On the Miraculous Images. Chapter 1: Origin Of The Worship Of Relics And Images In The Christian Church
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Hero-worship is innate to human nature, and it is founded on some of our noblest feelings,—gratitude, love, and admiration.—but which, like all other feelings, when uncontrolled by principle and reason, may easily degenerate into the wildest exaggerations, and lead to most dangerous consequences. It was by such an exaggeration of these noble feelings that Paganism filled the Olympus with gods and demigods,—elevating to this rank men who have often deserved the gratitude of their fellow-creatures, by some signal services rendered to the community, or their admiration, by having performed some deeds which required a more than usual degree of mental and physical powers. The same cause obtained for the Christian martyrs the gratitude and admiration of their fellow-Christians, and finally converted them into a kind of demigods. This was more particularly the case when the church began to be corrupted by her compromise with Paganism, which having been baptized without being converted, rapidly introduced into the Christian church, not only many of its rites and ceremonies, but even its polytheism, with this difference, that the divinities of Greece and Rome were replaced by Christian saints, many of whom received the offices of their Pagan predecessors. The church in the beginning tolerated these abuses, as a temporary evil, but was afterwards unable to remove them; and they became so strong, particularly during the prevailing ignorance of the middle ages, that the church ended by legalising, through her decrees, that at which she did nothing but wink at first. I shall endeavour to give my readers a rapid sketch of the rise, progress, and final establishment of the Pagan practices which not only continue to prevail in the Western as well as in the Eastern church, but have been of late, notwithstanding the boasted progress of intellect in our days, manifested in as bold as successful a manner.
Nothing, indeed, can be more deserving of our admiration than the conduct of the Christian martyrs, who cheerfully submitted to an ignominious death, inflicted by the most atrocious torments, rather than deny their faith even by the mere performance of an apparently insignificant rite of Paganism. Their persecutors were often affected by seeing examples of an heroic fortitude, such as they admired in a Scævola or a Regulus, displayed not only by men, but by women, and even children, and became converted to a faith which could inspire its confessors with such a devotion to its tenets. It has been justly said that the blood of the martyrs was the glory and the seed of the church, because the constancy of her confessors has, perhaps, given her more converts than the eloquence and learning of her doctors. It was, therefore, very natural that the memory of those noble champions of Christianity should be held in great veneration by their brethren in the faith. The bodies of the martyrs, or their remnants, were always, whenever it was possible, purchased from their judges or executioners, and decently buried by the Christians. The day on which the martyr had suffered was generally marked in the registers of his church, in order to commemorate this glorious event on its anniversaries. These commemorations usually consisted in the eulogy of the martyr, delivered in an assembly of the church, for the edification of the faithful, the strengthening of the weak, and the stimulating of the lukewarm, by setting before them the noble example of the above-mentioned martyr. It was very natural that the objects of the commemoration received on such an occasion the greatest praises, not unfrequently expressed in the most exaggerated terms, but there was no question about invoking the aid or intercession of the confessors whose example was thus held out for the imitation of the church.
We know from the Acts that neither St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, nor St James, who was killed by Herod, were invoked in any manner by the apostolic church, because, had this been the case, the inspired writer of this first record of the ancient church would not have omitted such an important circumstance, having mentioned facts of much lesser consequence. Had such a practice been in conformity with the apostolic doctrine, it would have certainly been brought forward in the epistles of St Paul, or in those of other apostles. There is also sufficient evidence that the fathers of the primitive church knew nothing of the invocation, or any other kind of worship rendered to departed saints. The limits of this essay allow me not to adduce evidences of this fact, which may be abundantly drawn from the writings of those fathers, and I shall content myself with the following few but conclusive instances of this kind.
St Clement, bishop of Rome, who is supposed to have been instituted by St Paul, and to be the same of whom he speaks in his Epistle to the Philippians (4:3), addressed a letter to the Corinthians on account of certain dissensions by which their church was disturbed. He recommends to them, with great praises, the Epistles of St Paul, who had suffered martyrdom under Nero, but he does not say a word about invoking the aid or intercession of the martyr, who was the founder of their church, and which would have been most suitable on that occasion, if such a practice had already been admitted by the Christians of his time. On the contrary, he prays God for them, because it is He who gives to the soul that invokes Him, faith, grace, peace, patience, and wisdom. St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who lived in the second century, addressed a letter to the Philippians, but he says nothing in it to recommend the invocation of St Paul, who was the founder of their church, and as such would have been considered as its patron saint, had the worship of the saints been at that time already introduced amongst the Christians. The most important and positive proof that the primitive Christians, not only did not pay any adoration to the martyrs, but decidedly rejected it, is the epistle which was issued by the church of Smyrna after the martyrdom of its bishop, whom I have just mentioned. It states that the Pagans had, at the instigation of the Jews, closely watched the Christians, imagining that they would endeavour to carry away the ashes of Polycarp in order to worship him after his death, because these idolaters knew not that the Christians cannot abandon Jesus Christ, or worship any one else. We worship, says the same document, Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God; but with regard to the martyrs, the disciples of Christ and imitators of his virtues, we love them, as they deserve it, on account of the unconquerable love which they had for their Master and King; and would to God that we should become their disciples and partakers of their zeal.
I could multiply proofs of this kind without end, but I shall only observe, that even in the fourth century the orthodox Christians considered the worship of every created being as idolatry, because the opponents of the Arians, who considered Jesus Christ as created and not co-essential with God the Father, employed the following argument to combat this dogma:—If you consider Jesus Christ a created being, you commit idolatry by worshipping him.
Admiration is, however, akin to adoration, and it was no wonder that those whose memory was constantly praised, and frequently in the most exaggerated terms, gradually began to be considered as something more than simple mortals, and treated accordingly. It was also very natural that various objects which had belonged to the martyrs were carefully preserved as interesting mementoes, since it is continually done with persons who have acquired some kind of celebrity, and that this should be the case with their bodies, which have often been embalmed. It is, however, impossible, as Calvin has justly observed, to preserve such objects without honouring them in a certain manner, and this must soon degenerate into adoration. This was the origin of the worship of relics, which went on increasing in the same ratio as the purity of Christian doctrines was giving way to the superstitions of Paganism.
The worship of images is intimately connected with that of the saints. They were rejected by the primitive Christians; but St Irenæus, who lived in the second century, relates that there was a sect of heretics, the Carpocratians, who worshipped, in the manner of Pagans, different images representing Jesus Christ, St Paul, and others. The Gnostics had also images; but the church rejected their use in a positive manner, and a Christian writer of the third century, Minutius Felix, says that the Pagans reproached the Christians for having neither temples nor simulachres; and I could quote many other evidences that the primitive Christians entertained a great horror against every kind of images, considering them as the work of demons.
It appears, however, that the use of pictures was creeping into the church already in the third century, because the council of Elvira in Spain, held in 305, especially forbids to have any picture in the Christian churches. These pictures were generally representations of some events, either of the New or of the Old Testament, and their object was to instruct the common and illiterate people in sacred history, whilst others were emblems, representing some ideas connected with the doctrines of Christianity. It was certainly a powerful means of producing an impression upon the senses and the imagination of the vulgar, who believe without reasoning, and admit without reflection; it was also the most easy way of converting rude and ignorant nations, because, looking constantly on the representations of some fact, people usually end by believing it. This iconographic teaching was, therefore, recommended by the rulers of the church, as being useful to the ignorant, who had only the understanding of eyes, and could not read writings. Such a practice was, however, fraught with the greatest danger, as experience has but too much proved. It was replacing intellect by sight. Instead of elevating man towards God, it was bringing down the Deity to the level of his finite intellect, and it could not but powerfully contribute to the rapid spread of a pagan anthropomorphism in the church.
There was also another cause which seems to have greatly contributed to the propagation of the abovementioned anthropomorphism amongst the Christians, namely, the contemplative life of the hermits, particularly of those who inhabited the burning deserts of Egypt. It has been observed of these monks, by Zimmerman, in his celebrated work on Solitude, that men of extraordinary characters, and actuated by strange and uncommon passions, have shrunk from the pleasures of the world into joyless gloom and desolation. In savage and dreary deserts they have lived a solitary and destitute life, subjecting themselves to voluntary self-denials and mortifications almost incredible; sometimes exposed in nakedness to the chilling blasts of the winter cold, or the scorching breath of summer’s heat, till their brains, distempered by the joint operation of tortured senses and overstrained imagination, swarmed with the wildest and most frantic visions. The same writer relates, on the authority of Sulpicius Severus, that an individual had been roving about Mount Sinai nearly during fifty years, entirely naked, and avoiding all intercourse with men. Once, however, being inquired about the motives of his strange conduct, he answered, that, enjoying as he did the society of seraphim and cherubim, he felt aversion to intercourse with men.
Many of these enthusiasts imagined, in their hallucinations, they had a direct intercourse with God himself, who, as well as the subordinate spirits, appeared to them in a human shape. The monks of Egypt were, indeed, the most zealous defenders of the corporeality of God. They violently hated Origines for his maintaining that He was spiritual. Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, opposed this error; but the monks assembled in great force, with the intention of murdering him; and he escaped this danger by addressing them in the words which Jacob used to Esau, I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God.—(Genesis 33 .) This compliment, which could be interpreted as an acknowledgment of a corporeal God, appeased the wrath of the monks, but they compelled Theophilus to anathematise the writings of Origines.
The following anecdote is characteristic of the strong tendency of human nature towards anthropomorphism. An old monk, called Serapion, having been convinced by the arguments of a friend that it was an error to believe God corporeal, exclaimed, weeping, Alas, my God was taken from me, and I do not know whom I am now worshipping! I shall have, in the course of this essay, opportunities to show that the monks have always been the most zealous and efficient promoters of image-worship.
The following rapid sketch of the introduction of image-worship into the Christian church, and of its consequences, has been drawn by a French living writer, whose religious views I do not share, but whose profound erudition, fairness, and sincerity, are deserving of the greatest praise:—
The aversion of the first Christians to the images, inspired by the Pagan simulachres, made room, during the centuries which followed the period of the persecutions, to a feeling of an entirely different kind, and the images gradually gained their favour. Reappearing at the end of the fourth and during the course of the fifth centuries, simply as emblems, they soon became images, in the true acceptation of this word; and the respect which was entertained by the Christians for the persons and ideas represented by those images, was afterwards converted into a real worship. Representations of the sufferings which the Christians had endured for the sake of their religion, were at first exhibited to the people in order to stimulate by such a sight the faith of the masses, always lukewarm and indifferent. With regard to the images of divine persons of entirely immaterial beings, it must be remarked, that they did not originate from the most spiritualised and pure doctrines of the Christian society, but were rejected by the severe orthodoxy of the primitive church. These simulachres appear to have been spread at first by the Gnostics,—i.e., by those Christian sects which adopted the most of the beliefs of Persia and India. Thus it was a Christianity which was not purified by its contact with the school of Plato,—a Christianity which entirely rejected the Mosaic tradition, in order to attach itself to the most strange and attractive myths of Persia and India,—that gave birth to the images. And it was a return to the spiritualism of the first ages, and a revival of the spirit of aversion to what has a tendency of lowering Divinity to the narrow proportions of a human creature, that produced war against those images. But the manners and the beliefs had been changed. Whole nations had received Christianity, when it was already escorted by that idolatrous train of carved and painted images. Only those populations amongst whom the ancient traditions were preserved could favour this reaction. The clergy were, moreover, interested in maintaining one of their most powerful means of teaching. The long and persevering efforts of the Iconoclasts proved therefore ineffective; and the Waldenses were not more fortunate. Wickliffe, the Hussites, and Carlostad, attacked the images; but it was reserved only to the Calvinists to establish in some parts of Europe the triumph of the ideas of the Iconoclasts. The shock was terrible. The Religionists frequently committed acts of a fanatical and senseless vandalism; and art had many losses to deplore. But the idolatrous tendency was struck at its very root; and Catholicism itself found, after the struggle, more purity and idealism in its own worship. The Reformed perceived afterwards the exaggeration of their principles; and though they continued to defend the entrance of their temples to the simulachres, condemned by God on Mount Sinai, they spared those which had been bequeathed by the less severe and more material faith of their fathers.
The principal cause of the corruption of the Christian church, by the introduction of the Pagan ideas and practices alluded to above, was, however, chiefly the lamentable policy of compromise with Paganism which that church adopted soon after her sudden triumph by the conversion of Constantine. The object of this policy was to lead into her pale the Pagans as rapidly as possible; and, therefore, instead of making them enter by the strait gate, she widened it in such a manner, that the rush of Paganism had almost driven Christianity out of her pale. The example of the emperors, who, professing Christianity, were, or considered themselves to be, obliged, by the necessities of their position, to act on some occasions as Pagans, may have been not without influence on the church. I shall endeavour to develop this important subject in the following chapters; and, in order to remove every suspicion of partiality, I shall do it almost entirely on the authority of an eminent Roman Catholic writer of our day.