WHY ARE IMAGES USED IN CATHOLIC CULTURE?
The worship of an image or object, ascribing to it supernatural qualities and powers, would be idolatry, since one would be giving to an object the honour that should be paid only to the true God. Thus it would be idolatry to worship the sun as a god or the moon as a goddess. The worship of the golden calf by the Israelites (Exodus 32) was idolatry. So was the worship of the Canaanite Baal-gods to whom there is repeated reference in the Old Testament. Of images of such false gods the psalmist said: "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but they cannot speak; they have eyes but they cannot see" (Ps 115:4-5).
It was idolatry such as this that was prohibited by God's commandment: ”You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:24-5; Deut. 5:28-9). Surrounded as they were by idolatrous peoples, the Iews had to be specially protected from lapsing into idolatry themselves. Hence the need to emphatically prohibit the use of images. '
This is how we have to understand God's commandment in the context in which it was given. It would be incorrect to conclude that by this commandment God prohibits the use of images altogether. The use of an image as a representation of the true God, of Iesus Christ or the saints does not come under this prohibition, since there is no idolatry in it. Do we not keep photographs of loved ones who are absent or deceased ? A pictorial or sculptured image is a visible representation of one we do not see but revere or love. Pictorial representation is natural to man and has been used from the days when men lived in caves.
In the history of the Church there has however been a time (8-9 centuries) when, in some sections of the Eastern Church, images were denounced and destroyed (iconoclasm). This was largely due to the false concept, with reference to Christ, that a visual representation divided his humanity from his divinity. The Second Council of Nicaea (787) defined that images are worthy of veneration.
Vatican II reaffirms it. "The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be firmly maintained” (Constitution 0n the Sacred Liturgy, 125).
Images have also a didactic value. In the Middle Ages, before printing was invented, it was by means of sculptures and stained-glass windows in churches and cathedrals that the people, especially the illiterate, were given some instruction in the faith. As Emile Male has observed, "To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know -the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts - all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch” (The Gothic Image, Collins-Fontana, 1961, p.vii). Modern education attaches great importance to audiovisual media in instruction.
As a visual representation of Christ, the Blessed Virgin or a saint, the image pictorially brings before our minds one we cannot see. Its purpose is twofold. First, didactic. That is, it tells us about the person represented. Secondly, it receives vicariously the honour we wish to pay to the person. The reverence paid to the image is not meant for it but for the person it represents.
Although some puritanic Christian sects eschew the use of images, this is a practice very much in vogue in such religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, just as it is in Catholicism.