By Henning Laugerud, Bergen
First published: Amundsen, Arne Bugge & Laugerud, Henning (eds): Categories
of Sacredness in Europe, 1500-1800. Conference at the Norwegian Institute
in Rome 2001, Universitetet i Oslo 2003, ISBN 82-92298-03-7.
Web version: 01.03.04
The subject of this article is the sacredness or sanctity of Images. This does of course call for a definition of how I understand the term “sacred” or ”sacredness”. Sacredness (from lat. sacer) means holiness or something holy, what is the essence of religion in opposition to what is not sacred or holy, that is profane. This has been a key concept in religious studies since Nathan Söderblom and Rudolf Otto.  We find it for instance in The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade, as the key methodological concept for defining what the study of religion is about. But how is one then to define the sacred – sacredness or holiness? Alan Watts says something important about the difficulties to define it properly in his book from 1954: Myth and Ritual in Christianity, namely: ”[…] it is rather the feeling of awe, of strangeness, of the ”creeps” which come over us in the presence of supernatural events and visitations”.  Holiness expresses itself in some kind of mental (or psychological) response by those being confronted with it. In this way it is a response to some kind of sensory experience.
St. Thomas Aquinas defines it as something like this: ”Sometimes holy (or sanctified) is the same as ”pure”, as in: ”You are washed; you are sanctified.” (i.e. ”you are made holy”). Then again, at times holy is said of a thing consecrated to the worship of God, as for instance, a place, a season, vestments, and the holy vessels.”  The last paragraph is of particular interest in this context, since it directly refers to the same kind of objects which are the objects of the studies in our project.
The Saint also discusses holiness or sacredness when treating the nature of the Sacraments in his Summa Theologica, where Sacraments are defined as signs of the holy thing or what is holy. In this St. Thomas is referring to St. Augustin who defines it this way: ”Sacramentum, id est sacrum signum”.  The sacrament is a sign through which divine grace is conferred. Out of this we can establish a definition of sacredness or holiness as something material and/or a visual manifestation of God. This is a definition that also can be taken as a point of departure for my definition of sacredness or holiness. That is: how God or holy beings are believed to express themselves to humans in this world. This is of course not a definition that exhausts the meaning of the word, neither historically nor actual, but it is, for my purpose, useful.
The Decrees of the Council of Trent
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, religious art in Catholic countries started to emphasize those very subjects that upheld the disputed dogmas (disputed by the protestants in the North, that is), and new ones were invented for the same purpose. Thus we find the Virgin glorified, especially as the Immaculate Conception; the honouring of modern saints such as Carlo Borromeo and others; and themes such as the Last Communion of a saint or the Triumph of the Eucharist, which proclaimed the doctrine of transubstantiation. But not only did the church use pictures for the purpose, it also strengthened and upheld its teachings on sacred art itself. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the basic doctrine and laid down broad guidelines for sacred art.
I am here taking as my point of departure the decree: “On the invocation, veneration, and relics of saints, and on sacred images.” (“De invocatione, veneratione et reliquiis Sanctorum et sacris imaginibus”), from the twenty-fifth session held in December 1563. Here the Church clarifies and confirms its traditional teaching on sacred images. First of all the Council states that:
[…] in accordance with the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from primitive times of the Christian religion, and with the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers and the decrees of sacred councils they above all instruct the faithful diligently in matters relating to intercession and invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the legitimate use of images, […] 
The reference here is first of all to the Council of Nicaea in 787. After some definitions and statements of the purpose and nature of the veneration of saints, and condemning those who maintain a different view on this, the decree returns to the purpose, nature and veneration of pictures:
Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and that due honour and veneration is to be given them, not, however, that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them by reason of which they are to be venerated, or that something is to be asked of them, or that trust is to be placed in images, […], but because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear. That is what was defined by the decrees of the councils, especially of the Second Council of Nicaea, against the opponents of images.
The function of the reference to Nicaea II, is also to show and to underline the fact that the protestant teachings are old heresies, already condemned and done with by the old ecumenical councils. Furthermore, the decree is also repeating the earlier views of St. Gregory the Great that images and paintings in churches are a means of instruction for the simple, and pious reminders of former works of salvation:
[…] let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be borne in mind and constantly reflected upon; also that great profit is derived from all holy images, […] because through the saints the miracles of God and salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful, so that they may give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety.
St. Gregory writes the following in a letter to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles, a letter where he rebukes him for having destroyed pictures and statues in some Churches: “For pictorial representation is made use of in churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.” And he continues: “[…] to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have the wherewithal to gather knowledge of the history, […]”.  The pictures should also call back to memory what had once happened. St. Gregory is elaborating this view in a more “famous” letter to Serenus some time later:
[…] For to adore a picture is one thing, but to learn through the story of a picture what is to be adored is another. For what writing presents to readers, this, a picture, presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read. […] And then, with regard to the pictorial representations which had been made for the edification of an unlearned people in order that […] they might by turning their eyes to the story itself learn what had been done, […] And if any one should wish to make images, by no means prohibit him, but by all means forbid the adoration of images. But let thy Fraternity carefully admonish them that from the sight of the event portrayed they should catch the ardour of compunction, and bow themselves down in adoration of the One Almighty Holy Trinity.
I am referring to St. Gregory, first of all because he is an important reference and authority for the participants of the Council of Trent; Secondly because of the history of his formulation of what was to become one of the central legitimizers of images in the Church, namely the didactic and mnemonic function. But I do think that St. Gregory’s attitude and thinking about pictures was more complex than we can read out of these two letters and have to be seen in a much wider context. After all his treatment of the matter in the letters to Bishop Serenus is not a systematical approach, it is more an ad hoc response to some immediate matters of Church discipline. 
We can also find similar views to St. Gregory’s expressed in the Libri Carolini. Here the Theologians of Charlemagne state that pictures have a twofold use, namely as instruction for the illiterate and reminders of things that have happened, and for the embellishment of the walls: “For we do not reject anything in pictures but the adoration of them, since we allow pictures of the Saints in the basilicas, not for adoration, but for the commemoration of events and for the beauty of the walls [my emphasis].”  It is also interesting to note that even the Libri Carolini uses the formulation “sacred images” – “sanctorum imagines”. Though it is often regarded as having a slight iconoclastic leaning, the Libri Carolini is in reality defending the use of images in the churches and placing a great importance in them. It is against the veneration of images, an opinion that was based on a misunderstanding, or mistranslation into Latin, of the original Greek text of the Nicea II.
St. Thomas Aquinas
The teachings of the Council of Trent is a very clear reference and confirmation of the Church’s traditions and earlier teachings, based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, which was a general attitude at the Council of Trent as a whole. There was a general acceptance of the theology of St. Thomas as basic teachings of the Church during the 15th and 16th centuries. This was explicitly acknowledged during the Council of Trent. This culminated, so to speak, in 1567 when Pope Pius V declared the saint as Doctor of the Church. Pius V did also instigate the publishing of a new edition of St. Thomas’ writings in 1570. In its decrees the Council is in many ways paraphrasing St. Thomas, and it is therefore interesting to see what he writes on this subject.
The most important source for this is his Summa Theologica, written between 1266-1273, his main theological and philosophical treatise. Here he writes:
The worship of religion is paid to images, not as considered in themselves, nor as things, but as images leading us to God incarnate [my emphasis]. Now, movement to an image as image does not stop at the image, but goes on to the thing it represents [my emphasis]. Hence neither latria nor the virtue of religion is differentiated by the fact that religious worship is paid to the images of Christ. 
In the second article to question 94 in part II-II St. Thomas states that: “[…] in the Church there are images set up that the worship of latria may be paid to them, but for the purpose of signification, in order that belief in the excellence of angels and saints may be impressed and confirmed in the mind of man.”  And he continues in greater detail with this in the third part of the Summa Theologica in the question dealing with the adoration of Christ. In the third article here he refers to St. John of Damascus:
Damascene quotes Basil as saying: The honour given to an image reaches to the prototype i.e. the exemplar. But the exemplar itself – namely Christ – is to be adored with the adoration of latria; therefore also His image. […] Thus therefore we must say that no reverence is shown to Christ’s image, as a thing, – for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to rational creature. It follows therefore that reverence should be shown to it, in so far only as it is an image. Consequently the same reverence should be shown to the Christ’s image as to Christ himself. […]
Likewise Christ’s Cross is to be worshiped with the adoration of latria. It is to be venerated:
[…] in one way in so far as it represents to us the figure of Christ extended thereon; in the other way, from its contact with the limbs of Christ, and from being saturated with His blood. Wherefore in each way it is worshiped with the same adoration as Christ, viz. the adoration of latria. And for this reason also we speak to the cross and pray to it, as to the Crucified Himself. But if we speak of the effigy of Christ’s cross in any other material whatever – for instance, in stone or wood, silver or gold – thus we venerate the cross merely as Christ’s image, which we worship with the adoration of latria [my emphasis], as stated above.
It is also of interest to note here that St. Thomas invests the Cross itself with Divine power: “[…] but if we consider its effect, which is our salvation, it will appear as endowed with Divine power, by which it triumphed over the enemy, […]”. The cross is an instrument of salvation. And he continues: ”Although Christ’s cross was not united to the Word of God in Person, yet it was united to Him in some other way, viz. by representation and contact.”  And these modes of reasoning continue in the following two articles which deals with the adoration of the Mother of God and relics of saints.
St. Thomas is also discussing the aspects of what the image is in part I, question 93. Here he expresses the opinion of the image as a repraesentatio speciei, a re-presentation of the person or thing represented. This is why it shall be adored with latria, because the worship is not directed towards the image and the representation, but towards what is represented i.e. the One True God. St. Thomas clearly points out that the images themselves are not sacred or holy, but that the image status as signa, as a sign pointing towards God, is the reason for them to be venerated. This is similar to the opinion of the Second Council of Nicaea and St. John of Damascus that the image was referring to the divine prototype: “For the honour that which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject presented” 
This is an opinion, or a view, which has some interesting similarities, but not identical, with the imago-concept of Greek theology. We can also see this in the explicit and implicit references in the writings of St. Thomas to St. Basil of Caesarea (c. 330-379) and St. John of Damascus (c. 657-c. 749), particularly Damascenes On the Divine Images, and the decrees from the Second Council of Nicea in 787. Both the Eastern Church and the Western Church drew upon some of the same sources for their theology of sacred images, but they did also differ in many ways. For instance the sacred images in the Eastern Church had a different liturgical function from what sacred images had in the Western Church.
The theology of St. Thomas it is not a question of an unreflected acceptance of older authorities. His theology and thinking on this subject is closely related to his Theology of Creation, and other central aspects of his thinking. I shall not touch upon this here, but it is important to have in mind that this is an integrated part of the whole, which is the theological-philosophical system of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Norm and praxis, some remarks on peoples’ attitudes towards pictures
This, rather subtle distinction perhaps of St. Thomas – and the other theologians of the Church – was probably hard to grasp for “common people” or the laity or even for the clerics and the theologians themselves, when they were acting out their faith. But on the other hand it might just be us, on the other side of history, who have problems with these concepts and this way of thinking. Let us therefore take a brief look at the praxis side of people’s attitudes towards pictures in the 13th and 14th centuries, and first of all that which connects visions and images, the two modes of seeing the Divine. Let us then turn to a visual re-presentation of the mystical experience or vision.
In a tract written for French nuns around 1300, the three stages to a mystical way of vision are represented within an elaborate Gothic framework.
In the first scene the Dominican nun, who is the silent addressee and witness in all these scenes, is told by her confessor to seek forgiveness for her sins.
The second scene shows her kneeling before an actual image – an altar sculpture representing the Coronation of the Virgin. This moment of corporeal vision, occurs in the only scene in which language does not appear in the form of an inscribed scroll. The sun and the moon held in the arches above signal that this is happening in time, whereas the following higher modes of vision take place outside time. Note also the angel who appears above her head holding a candle and illuminating her in her prayer.
In the third scene, below, the same nun prostrates herself before a vision in which Christ appears before her as the Man of Sorrows, dripping His blood directly into a chalice on the altar while saying: “Behold what I took on myself to save the people.” Here she is not looking directly at Christ, since this scene represents the intermediate stage of contemplation.
In the final scene she looks up to see God in a vision of the Trinity in a configuration known as the “Throne of Mercy”, in which the crucified Christ is held by God the Father and the Holy Ghost flies between them (the dove). The nun’s hands are raised in a gesture of wonder, but what signals the higher mode of vision is the cloudburst around the Trinity.
What is remarkable about these visions, from the sculpted image of the Coronation of the Virgin, through the contemplation of the Man of Sorrows to the mystical vision of the Trinity, is that all three are standard image-types in current art or painting. Most mystics of the Middle Ages saw visions in what we can call conventional picture terms. Any image could become the focus for mystical experience.
Another example I could mention is St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380). Her visions were obviously influenced by images she had seen in churches. As a matter of fact she openly stated this, in explaining her visions. In one of the earliest biographies, or vitae, of her life, the I miracoli della Beata Caterina, she tells us that she has seen Christ, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John: “[…] in quella forma che veduto lavea dipinto nella chiesa (in the way she had seen them depicted in the Church)”. On another occasion where she has a vision of St. Dominic she sees him: “[…] secondo che vedute gli avea per le chiese dipinti (in the same way as she had seen him painted in the Church).” An interesting feature about all this is that it seems like this “ekphrasian” reference gives credibility to the visions. In this way, by referring to these more or less standard image-types, the vision also seems more convincing; or rather they become true. This does of course not imply that the visions were ”made up” or some kind of secondary psychological response. This concerns the ”matter” or the accidental part of the vision, not the substance, to use a Thomistic concepts.
I think this tells us something about the common effects of, and the status of, images of the time. Let us take another example.
This series is about the desire of a good and pious woman to possess a picture of the Virgin and Child. In the first scene she, who is living in the city of Sardonay (probably today’s Sidonaiia) near Damascus, asks a monk on his way to Jerusalem to bring back a painting of the Virgin for her. After visiting the Holy Sepulchre, in the second scene, he purchases an ymage de Nostre Dame. In the manuscript it is described as an ycoyne, from a shop or workshop. That is the third scene. But he discovers that the picture can protect him from wild animals and robbers, so he decides to keep it for himself and his own order. This is the fourth scene, where we can see Christ Himself appear in the sky to save the monk. He travels home by sea to avoid Damascus, but a storm forces him to turn back. He then understands that the Virgin herself is insisting that he carry her picture to its rightful owner, which he does in the final scene. We can note that this picture is coming from the Holy Land itself, it is an icon, and that the image of the Virgin is not depicted as coming to life and moving out of its frame. It is powerful enough just as a picture. And with so many miraculous images, the panel is finally placed on an altar and eventually becomes a focus for veneration. This is an attitude or a concept of the Image as more than a representation, but where something of the sacred also has been transferred to the thing itself.
Sacred images and sacred signs, images as revelation of the sacred
According to theologians, like St. Thomas, the sacred image is to be venerated with the highest form of veneration, latria, because one is not venerating the material thing in itself, but what the image is pointing at. In my opinion this implies that the image is a sacred sign, pointing towards the Holy, the Divine or God – and in this respect it is an object through which God, or the Divine is revealing Himself or Itself. The importance of images in the life of the believers can be illustrated with some examples: St. Francis was converted while contemplating a crucifix in San Damiano, and St. Catherine of Sienna had her own stigmata modelled upon the standard image-type of St. Francis’ stigmata and not on the accounts in the written vitae of his life. St. Thomas had his mystical vision of Christ while contemplating a crucifix, just like the French nun. We could extend this list without problems. This tells us something about the power of images as William Durandus (c. 1220-1296) puts it: “For the painting seems to move the mind more powerfully than writing. It sets events before the eyes, while writing recalls them to the memory, as it were, through the hearing, which moves the mind less. This is why in churches, we do not accord so much veneration to books as to pictures and paintings.”
An interesting aspect of this is the image’s significance as memoria – as a reminder. The image, both the portrait and the narrative image, and perhaps particularly the portrait – for instance of Christ or of Saints – was both a symbol of presence and held claim to historicity, based on the existence of a historical person. And the veneration of the image was then also a ritual memory exercise. Often, access to an image was permitted only when there was an official occasion to honour it – the above mentioned examples to some extent also illustrate this point. The image could not be contemplated at will but was acclaimed only in an act of solidarity with the community according to a prescribed program on an appointed day, for instance. And this practice we would define as cult. The memory an image evoked referred both to its own history – both its histories as a sacred object and what was depicted – and that of its place. This memory was both retrospective and prospective, and was closely connected to the Church – both as an institution and as a concrete actual Church – that dispensed grace and privileges visibly embodied in its relics and images. The image was pointing to God’s presence and activity here and now and God’s presence and acts in the past. But, it should also point towards God’s presence and acting in the future, that is the Salvation. Again it is the image as a sign, pointing towards God and Salvation, that defines its status.
Another aspect of the veneration and/or contemplation of sacred images was the aspect of imitatio – or imitation. This pictorial representation was a twofold movement; it was both an imitation of a depicted person or event etc. , as well as a model for the believer. The believer should in some way be like what was pictured, the image was a model for imitation. To illustrate this point we can have a look at a painting by Hans Memling from 1480.
This picture is a detail of a larger painting depicting seven scenes from the life and suffering of Christ. One of these is the Nativity scene. But what we can see here, in addition to this, are two people – the donor and his son – kneeling in adoration outside the stable. They are not contemporary with the historical event that is taking place, of course, but with the painter. These two people are both participants and onlookers to the event, like us. They participate in the historical event by the act of believing and acting as believers. They are themselves imitating and are themselves being presented as objects for imitation.
These two people are not participating directly at the Birth of Christ, like the Holy Mother of Christ or St. Joseph, they are outside and cut off from the event by a wall, but they watch it through a window in the wall. Their perspective is the same as the onlooker of the picture. They see, and by doing so they participate in this miraculous event, but they are cut of from a direct contact with the Divine, just as we as spectators of the image are. This is a sign within a sign. A continuous chain of signs pointing towards the Divine.
And here I think we are close to a conclusion, at least for the time being. The image is an expression of the sacred, or sacredness, both as the theologians define it and also as the “common people” perceive it – which also includes the theologians themselves. To put it in another way; the sacred, or the holy, expresses itself through images in an unending chain – or perhaps we should say a process of signs. This is a kind of continuous process where there is a movement both towards the thing and in the thing itself.
The communication, with the sacred, the Divine, is in a way a flow of signs – flowing back and forth through the Image. The Image opens up as a channel for dialog, or rather perhaps, as a window to the Eternal. And here we end up with our definition of sacredness or the holy as a sign, a sacred sign in the infinite meaningful semiotic universe of the awe-ful believer.
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