Veneration of Images of the Saints
The veneration of images of the saints is as old as Christianity itself. In the Catacombs are found representations of Christ, the Mother of God with the divine Child and of biblical scenes from the Old and 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 just in churches but in 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 in the churches were whitewashed over, and any persons who persisted in venerating images were punished (this was called the iconoclastic movement). Similarly, in Ireland of the penal times; the people made and used crosses with narrow arms, these crosses could be hidden up a person’s sleeve and so escape detection by the persecuting English protestants. The veneration of images answers a need of our human nature; we respect the portraits of those whom we love or esteem and having something physical to remember them by helps us. Moreover, it is the will of God that man, who lost true happiness for the sake of material things, should regain it by material things. The Jews were strictly forbidden to make images or bow down to them because of their strong propensity towards idolatry (as we see when Moses went away for a few days and they made a brazen calf to worship), and the Son of God had not yet 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 read of a brazen serpent in the wilderness, whereupon the Israelites were commanded to look that they might be healed (Numb. xxi. 8).
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 have been painted by St. Luke.
2. The Madonna di San Sisto, painted by Rafael.
3. The miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, painted upon wood and dating from the 13th century in the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome.
The representations of the saints are easily recognised; they have a nimbus or halo around their head and are accompanied either by emblems of their office, of the special virtue that distinguished them, or by the instruments wherewith the suffered martyrdom. The four Evangelists are known by their symbols:
1. St. Matthew has an angel in human shape beside him, because his Gospel begins with the genealogy of Our Lord.
2. St. Mark has a lion, because he speaks in the opening chapter about a voice crying in the wilderness.
3. St. Luke is accompanied by an ox, because he begins his Gospel with Zacharias’ sacrifice.
4. St. John is accompanied by an eagle, because his Gospel begins with sublime and lofty truths expressed in an unmistakably distinctive manner (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…)
The three persons of the Blessed Trinity are represented under the form which they have assumed when appearing to men (God the Father as an elderly white haired man, God the Son as we know Him so well from the Gospels and The Holy Ghost as a dove). It is important to note that all delineations of the Godhead do no more than give an idea of certain aspects or certain attributes or actions of the Deity for the human mind to grasp. It is not within the power of man to make a satisfactory image of God.
Images of the saints are also useful as a means of avoiding distraction and achieving greater recollection in prayer and perhaps at times as a silent reminder of our duties and obligations. St. John Damascene says that the Holy Ghost 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. Hearts have often been softened and souls have often been touched and converted by the sight of an image of Our Lord’s suffering, or of our holy Mother or of a saint. A picture paints a thousand words; from before the era of printing comes the first crib (a live representation of the reality of Bethlehem by St. Francis of Assisi, the Stations of the Cross etc.)
Efficacious and oftentimes supernatural graces are obtained through venerating the images of the saints, for example miracles and 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 Theresa had a great veneration for that image and worked a robe for it with her own hands; embroidered with gold. Many miraculous images have been preserved from destruction in a miraculous manner; they have, for instance, been in a fire without being burned. Many signal cures have been wrought in a moment, in answer to prayers offered before miraculous images. It is not the image that effects the cure, but God. No one would say that the water at Lourdes works miracles; it is the power of God, through the outward sign of the water. Such miracles are permitted by God as an attestation to the truth of the Catholic Church and it would be a sin to deny the authenticity of a miracle which has been strictly investigated and found to be genuine.