in the heaven, the sea, and the earth, that they might be consecrated as God in opposition to God." All things, therefore, does human error worship, except the Founder of all himself.† The images of those things are idols; the consecration of the images is idolatry. (On Idolatry 3)

So we would now make a remark about the arts of the theater … We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images; but we know well enough, too, who, when images are set up, none other than spirits accursed, than devils, under these names carry on their wicked work, exult in the homage rendered to them, and pretend to be divine. We see, therefore, that the arts also are consecrated to the service of the beings who dwell in the names of their founders and that things cannot be held free from the taint of idolatry whose inventors have got a place among the gods for their discoveries. (The Shows 10)

Offerings to propitiate the dead then were regarded as belonging to the class of funeral sacrifices, and these are idolatry. Idolatry, in fact, is a sort of homage to the departed, the one as well as the other is a service to dead men. Moreover, demons dwell in the images of the dead. … this sort of exhibition has passed from honors of the dead to honors of the living; I mean, to quaestorships [financial overseers]and magistractes, to priestly offices of different kinds. Yet, since idolatry still cleaves to the dignityís name, whatever is done in its name partakes of its impurity. (The Shows 12)

[Hermogenes] despises God's law in his painting, maintains repeated marriages [almost certainly a reference to remarrying after divorce or perhaps even widowhood, which Tertullian, who became a Montanist, opposed], alleges the law of God in defense of lust [likely same reference], and yet despises it in respect of his art. (Against Hermogenes 1)

Origen, c. A.D. 225

If the Persians cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow that because we cannot bear them any more than they that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs. … The Scythians, the Nomadic Libyans, the godless Seres, and the Persians agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles.† For none of these former abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God and reducing it to the worship of material things made by the hands of men. Nor do they object to them from a belief that the demons choose certain forms and places … where they may pursue their criminal pleasures, in partaking of the smoke of sacrificial victims.† But Christians and Jews have regard to this command, "You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him alone." And this other, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make any graven image for yourself, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them." And again, "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve." It is in consideration of these and many other such commands that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God. (Against Celsus VII:64)

A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D., 1885

TERTULLIAN'S teaching agrees with that of Clement of Alexandria and with all the Primitive Fathers. But compare the Trent Catechism, (chapter ii., quest. 17.)—"Nor let any one suppose that this commandment prohibits the arts of painting, modelling or sculpture, for, in the Scriptures we are informed that God himself commanded images of cherubim, and also of the brazen serpent, to be made, etc." …  that Catechism, with what verity need not be argued, affirms, also, that this doctrine "derives confirmation from the monuments of the Apostolic age, the general Councils of the Church, and the writings of so many most holy and learned Fathers, who are of one accord upon the subject." Doubtless they are "of one accord," but all the other way. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, "On Idolatry" Elucidations 1, italics and caps in original)


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