DPPL 238: The Council of Nicea Addressed Sacred Images

STA altar at night smallNicea Council II addressed iconoclasm, the movement against images of Jesus and the saints. In the late eighth century, it was a crisis. Islam, of course, rejected all images of sacred persons from the previous century onward. Christians dealt with the crisis in present-day Turkey under the patronage of the Byzantine Empress.

238. The Second Council of Nicea, “following the divinely inspired teaching of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church”, vigorously defended the veneration of the images of the Saints: “we order with ever rigor and exactitude that, similar to the depictions of the precious and vivifying Cross of our redemption, the sacred images to be used for veneration, are to be depicted in mosaic or any other suitable material, and exposed in the holy churches of God, on their furnishings, vestments, on their walls, as well as in the homes of the faithful and in the streets, be they images of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, or of Our Immaculate Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the Angels, the Saints and the just” (Second Council Of Nicea, Definitio de sacris imaginibus (23 October 787), in DS 600).

Why are images accepted? Is it more than just people longing for images of those they love and regard? The Church has a theological justification, that the Second Person came to Earth.

The Fathers of Nicea see the basis for the use of sacred images in the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1, 15): “the Incarnation of the Son of God initiated a new ‘economy’ of images”(Catechism 1161).

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy is online at the Vatican site.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to DPPL 238: The Council of Nicea Addressed Sacred Images

  1. Liam says:

    Most Catholics don’t grasp the Eastern tradition of icons. They are not like the statuary and paintings of the Western tradition. One way to distinguish the traditions is that, in the Eastern tradition, icons are in a sense windows into metaphysical Reality: when one reverently beholds the icon, one is reverently beholding the ultimate Reality it depicts. (So, when you behold an icon of the Nativity, you are beholding the reality of the Nativity itself, not just the icon.) Because icons are windows into supernatural Reality, they are not naturalistic in style. Hence all that gold in the background. Btw, artists of the First Millennium knew how to depict things naturally and in perspective (albeit not the kind of perspective of Quattrocento Italian artists): the choice to avoid naturalism was theologically driven, not for lack of skill.

    • Todd says:

      Quite right. When I teach the section on Church and Prayer for “Catholicism 101” at the parish, we spend a bit of time at our icon of the Blessed Mother. People unaccustomed to iconography find the proportions of the “child Jesus” jarring because they are expecting a posed Mother and Son as a Nativity scene. In another icon of the raising of Lazarus, many events are taking place in the depiction: the pleas of both sisters, their brother emerging from the tomb, and even a bystander with his cloak over his nose. I suggested it was a sort-of theological cubism: presenting multiple aspects of faith and inviting reflection on any.

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