Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Christian Art and the Graven Images Commandment

Canterbury Cathedral, scenes from the Poor Man's Bible Window, circa 13th century, public domain

Every once in awhile I forget that they're out there: those Christians who think that artwork -- especially religious artwork -- is offensive to God because of a commandment in the Sinai covenant given to Israel through Moses. I recently met someone of this view for the first time in a long time. She was earnest, she was sincere, she was passionate, and she thought I was at least leading people astray that I'm supportive of Christian artwork. For the sake of Christ and of fellowship, I didn't want to just dismiss the question, even if it did seem outlandish.

Is Christian artwork permissible in light of the commandments? Does the Sinai covenant apply to Gentiles? And does the Sinai covenant forbid artwork in the first place?

The Question
The Ten Commandments contains a command forbidding images. Why does Christian tradition contain such a long history of images? Are we showing contempt for the commands of God, or ignorance of the commands of God, by having images?

In Answer
Let's start with Exodus and review what it says about images. The translation used here is NIV which is readable but not always the most accurate; if questions of exact wording arise we may want to dig deeper.

Against Images
1) Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (etc.).

There's a prohibition against images; the context is idol-worship. At this point the question is still open whether that prohibition is absolute or whether it was specific to idol-worship.

For Images
2) Exodus 25:18-20: "And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover."


3) Exodus 25:33-34: "Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almost flowers with buds and blossoms."


4) Exodus 26:31: "Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman."

There is a command to make images of things in heaven (cherubim) and earth (almond flowers with buds and blossoms) in context of making a beautiful and holy worship of the true God.

Based on these we can see that the prohibition against "images" (all artwork depicting living things) is not absolute even within the Sinai covenant. That still leaves plenty of questions open but it does put Christian religious artwork on a solid basis: it puts the history of religious art within the framework of the Sinai covenant, not outside of it.

For artwork, Exodus allows that there is both a right and wrong use of religious images. It places the right use of religious images squarely within the realm of using our God-given creativity to return glory to the Creator and to build a vision of paradise on earth.


Janet said...

A further example of the distinction between idol and image can be found in the example of the brazen serpent that Moses was commanded to make and which is a type of Christ. Gideon later destroyed it because it had become an object of idol worship. When it was a God-mandated image, it was alright. Once it became an idol, it was not.

codepoke said...

What a relief! I had decided some time ago that images could not be bad, but had failed to think my conclusion through. Your argument is succinct and accurate. Thank you!

(And great example, Janet.)

Dave said...

Don't forget a large segment of Christianity was dominated in practice by Islam which forbids images. It was the Western Bishops that argued for the use of images (icons) in the church against the iconclast in the East.

The reformed led by Calvin misunderstood the place of images and that is why you get rather dull (by the standard of senses) environments in say Orthodox Presbyterian parishes. I am have always been puzzled why there seems to be little resistance to venerate the Colors of the United States and the Christian Flag but the veneration of the images of our fellow churchmen and Lord cause people to go wacky. Really who worships the flag when they sing the Star Spangled Banner? Who Worships the Grandmother of Jesus when they sing a hymn to St. Anna?

It is sad that so much of Christianity has lost touch with the faith of the men we use as authorities on what is and isn't the canon of scripture.

A Simple Sinner said...

Remember also that this was covered at the Second Council of Nicea...


I have noted without little irony that Christians who are of the opinion no images should be present, still are generally accepting of crosses, picture Bibles for Children (or coloring Bible images!) and often Nativity sets.