Images of Christ and of the saints, that is, representations of their story by means of paintings and the like in churches and elsewhere, have, as Gregory says, been the books of the illiterate, that is, they explain the story like a written book. In itself this is a matter of indifference concerning which Christians should not quarrel.

Since, then, such representation provides for the illiterate the advantage of seeing and learning the stories as if from books, we do not reject pictures in themselves, nor do we abolish them; we do, however, reprove their misuse.

For we teach that images are not to be worshipped; nor is it to be thought that they have power; nor should people think that setting up images of God or of the saints is serving God, or that God is more gracious or does more than otherwise if He is invoked before such an image.

For God wants men to grasp Him only in faith through His Word and His sacraments; therefore it is a godless error to bind God to certain images without God’s Word. It is also a wicked error to think that a deed performed in front of such an image pleases God more than if done elsewhere; for we should believe that God in all places hears those who earnestly call upon Him. Hence Isaiah [66:1] reproves those who do not believe that God everywhere hears those who call upon Him in true spiritual worship, for he says that, even though the heaven is the Lord’s throne, yet God dwells “in him that is poor and of a contrite spirit”. Christ says [John 4:21, 23]: “Ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father…but…in spirit and in truth,” and Paul says [1 Tim. 2:8]: “I will that men pray everywhere”.

-Philip Melanchthon, Wittenberg Articles: Article XVII. Images

Some Fundamental Assumptions

In this post I shall be assuming most of the claims which can be found in the quote above from Melanchthon except that I will be introducing some terminological distinctions to clarify my argument. I shall distinguish between symbols and images/representations, and arguing that Christian art is acceptable as symbols in contrast to images/representations.

Thus apart from this change in terminology, if one replaces Melanchthon’s terms of “images/representations” with “symbols”, I think that his argument would be more or less sound.

On the Proper Distinction between “Images/Representation” and “Symbols”

Based on the structure of Melanchthon’s arguments, we can distinguish several ways religious art works.

There is the idea of religious works of art as special locations of God’s presence, places where God, or his divine power, is particularly present such that one can reverence the art work itself or receive special blessings if one prays or performs whatever religious rites before it. Let’s call this the “representation” understanding of religious art because it literally “makes present” the presence of God.

Then there is the idea of religious art as essentially images whereby the work of art somehow bears a resemblance, visually at least, to the original thing. Thus something is an image of something else only if the image bears a visual likeness or resemblance or similarity to the actual thing. Let’s call this understanding of religious art the “image” understanding because it about how religious art resembles or images the original thing.

Finally there is the idea of religious art as about communicating or calling to mind certain ideas, the art simply refers to or “points” to the thing in question but it itself does not necessary bear any resemblance to the thing in question or bears its presence. While according to this conception religious art can, in a way, bring God’s presence to mind by calling him to mind via certain visual cues, the presence is not in the religious art itself but in the mind which is so reminded of God.

For the purpose of this discussion I would identify religious art as representation when it seeks to, somehow, “make present” the object depicted, in itself. For religious art which claims to bear a resemblance or similarity to the object referred to, I shall call images. Finally for objects merely referred to by the visual cues used but does not claim to either resemble or make present the object, I shall simply call symbols.

The main thesis of this post would be that religious art as symbols are acceptable while religious art as images or representations are not. To motivate this discussion I would need argue that not all pictures are necessarily images or representations.

Words Versus Pictures?

Now even the most iconoclastic of Protestants agree that it is all right to symbolise or refer to God with the three English letters of G-O-D. In Chinese we would symbolise or refer to God with 神. Thus there is nothing wrong with using visual cues to symbolise or refer to God.

The issue becomes interesting however when we come to cultures where words are pictorial, e.g. Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters which do look like pictures. Are we therefore to forbid all printing of the Bible passages in their language simply because they look like pictures? To say this veers dangerously towards the Islamic view of the necessity of a “pure language” (Arabic) to convey Muslim truth and no other language is fit or adequate to that purpose.

Egyptian Hieroglyphic Alphabet

Chinese Characters, Chinese symbols

In effect therefore, there is no real distinction between the written script and pictures. Granted that most written script nowadays bears very little resemblance to the original object, however, it still doesn’t change the fact that the written script is a certain visual art form, even a sort of symbol. If there is nothing wrong with using certain visual symbolism, such as the written script, to refer to God, why is it wrong to use much more elaborate religious art to symbolise God or his deeds and works?

The Proper Use of Religious Art

As long as the caveats are clearly understood, that the religious art do not in any way resemble the original object in question, nor are they meant to in anyway “make present” God in some special way, then I do not see the harm in it and in fact might be very acceptable.

A friend of mine very helpfully suggested the analogy of the coat of arms or emblems to illustrate my conception of religious art. Consider for example the coat of arms of the University of Hong Kong:

University of Hong Kong - Wikipedia

The dragon clearly symbolises the Chinese people, but nobody in their right minds will think that the dragon in anyway visually resembles the Chinese. In the same way does the lions represent the English but there is no visual resemblance between one biological species to a group of another biological species.

Likewise religious art of God, his works, and his saints, could function in the same way, they are merely symbols and in no way claim to make God specially present or to visually resemble divinity or his divine acts. They are merely meant to call to our mind certain divine works or truths and only in our minds as we grasp those truth in faith is God made present to us. Otherwise the symbol is just a referring device which does not possess any intrinsic sacred properties or whatever.

As Protestants therefore we censure, not the existence of religious art, but its misuse.

Conclusion: A Theological Note about Religious Sculptures

Personally, I have a particular preference for baroque statues, the grey and white kind with full natural features and yet pupil less eyes. The statues should appear realistic and natural, to retain the sense that grace restores nature, not overwhelms it. Yet the pupil less eyes denotes their exalted state whereby they dwell in the immediate presence of the divine light, and in so doing, their eyes have been completely burned out by the divine glory and have no need for visual intermediaries. Thus while they retain their distinct individuality in their natural bodily form, but if the eyes are the window to the soul, then the eyes should be utterly “impersonal”, their distinct individuality incinerated by the sight of the divine glory whereby God dwells in the immediacy of their souls, and thereby to look into their eyes is to see the transcendent God beyond all human and natural features.

Michelangelo, Moses – Smarthistory

The grey and white and colourless statues retain a sense of reverent apophatic austerity concerning the exalted state of the saints whereby we dare not paint them in too loud or crass colours but safely colour them white in the light of their dwelling in the Eternal Light.

One thought on “The Protestant Case for Religious Art; Symbols versus Representations”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *