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Daniele da Volterra, “Moses on Mount Sinai” PD-US

Are there approximately 3,000 idols in the average American home?

Using the most extreme definition of the term, that could well be the case. Strict interpretation of Christian, Jewish and even Islamic scriptures, seem to place some, if not many, limitations on visual representations. But do they in reality?

Fortunately in the West, we’ve vastly limited our list of potential items we feel inclined to worship; but the issue of graphically representing animals, humans and particularly spiritual concepts, still rises up to haunt artists.

This of course doesn’t apply to non-believers, who don’t revere God in any way and feel no desire to either please or truthfully represent Him. So all the nasty and adolescent treatments of crucifixes and Madonnas are not really a serious issue for the church.

But the faithful Jewish or Christian artist still has to deal with the Second Commandment, which has the potential of greatly affecting those whose lives are lived by the creation of images:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.” – Exodus 20:4-6

At first glance this seems a wee bit extreme, apparently banning all “carved images” or pictures. Some religious leaders have stood on that, perhaps just to stay on God’s good side.

Turn off the TV and throw out those calendars and rubber duckies!

Further examination of the context, grammar and the Bible itself, however, proves this interpretation to be very misleading.

The first clause of this Commandment deals with making of images, the second prohibits worshipping said images or idols. There is a reason they are written as a unit. I think the English translators of the King James Bible rightly understood to use a colon here; two entire clauses but with one continuous thought, therefore joined together.

Also the Hebrew term for “graven image” is one word, which implies an idol. There is separate term for engraving, as was done to the stone tablets themselves.


William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” courtesy British Museum

The prohibition is actually on worshipping images and sculpture, not on creating them, as is made evident throughout the rest of the Bible. God himself orders the Tabernacle and subsequent Temple to be lavishly decorated with specific colors, materials, cast brass oxen and towering gold-covered angels. Much art in the Temple was “engraved,” the action some think is specifically forbidden. Engraving is to cut into a surface, such as stone or metal. We use engraved metal plates to print dollar bills, from biblically it may refer to several types of sculpting techniques.

Paradoxically, God seems to simultaneously ban “sacred pillars, carved images and molded gods.” This can only happen if the prohibitions refer to worshipping artworks, not the manufacture or viewing of them, which is made clear in scripture.

So much for God as the big Iconoclast in the sky, but surely He has been misrepresented in so many ways before.

Ancient Jews lived with their pagan neighbors just as we do now, simultaneously repulsed or tempted to yield to their ways. It was quite trendy then to worship a statue, but I have yet to see museum patrons falling on their faces in awe and reverence before artworks. Today we have our own idols, more abstract and personal.

There is a story of the famous Rabbi Gamliel using a pagan bath house under the shadow of a large statue of Aphrodite. When his followers questioned if that constituted idolatry, he flatly denied it as the statue was not even remotely connected to any religious service, which is absolutely necessary for an idol. Gamliel pointed out that no man who seriously imputed any power to the statue would be lolling around in the nude, cursing, drinking and urinating before this great “goddess.” Therefore she was nothing to be bothered with.


Earliest depiction of Trinity – Vatican Museum

The controversy over images isn’t entirely over though, as artists still grapple with how, or if, to depict sacred themes or God himself. Not only is the theology quite fuzzy, but it’s just technically difficult to represent something as transcendent and mystical as the Holy Spirit or doctrine of Transubstantiation.

Jesus is another matter. Coming in the flesh as a man, he is much easier to understand and relate to. Without much fear of misrepresentation, images of Jesus have been painted, carved, sketched, filmed and probably made into holograms, clothing and key rings by now. Since no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like, this frees artists to interpret him as they are led.


“Christ” by William Blake –National Gallery of Art

Some theologians have faulted this freedom by complaining that presenting any image of Jesus, or especially His Father, limits the possible range of attributes, power or sheer omnipotence of His being. Other reformers such as Karlstadt, charged art with being too physical and sensory, calling for a “true and pure” form of worship not encumbered with physical things.

Think this out to its conclusion, though. Art and images originate from the mind of any artist, presumably believers in the case of the church. They put great effort, time, thought and probably prayer into their works. Why are the concepts and thoughts of this artist any less pure or true than the mental images of other worshippers? And they are all certain to create mental, even visual images, as that is how the human mind works.

While it is true that a mere man can’t possibly make a true likeness of God, that isn’t the point or purpose of religious art. Art was and is used in the Church as a means of worship, to reenact and illustrate scripture, to create a sense of awe, beauty or love for God. An aesthetically pleasing space, light filtering through glass, images, music and all the arts may help to create an atmosphere suggestive of unearthly loveliness, peace and paradise.

After all, God is the “father of lights” who dwells in devouring fire and unapproachable light in “the beauty of holiness.” We can’t even imagine what those things are, but artists, musicians and writers will still keep trying, as there is not a more fascinating subject in existence.

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