You are here

Holy Images

1932 to 1934
University of Edinburgh

Holy Images, subtitled, An Inquiry into Idolatry and Image-worship in Ancient Paganism and in Christianity, covers four lectures dealing with image-worship that Bevan omitted from his volume of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1933 on Symbolism and Belief. In the first lecture, Bevan surveys aniconic fetishism and a cult of leonic objects from Paleolithic times. He argues that the worship of unwrought stones may have led in many cases to the worship of graven images. The higher religions such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism have repudiated idolatry, for they claim that the object bears no real resemblance to the divinity portrayed rather than from any refusal to associate the divine with the material. Therefore, the prophetic movement in Israel condemned the attempts to make a similitude of God.

In the second lecture, the two grounds on which idolatry was denounced in the Old Testament are examined. The Second Commandment is not clear whether it is the making or the worshipping of images that is forbidden. The Jews applied the prohibition of the Law to images of all living creatures, but the rabbinic tradition allowed an image to be made of any living creatures, except a human being. In the Talmud, the distinction was made between a picture in the flat and a picture in the round. The Jewish protest condemned not only the offering of homage to images but also the very making of images or pictures of certain things. The archeological evidence from Dura supports that, at the beginning of the Christian era, Jews were not averse to depicting figures of men and animals if they were not the objects of worship.

The third lecture discusses the two ways the Christian attack on pagan idolatry differs from that of the Jews. The Alexandrine Fathers, including Clement, Origen and Tertullian, argue that the representation of objects in art is something unworthy because it is not true. On the other hand, other Christians took much more seriously the pagan claim that there are spirits/devils in idols. The identification of pagan gods with devils influenced the adoption of image-worship in the Christian Church, where the practice of image-worship was general in the eighth century. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have accepted the practice on archeological evidence, while the Protestant Church has rejected it on the words of early Christian writers and assemblies.

In the last lecture, early Christian regulations promulgated by assemblies are examined. The Canon from Elvira in the fourth century forbids particular representations in churches only. There are three views in regard to the use of pictures. First, the view of Jews and Muslims is that all making of pictures and images are wrong. Second, pictures and images of sacred persons are permissible in order to instruct simple minds in the sacred story, but it is wrong to offer any forms of homage to pictures or images. Third, there is the view that it is right not only to make pictures and images, but to address towards them signs of religious reverence. Bevan claims that the Christian Church moved from the second and first positions to the third. Augustine and Paulinus condemn the image-worship, which the Protestants reject as idolatry. As St John of Damascus defends the image-worship, so the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church accept the image-worship. The author analyzes the historical development of the debates between iconoclasm and image-worship with fairness and accuracy.

  • Shin Ahn, University of Edinburgh