Why does Catholicism use a lot of icons and imagery?

Originally, the Roman Catholic Church used artistic imagery (statues, paintings, stained glass, frescoes, etc.) to assist in teaching the illiterate and conveying the Gospels in an attractive form. Although debatable even in the Catholic Church as to whether or not it could be construed as forms of graven imagery, the commission of the arts prevailed and helped to promote important periods in artistic development, such as the Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque (although some may argue that the development of Byzantine art belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church). Although God forbids the creation of images of idolatry (Exodus 20:4-5), he does sanction religious iconography, such as in Exodus 25:17-22 (the cherubim atop the atonement cover of the ark), Exodus 25:31-36 (the lampstand of gold in the likeness of a blossoming tree), 2 Chronicles 3:7 and Ezekiel 41:17-20 (carved cherubim on the Temple walls), 2 Chronicles 3:10-13 (the sculptured cherubim in the Most Holy Place of the Temple), 2 Chronicles 4:1-5 (the bulls that supported the Sea and which were depicted on it), and Numbers 21:9-8 (Moses' bronze snake, which was eventually destroyed because people came to worship it, as recorded in 2 Kings 18:4). Still, observers may question the veneration of statues and icons (Greek eikon, likeness or image), such as kneeling before a statue of Mary or kissing a crucifix, despite the warning of Deuteronomy 5:8-9 not to bow down to idols in the form of anything in heaven or on earth. Catholics may counter-argue with the modern use of early Christian images such as a dove, fish, Jesus as a man or depicted as the Good Shepherd, or the chi rho monogram -- images used as far back as the first century in the Christian catacombs (underground burial chambers). The point, however, is the focus of these images when used in conjunction with prayer or worship. Although the Catholic Church condemns idolatry of such images, the fact remains that Roman Catholics around the world bow down to these images, many of whom undertake superstitious rituals of adoration. This is not surprising, considering that not only shrines and altars, but whole churches have been built specifically for the veneration of various artistic images of saints (such as the Weeping Madonna of the Church of Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime in Syracuse, Sicily).

        "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; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..." (Exodus 20:4-5, Deuteronomy 5:8-9)
        "To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it." (Isaiah 40:18-19)
        "Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 26:1)

Historically, the use of religious imagery in the Catholic Church was one deterrent to Jewish and Islamic converts, as well as a form of superstition to many of its own members. In the eighth and ninth centuries, during the first and second Iconclastic periods, much of Europe under the rule of Emperor Leo III and his successors was opposed to religious imagery, particularly in the Catholic Church, to which the Church defended its use. Christian art, relics, and even architecture was destroyed and those who defended the images were persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and put to death (particularly monks). At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, the Roman Catholic Church reiterated its support for the use of icons and imagery, while specifying the veneration of such imagery and not the adoration of it. From this council came the Kontakion: "O Mother of God, the indescribable Word of God became describable through you in the Incarnation, for through the divine goodness the Word spoken from eternity became an Image: may we who believe in salvation both in word and deed clothe ourselves in the same Image." According to the Church, it is necessary to depict in exterior signs -- such as the sacraments, spoken words, sign of the cross, and artistic imagery -- the invisible things of the spiritual realm. Christ is the image of the invisible God (John 12:45, 14:9, Colossians 1:15). Since Christ became human, the image of his human nature could be represented graphically, particularly since God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27), and because believers are conformed to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29). Unlike the false gods of the pagans, which were nothing more than carved and decorated wooden idols (Jeremiah 10:1-16), the images of Catholicism represent the true and living God. Thus, what these allegorical Christian images represent are not reliant on the images themselves for their existence, so they are not as necessary for the faith of the believer as they are in aiding and directing the focus of the believer to the spiritual entity that it represents and, more importantly, its affiliation with the sacraments of the Church.

According to Cardinal Joseph Ratztinger, one of the foremost contemporary officials on Catholic doctrine, "the point of the images is not to tell a story about something in the past, but to incorporate the events of history into the sacrament... We are taken into the events. The events themselves transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst through the sacramental action of the Church... The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits comprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father... Only when we have understood this interior orientation of the icon can we rightly understand why the Second Council of Nicaea and all the following councils concerned with icons regard it as a confession of faith in the Incarnation and iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation, as the summation of all heresies. The Incarnation means, in the first place, that the invisible God enters into the visible world, so that we, who are bound to matter, can know Him. In this sense, the way to the Incarnation was already being prepared in all that God said and did in history for man's salvation. But this descent of God is intended to draw us into a movement of ascent. The Incarnation is aimed at man's transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection. God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may get beyond ourselves. That is why to reduce the visible appearance of Christ to a "historical Jesus", belonging to the past, misses the point of His visible appearance, misses the point of the Incarnation. The senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity. We see Christ rightly only when we say with Thomas: "My Lord and my God!" ...Iconoclasm rests ultimately on a one-sided apophatic theology, which recognizes only the Wholly Other-ness of the God beyond all images and words, a theology that in the final analysis regards revelation as the inadequate human reflection of what is eternally imperceptible. But if this is the case, faith collapses. Our current form of sensibility, which can no longer apprehend the transparency of the spirit in the senses, almost inevitably brings with it a flight into a purely "negative" (apophatic) theology. God is beyond all thought, and therefore all propositions about Him and every kind of image of God are in equal proportions valid and invalid. What seems like the highest humility toward God turns into pride, allowing God no word and permitting him no real entry into history. On the one hand, matter is absolutized and thought of as completely impervious to God, as mere matter, and thus deprived of its dignity."*

        "The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, 'Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.' From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, 'Save me; you are my god.' They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, 'Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?' He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?' " (Isaiah 44:13-20)

Relics fall under the category of icons and imagery and date as far back as the veneration of the remains of the body of St. Polycarp in A.D. 156. They are items once belonging to the saints (clothes, personal possessions, hair, bones, ashes, etc.), items which have come into contact with a saint, or even the preserved bodies of the saints themselves, which are believed to still hold the spiritual powers to whom they belonged. Scriptural support for this belief comes from the accounts of people who were healed from touching Jesus' cloak (Matthew 9:20-22, 14:35-36, Mark 5:27-28, 6:56, Luke 8:44), along with Acts 5:12-16, "The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people... As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by..." and Acts 19:11-12, "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them." In the Old Testament, a man was brought back to life by touching the bones of the deceased body of Elisha (2 Kings 13:20-21). This is by no act of magic, but by grace and the power of God working through matter. As Jerome, a biblical scholar in the fourth century, put it, "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are" (Ad Riparium, Letter to Riparius, i, P.L., XXII, 907). The Council of Trent in 1563 declared, "The sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of the other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and which are destined to be raised and glorified by Him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God." Abuses of relics, such as nefarious means of their removal from tombs and the sale of spurious relics for profit, was one of the ongoing acts that drove Martin Luther to actively protest the Catholic Church. As with icons and images, relics are potentially an object of adoration and worship, not just veneration, of which shrines, altars, and reliquaries (boxes, lockets, and glass cases) have been built and churches have been consecrated. Again, as with images and icons, the Catholic Church condemns the worship of relics.

        "O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.' Then you will defile your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, 'Away with you!' " (Isaiah 30:19-22)

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Reference sources: *Adoremus Bulletin - Art and Liturgy - The Question of Images, vol VII, no. 10, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Copyright © 2001 Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy(http://www.adoremus.org/0202artliturgy.html); Byzantines.net - Icons in the Byzantine Catholic Church (http://www.byzantines.net/moreinfo/iconsInTheBCC.htm); Catholic Answers (http://www.catholic.com); Eternal World Television Network - Why do we venerate relics? by Father William Saunders (http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/RELICS.HTM); A Guide to Byzantine Icons on the Internet (http://www.iconsexplained.com); New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/); The Reliquary - Relics in Modern Times (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/9587/relics.html); Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/).