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Jeni Ibe wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • Why do we Catholics have lots of images of Jesus when it has been written in the
    Ten Commandments that we shouldn't bow to other gods before the Father?
  • I know that Jesus and God are one, but why do we have to pray and kneel in front of images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary as well?
  { Why do we pray and kneel in front of images when the Ten Commandments say we should not? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Jen —

Actually the Ten Commandments do not mention the Father, they simply say "God". Moreover, the word for God here, "Elohim", is plural, which is suggestive of the Trinity, so I wouldn't restrict it to the Father.

Catholicism upheld the use of images in worship in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. An error arose, influenced by Islam, known as Iconoclasm (breaking of images). Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the subject:

2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787 A.D.) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons — of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.
By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new "economy" of images.

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

(St. Thomas Aquinas)

The point about the incarnation introducing a "new economy of images" is important.

  • Why did God forbid the user of images in the Old Testament?

Because God could not be represented by an image. He was invisible and formless yet when he became man, in Jesus Christ, the man Jesus became the "image" (1 Corinthians 11:7, Colossians 1:15) and "exact representation" (Hebrews 1:3) of the Father. We now have an image of God, and the reason for proscribing images no longer applies. In fact, one could say that Jesus fulfilled the first commandment, that the first commandment, as it were, cleared the brush away and prepared the way for the image of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ.

St. John Damascene (676-749 A.D.) says:

But besides this who can make an imitation of the invisible, incorporeal,  uncircumscribed, formless God? Therefore to give form to the Deity is the height of folly and impiety. And hence it is that in the Old Testament the use of images was not common. But after God in His bowels of pity became in truth man for our salvation, not as He was seen by Abraham in the semblance of man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after He lived upon earth and dwelt among men, worked miracles, suffered... since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of us who were not alive at that time in order that though we saw not, we may still obtain the blessing of the Lord. But seeing that not everyone has a knowledge of letters nor time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images... When we see the image of Christ's crucifixion... we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged; just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, but what this typifies.

(The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith)

The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council decreed:

We define that the holy images, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exposed in the holy churches of God... Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototypes [those they represent]. We define also that they should be kissed and they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynesis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him who is the Subject of our faith... The honor rendered to the image is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the image, venerates in it the reality for which it stands..."

Bowing is not inherently a form of worship; it's just a form of respect. Japanese bow to each other as a form of greeting. The same was true among the Hebrews. I'm sure you'll quote the first commandment, but the exact same Hebrew phraseology used in first commandment in Exodus is used by righteous Isaac in speaking to Jacob in Genesis 27:29:

"May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you."

Even the prophet Nathan, surely a righteous man, bowed before the king. So they told the king, saying:

“Here is Nathan the prophet.” And when he came in before the king, he bowed down before the king with his face to the ground. — 1 Kings 1:23

David did too:

"Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, 'My Lord and king!' When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground."

1 Samuel 24:8

and in David's song of praise to the Lord he says:

"You made my adversaries bow at my feet."

2 Samuel 22:40 and Psalm 18:39

So bowing was commonly done between human beings. It is not, therefore, against God's law to bow down before images, as long as it is done merely to honor, and not to worship.

So, too, when we kneel before a statue, we don't worship it, and when we pray, we don't pray to the statue. It's like a reminder of that particular person and an act of veneration towards them.

Also, clearly God did not forbid all images, so it's not an absolute prohibition. In fact he commanded some of them, such as:

  • the bronze serpents
  • the propitiatory on the ark, and
  • the adornments for the temple
    (Cf. Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15; Exodus 25:18-22; 1 Kings 6:23-28; 7:23-26)

The point is whether you worship them or not, and we do not worship our images.

They are reminders of those we love, and we bow to them as one might kiss a picture of your family.


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