Signs and Symbols

Do Christians use statues or other similar imagery in worship?

Christian communities evidence a wide range of attitudes toward the use of visual imagery in the context of religious ritual or personal devotion. Some avoid it altogether, preferring all-white church decor and clear glass windows. At the other end of the spectrum are churches decorated with everything from stained glass to veritable galleries of statuary. Still others ornament their ritual spaces heavily, but use only two-dimensional images and no sculpture.

Some of the earliest evidence comes from the second- and third-century catacombs in which worshippers sought refuge from their Roman persecutors. Early Christians at first seemed to limit their sacred imagery, using human figures for sacred personages other than Christ. Perhaps they felt Christ was too sacred to depict directly or that representation violated the Jewish prohibition against graven images. In any case, they often used symbols such as the fish, or loaves of bread, or an empty cross.

By the Middle Ages Christians had developed extensive iconographic repertoires with which to depict an enormous array of holy personages. Elaborate programs in sculpture and stained glass depicted biblical figures, from patriarchs to kings to prophets, and saints, in addition to Jesus and Mary. Many sacred personages became associated with specific symbols as their identifying marks, such as St. Clement’s anchor (he was martyred by drowning tied to one), the crutch of the ascetic hermit Anthony, and St. Ambrose’s beehive (for his words were sweeter than honey). Some Protestant reformers vigorously opposed the use of images because of abuses associated with them (especially miracle-mongering), and as a result this imagery is generally less common in Protestant churches today.


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