On the Miraculous Images. Chapter 4: Infection Of The Christian Church By Pagan Ideas And Practices During The Fourth And Fifth Centuries
22 min read
22 min read
I have said that the council of Elvira, in Spain, held in 305, prohibited the use of images in the churches. Other canons of the same council show that even then Christians were but too prone to relapse into the practices and customs of Paganism; because they enact very severe ecclesiastical penances against those Christians who took part in the rites and festivals of the Pagan worship. If such enactments were required to maintain the purity of Christian doctrine, at a time when its converts, instead of expecting any worldly advantages, were often exposed to severe persecution, and consequently had no other motives for embracing it than a mere conviction of its truth, how much more was this purity endangered when conversion to Christianity led to the favour of the sovereign, and when the church, instead of severely repressing the idolatrous propensities of her children, endeavoured to facilitate as much as possible the entrance of the Pagans into her pale! Let me add, that the mixture of Christianity with Paganism in various public acts of the first Christian emperors, which I have described in the preceding chapter, could not but contribute to the general confusion of ideas amongst those Christians whom the church was continually receiving into her pale, with all their pagan notions. I have described, in the second chapter of this essay, the policy of compromise adopted by the church after the conversion of Constantine. I shall now describe the consequences of this policy, by giving a sketch of the Christian society which it produced, and which has been drawn, on the authority of ecclesiastical writers, by the same author whose description and defence of that policy I have given in the above-mentioned chapter.
Towards the beginning of the fifth century, the propagation of Christianity amongst the upper classes of Roman society met still with many obstacles; but the influential persons who had broken with the error, remained at least faithful to their new creed, and did not scandalise society by their apostasy. The senatorial families which had embraced Christianity gave, at Rome, the unfortunately too rare example of piety and of all the Christian virtues; the case was different with the converts belonging to the lower, and even the middle classes of Roman society. The corruption of manners had made rapid progress amongst them during the last fifty years of the fourth century; and things arrived at such a pass, that the choice of a religion was considered by the people as an act of the greatest indifference. The new religion was embraced from interest, from curiosity, or by fashion, and afterwards abandoned on the first occasion. It was, in fact, not indifference, because indifference induces people to remain in the religion in which they were born; it was a complete atheism, a revolting depravity, an openly-expressed contempt of all that is most sacred. How many times the church, which struggled, but in vain, against the progress of the evil, had occasion to lament the too easy recruits whom she was making amongst the inferior ranks of society! People disgracefully ignorant, without honour, without a shadow of piety, polluted by their presence the assemblies of the faithful. They are those whom the fathers of the church designated by the name of the mali Christiani—ficti Christiani, and against whom their eloquent voices were often resounding. The heretics, the promoters of troubles and seditions, always counted upon those men, who seemed to enter the church only in order to disturb her by their turbulent spirit, or who consented to remain in the true faith only on condition of introducing into the usages of Christian worship, a crowd of superstitions whose influence was felt but too long; whilst the slightest sign of Paganism was sufficient to call back to it those servants of all the parties.
It was then, unfortunately, a too common thing to see men who made a profession of passing, without any difficulty, from one religion to another, as many times as it was required by their interests. The principle of that inconceivable corruption in the bosom of a religion which was not yet completely developed, dated from a period anterior to that which we are describing. The councils and the emperors had struggled in vain against apostasy, which the multitude of heresies, and the vices of the times, had placed amongst legitimate actions.
Theodosius began in 381 to punish the apostates by depriving them of the right to make wills. In 383, he modified this law in respect to the apostate catechumens; but the general principle maintained all the apostates absque jure Romano. Valentinian II. followed the example of his colleague, and applied the before-mentioned dispositions to those Christians who became Jews or Manicheans. We know, from a law of 391, that the nobility was infected by the general spirit of the age, because Valentinian enacted, by this law, that those nobles who became apostates were to be degraded in such a manner that they should not count even in vulgi ignobilis parte. In 396, Arcadius deprived again of the right to make wills those Christians qui se idolorum superstitione impia maculaverint. The political authorities, therefore, cannot be accused of having remained indifferent to the progress of the evil. We must now show how little power the laws had in a time like that which we are describing.
One day, St Augustinus presented to the assembly of the Christians of Hippona, a man who was to become celebrated amongst renegades; born a Pagan, he embraced Christianity, but returned again to the idols, and exercised the lucrative profession of an astrologer; he now demanded to be readmitted into the church, that is to say, to change for the third time his religion. St Augustinus addressed, on that occasion, the above-mentioned assembly in the following manner:—
This former Christian, terrified by the power of God, is now repenting. In the days of his faithfulness, he was enticed by the enemy, and became an astrologer; seduced and deceived himself, he was seducing and deceiving others; he uttered many lies against God, who gave men the power to do good, and to do no evil; he said that it was not the will of men which made men adulterers, but Venus; that it was Mars who rendered people murderers; that justice was not inspired by God, but by Jupiter; and he added to it many other sacrileges. How much money he has swindled from self-styled Christians! How many people have purchased the lie from him! But now, if we are to believe him, he hates the error, he laments the loss of many souls; and feeling himself caught by the demon, he returns toward God full of repentance. Let us believe, brethren, that it is fear which produces this change. What shall we say? perhaps we must not rejoice so much at the conversion of this pagan astrologer, because once being converted, he may seek to obtain the clerical office; he is penitent, brethren, and asks only for mercy. I recommend him to your hearts, and to your eyes. Let your hearts love him, but let your eyes watch him. Mark him well; and wherever you shall meet him, show him to those of your brethren who are not present here. This will be an act of mercy, because we must fear that his seductive soul should change again, and recommence to do mischief. Watch him; know what he says, and where he goes, in order that your testimony may confirm us in the opinion that he is really converted. He was perishing, but now he is found again. He has brought with him the books which have burnt him, in order to throw them into the fire; he wishes to be refreshed by the flames which shall consume them. You must know, brethren, that he had knocked at the door of the church before Easter, but that the profession which he had followed, rendering him suspected of lies and fraud, he was kept back, but shortly afterwards received. We are afraid of leaving him exposed to new temptations. Pray to Christ for him. Socrates speaks of a sophist of Constantinople, called Ecebolus, who conformed with a marvellous facility to all the changes of fortune which Christianity was undergoing. During the reign of Constantine, he affected the greatest zeal for the new belief; but when Julian became emperor, he resumed his ancient devotion to the gods of Paganism. After the death of that monarch, he gave great publicity to his repentance, and prostrated himself before the churches, crying to the Christians, Tread me under your feet, as the salt which has lost its savour! Socrates adds:—Ecebolus remained what he has always been,—i.e., a fickle and inconstant man. St Augustinus could certainly say the same of his astrologer. Is it not surprising to find apostasy still prevalent at a time when no sensible man could believe in the restoration of the ancient worship? The appearance of Julian must have upset many a mind, shaken many a conscience, and given to the triumph of Christianity the character of a transitory event. But, at the end of the fourth century, it was impossible to abandon the church and return to the idols, except by a feeling which could not but excite profound pity. I therefore understand why St Augustinus had consented to plead with the Christians in favour of a wretch already charged with three apostasies: he wished, above all, to take from him the name of a Pagan, being convinced that whoever consented no longer to sacrifice to the false gods would finally belong to the true religion. A neophyte, restrained by the leaven of all the pagan passions, might remain more or less time on the threshold of the church, but sooner or later he was sure to cross it. The leaders of the church considered it always a favourable presumption when a citizen consented to call himself no longer a Pagan. This first victory appeared to them a sure presage of a true conversion; and they recommended to the Christians that they should not apply the dangerous epithet of Pagan to those of their brethren who had failed, but simply to call them sinners. They endeavoured, in short, to make them forget Paganism; and in order to attain this object, they even forbade to pronounce its name.
The ancient worship was not only obstructing the development of Christianity by covert and insidious attacks, but it was also vitiating the discipline of the church, because its sway upon the manners of the converts was something more like a real tyranny than the natural remnant of its former influence. It is, indeed, surprising with what facility it introduced into the sanctuary of the true God its superstitious spirit, its relaxed morals, and its love of disorder. How little the church was then,—i.e., seventy years after the conversion of Constantine,—resembling what she ought to have been, or what she became afterwards! St Jerome had intended, towards the end of his life, to write an ecclesiastical history; but it was in order to show that the church, under the Christian emperors, went on continually declining. Divitiis major, virtutibus minor (Greater in wealth, smaller in virtue), was the severe sentence which St Jerome must have pronounced with regret, but the justice of which is proved by all the historical documents of that period. This illustrious leader of Christianity, whose mind was more inclined to enthusiasm than dejection, frequently lost all energy, by reflecting on the deplorable condition of the church, declaring that he felt no longer any power to write. A sufficient number of historians have represented in vivid colours the excessive luxury of the bishops during that time, as well as the greediness, the ignorance, and the misconduct of the clergy; I shall therefore choose from this melancholy picture only those parts which refer to the history of Paganism.
All the arts of divination remained still in the highest favour amongst Christians, even when the grave men of the Pagan party had been, for a long time, showing for these practices of idolatry either a conventional respect or an open contempt. They swore by the false gods,—they observed the fifth day, dedicated to Jupiter,—and they took a part in the sacred games, feasts, and festivals of the Pagans. Christian ceremonies did not preserve almost any thing of their ancient majesty. It was not a rare occurrence to hear pagan hymns chanted at Christian solemnities, or to see Christians dancing before their churches, according to the custom of Paganism. There was no more decency observed in the interior of those churches: people went there to speak about business, or to amuse themselves; the noise was so great, and the bursts of laughter so loud, that it was impossible to hear the reading of the Scriptures; the congregation quarrelled, fought, and sometimes interfered with the officiating priest, pressing him to end, or compelling him to sing, according to their taste. St Augustinus was therefore warranted in calling this so powerful influence of the ancient worship a persecution of the demon, more covert and insidious than that which the primitive church had suffered.
All these scandalous facts are attested by the bishop of Hippona (St Augustinus) and by that of Milan (St Ambrose); it is therefore impossible to doubt their authenticity. It may, however, be said, that such a state of corruption was local, and peculiar to the churches of Africa and Milan; I must therefore produce new evidence, in order to show that the calamitous effect of the pagan manners was felt in all the provinces.
St Gaudentius, bishop of Brescia, a contemporary of St Augustinus, vigorously combated idolatry in his diocese; and the following is an extract from one of his sermons:—
You neophytes, who have been called to the feast of this salutary and mystical Easter, look how you preserve your souls from those aliments which have been defiled by the superstition of the Pagans. It is not enough for a true Christian to reject the poisoned food of the demons; he must also fly from all the abominations of the Pagans,—from all the frauds of the idolaters, as from venom ejected by the serpent of the devil. Idolatry is composed of poisonings, of enchantments, ligatures, presages, augurs, sorceries, as well as of all kinds of vain observances, and, moreover, of the festival called Parentales; by means of which idolatry is reanimating error; and indeed men, giving way to their gluttony, began to eat the viands which had been prepared for the dead; afterwards they were not afraid of celebrating in their honour sacrilegious sacrifices,—although it is difficult to believe that a duty towards their dead is discharged by those who, with a hand shaking from the effects of drunkenness, place tables on sepulchres, and say, with an unintelligible voice, The spirit is thirsty. I beseech you, take heed of these things, in case God should deliver to the flames of hell his contemners and enemies, who have refused to wear his yoke.
Who may wonder that such Christians allowed the pagan idols, temples, and altars to remain, and to be honoured on their estates, as is attested by the same bishop? St Augustinus, whom I am not tired of quoting, because no other doctor of that time expressed so vividly the true Christian ideas, lamented this monstrous worship, which was neither Paganism nor Christianity. Many a man, says he, who enters the church a Christian, leaves it a Pagan, However, far from despairing, he wrote to the virgin Felicia, I advise thee not to be affected too much by these offences; they were predicted, in order that, when they should come, we might remember that they had been announced, and consequently not be hurt by them. But the Pagans, for whom this premature corruption of Christianity was not a predicted thing, rejoiced in contemplating the extent of its progress; they would not believe the duration of a worship which had so rapidly arrived at the period of its decline, and they were repeating in their delusion this celebrated saying, Christians are only for awhile; they will afterwards perish, and the idols will return.—Beugnot, vol. ii. p. 97, et seq.
This melancholy picture of Christian society, at the beginning of the fifth century, drawn by M. Beugnot, on the authority of the ecclesiastical writers, is, indeed, as gloomy as that of Roman society in general, which had been so graphically described about the same time by the pagan author Ammianus Marcellinus, and reproduced by Gibbon. It was very natural that such a corrupted soil should produce the rankest growth of superstition, and rapidly bring about that melancholy reaction which was not inaptly styled by Gibbon, the revival of polytheism in the Christian church. This wretched state of things was, as I have said before, chiefly due to that policy of compromise by which the leaders of the church sought to get as many Pagans as possible into her pale, and who consequently were baptised without being converted. This compromise with Paganism was often carried to great extremes; and the history of the conversion of Florence, which I have extracted from M. Beugnot’s work, gives one of the most striking instances of those unprincipled proceedings:—Florence paid particular honours to the god Mars. It was not without regret that it abandoned the worship of this divinity. The time of its conversion had been assigned to the second or the third century, but the vagueness of this date deprives it of all authority. Yet, whatever may have been the century in which the conversion of Florence took place, it could not be a subject of edification and joy to the Christians. The traditions of that city predicted to it great calamities if the statue of Mars was either sullied, or put into a place unworthy of it. The Florentines stipulated, therefore, on accepting the new religion, that Mars should be respected. His statue was consequently neither broken nor sullied, but it was carefully taken from his temple, and placed on a pedestal near the river, which flows through the city. Many years after this, the new Christians feared and invoked that god who was dethroned only by halves. When almost all the pagan temples had fallen either by the stroke of time, or under the blows of the Christians, the heathen palladium of Florence stood still erect on the banks of the Arno; and, according to one of the most enlightened historians that Italy has produced during the middle ages (G. Villani, lib. i., cap. 60), the demon who had remained in the statue realised, in the thirteenth century, the old prediction of the Etruscans. Compromises of the kind which took place at Florence became very common during the fifth century, and when, at a later period, Christianity wished to annul them, it met with great obstacles.—(Beugnot, vol. i., p. 286.)
The Jews had been brought up in the knowledge of the true God, and their faith could not but be strengthened by the miracles with which their exodus from Egypt was accompanied, and yet a short absence of Moses from their camp was sufficient to make them call for gods that would go before them, and to induce them to worship an image evidently borrowed from the idolatry of those very Egyptians by whom they had been so much oppressed. It was, therefore, no wonder that society, educated for many centuries under the influence of Paganism, were continually returning to their ancient rites, superstitions, and manners, though under a new name, and in a modified form. If we consider further, that such a man as Aaron had not sufficient strength to resist the senseless demands of the multitude, and even consented to mould an object for their idolatry, how could the leaders of the church oppose the pressure of Paganism, which they had incautiously admitted into her pale, and which, under the assumed name of Christianity, was establishing its dominion over the church? There was no inspired prophet amongst the Christians of that time, to restore the purity of their faith in the same manner as Moses did amongst the Jews, after his return from Mount Sinai. The Christian church was therefore left for centuries under the oppression of pagan superstitions, from which, as yet, only a small portion of her has been emancipated, though I firmly believe that she will be one day entirely restored to her pristine purity. This hope, however, is not founded upon the mere advance of human intellect, because, in spite of its boasted progress, it seems now to be powerless against the daily growing reaction of the above-mentioned superstitions, even in places whence they apparently had been banished for ever, but because Christianity is of a divine and not human origin.
There was no lack of opposition to this universal corruption of the church on the part of several true Christians, and there were undoubtedly many more instances of this noble conduct than those which have reached us, but the records of them were probably either lost in the lapse of ages, or destroyed by their opponents. I have already mentioned the prohibition of the use of images in the churches by the council of Elvira in 305. The council of Laodicea, held about 363, declared, in its seventy-fifth canon, That Christians ought not to abandon the church, and retire elsewhere in order to invoke angels, and form private assemblies, because it is prohibited. If, therefore, any one is attached to this secret idolatry, let him be anathema, because he has left our Lord Jesus Christ, and has become an idolater. It is therefore evident that this superstition, expressly prohibited by St Paul, Colossians 2:18, was then secretly practised in some private assemblies, though it was afterwards introduced into the Western as well as the Eastern church. The council of Carthage, held towards the end of the fourth century, condemned the abuse of the honours which were paid to the memory of the martyrs by the Christians of Africa, and ordered the bishops to repress them, if the thing might be done, but if it could not be done on account of the popular emotions, to warn at least the people. This proves how weak the bishops felt their authority to be against the prevailing superstitions amongst their flocks, and that they preferred suffering the latter to risking the former.
There were, however, Christians who opposed, in a bold and uncompromising manner, the pagan errors and abuses which had infected the church. St Epiphanius, archbishop of Salamis, in the fourth century, celebrated for his learning, and whose virtues St Jerome extols in the most glowing terms, explicitly condemned the worship of created beings, because, he observed, the devil was creeping into men’s minds under the pretence of devotion and justice, and, consecrating human nature by divine honours, presented to their eyes various fine images, in order to separate the mind from the one God by an infamous adultery. Therefore, though those who are worshipped are dead, people adore their images, which never had any life in them. He further remarked, that there was not a prophet who would have suffered a man or a woman to be worshipped; that neither the prophet Elias, nor St John the beloved disciple of the Lord, nor St Thecla (who had received the most extravagant praises from the fathers), were ever worshipped; and that, consequently, the virgin was neither to be invoked nor worshipped. The old superstition, says he, shall not have such power over us as to oblige us to abandon the living God, and worship his creature.
The same St Epiphanius relates, in a letter addressed to John, bishop of Jerusalem, that having arrived during a journey at a village called Anablatta, he found in its church a veil suspended over the door, with a figure representing Christ or some saint. He was so indignant at this sight that he immediately tore the veil to pieces, and advised the wardens of that church to employ it as a shroud to bury a dead body. As the people of the place complained that the veil of their church was destroyed, without giving them in its place another, Epiphanius sent them one; but he exhorted in his letter the above-mentioned bishop of Jerusalem, in whose diocese Anablatta was situated, to order the priests of that place not to suspend any more such veils in the church of Christ, because they are contrary to our religion.
The authenticity of this letter, which bears such strong evidence against the use of images in churches, was rejected by Bellarmine and the ecclesiastical historian Baronius, but it has been admitted by Petau and some of the ablest writers of the Roman Catholic Church. It was translated into Latin by St Jerome, and is found in all the collections of his works.
The most celebrated opponent of the abuses with which the church had been already infected at that time was Vigilantius. His writings have not been preserved, and we know his opinions only from their refutation by St Jerome, and from which we may conclude that this reformer of the fifth century maintained the same doctrines which were afterwards defended by the Waldensians, Wycliffe, the Hussites, and which are now professed by the Protestant Christians. He was born at Calagorris in Gallia; he became a priest at Barcelona, and contracted in that place an intimate friendship with St Paulinus, afterwards bishop of Nola. Vigilantius went to Italy in order to see this friend of his, and having an intention to visit Palestine and Egypt, took from him an introduction to St Jerome. They became great friends with St Jerome, who was much pleased with the marks of approbation shown by Vigilantius during a sermon which he preached. He also acknowledges that he, as well as several others, would have died from starvation, if Vigilantius had not assisted them with his own and his friends’ money; and he says, in his answer to Paulinus, You will learn from the mouth of the holy priest, Vigilantius, with what affection I have received him. This affection disappeared, however, as soon as Jerome learned that Vigilantius had accused him in Egypt of being too partial to Origenes, and the holy priest became an impertinent, whose silly speeches he had observed during their first interview. He made use of several injurious expressions in speaking of the former object of his admiration, and which do not well accord with the gravity of his character, as, for instance, calling him often Dormitantius instead of Vigilantius. His indignation knew no bounds when he heard, in 404, that Vigilantius, who was then in Gallia, had attacked several practices which had crept into the church, and he dictated in one single night a vehement answer to the opinions of Vigilantius, who, according to this writer, taught as follows:—
That the honours paid to the rotten bones and dust of the saints and martyrs, by adoring, kissing, wrapping them in silver, and enclosing them in vessels of gold, placing them in churches, and lighting wax candles before them, was idolatry.
That the celibacy of the clergy was heresy, and their vows of chastity a seminary of lewdness.
That to pray for the dead, or desire their prayers, was superstition, and that we can pray one for another only as long as we are alive.
That the souls of the departed apostles and martyrs were at rest in some particular place, and could not leave it, in order to be present in various places, for hearing the prayers addressed to them.
That the sepulchres of the martyrs should not be venerated; that vigils held in churches should be abolished, with the exception of that at Easter; that to enter monastic life was to become useless to society, &c. &c.
The answer of Jerome to the above-mentioned opinions of Vigilantius is a curious mixture of violence and casuistry. He declared his quondam friend and holy priest, Vigilantius, a greater monster than all those which nature had ever produced, the Centaurs, the Behemoths, the Syrens, the triple-bodied Gerion of Spain; that he was a most detestable heretic, venting foul blasphemies against the relics of the martyrs, who were working miracles everyday. Go, says he to Vigilantius, into the churches of those martyrs, and thou shalt be cleansed from the evil spirit by which thou art now possessed, and feel thyself burning, not by those wax candles which offend thee, but by invisible flames, which will force that demon who talks within thee to confess that he is the same as that who had personated, perhaps a Mercury, a Bacchus, or some other of the heathen gods, amongst their followers, &c. He is unable, however, to produce any other argument in support of the worship of relics than the example of those who had practised it. Was it wrong, he exclaims, of the bishops of Rome to celebrate divine service on the graves containing the bones of St Peter and St Paul, which, according to Vigilantius, were nothing better than dust? The Emperor Constantius must then have committed a sacrilege by translating the holy relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy, to Constantinople; the Emperor Arcadius must be then also considered sacrilegious, as he has translated the bones of the blessed Samuel from Judea to Thrace; then all those bishops who consented to preserve mere dust in vessels of gold or wrapt in silk, were not only sacrilegious, but were fools; and, finally, that all these people must have been fools who went out to meet these relics, and received them with as much joy as if they were the prophet himself alive, because the procession which carried them was attended by crowds of people from Palestine to Chalcedon, singing the praises of Christ, whose servant Samuel was.
There is no abuse in the world which cannot be justified, if the example of persons occupying a high station or that of great numbers is sufficient for it. The advocates of the adoration of relics in our own days may defend it by the fact that about half a million of people went in 1845 to worship the holy coat of Treves, and that still more recently great honours were paid to the relics of St Theodosia at Amiens, by a number of distinguished persons,—bishops, archbishops, and even cardinals. The autos da fé of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions could not be wrong, since kings, queens, and the most eminent persons of the state, approved them by their presence. Idolatry cannot be an error, since so many monarchs, statesmen, and learned men, had conformed to its rites; whilst, on the other side, the same reason may be pleaded for the penal laws of Ireland, and other enactments against the Roman Catholics, because they were established and maintained by so many parliaments. Jerome maintained that it was a calumny of Vigilantius to say that the Christians burnt candles in daylight, though he admitted that it was done by some men and women in order to honour the martyrs. He did not approve of it, because their zeal was without knowledge; but he thought that on account of their good intention, they would be rewarded according to their faith, like the woman who had anointed the feet of our Lord. He also tried to justify the use of candles by those passages of the Scriptures where an allusion was made to lamps and lights; as, for instance, the parable of the virgins, the expression of the Psalm 119:105, Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
The rest of the arguments which St Jerome employs in refuting what he calls the errors and heresies of Vigilantius are of a similar nature to those which have been given above; and it is really astonishing to see that a man like this celebrated father, who is generally considered as one of the great luminaries of the church, not only by Roman Catholics, but also by some Protestants, could descend to such miserable shifts, and indulge in such violent language as he did, in his answer to Vigilantius, which bears a strong mark of having been dictated more by his personal feelings against his former friend and benefactor, than by a conviction of the justice of the cause which he was defending on that occasion. It is, however, evident from the other writings of the same father of the church, that his imagination was much more powerful than his reasoning faculties, and that he had entirely forgotten the precept of St Paul, to refuse profane and old wives’ fables—(1 Timothy 4:7)—because no one has ever indulged in more absurd fables than this good father did, in his lives of St Hilarion and St Paul, two celebrated monks, and of which the following is a fair specimen:—
A Christian citizen of Majuma, called Italicus, kept horses for racing, but was continually beaten by his rival, a pagan ducumvir of Gaza, who, by using certain charms and diabolical incantations, contrived always to damp the spirits of the Christian’s horses, and to give vigour to his own. Italicus applied, therefore, for help to St Hilarion, who, thinking that it was improper to make prayers for such a frivolous object, advised Italicus to sell his horses, and to give their price to the poor, for the salvation of his soul. Italicus represented, however, that he was discharging against his inclination the duties of a public office, and that as a Christian could not resort to magical means, he addressed himself to a servant of God, particularly as it was important to defeat the inhabitants of Gaza, who were known as enemies of Christ, and that it was not so much for his own interests as for those of the church that he wished to overcome his rival. Hilarion, convinced by these reasons, filled with water an earthen vessel, from which he usually drank, and delivered it to Italicus, who sprinkled with the water his horses, his chariots and charioteers, his stables, and even the barriers of the racing ground. The whole city was in a great excitement, the idolaters deriding the Christians, who loudly expressed their confidence of victory. The signal being given, the Christian’s horses flew with an extreme rapidity, and left those of his rival far behind. This miracle produced a very great effect upon the spectators, and many persons, including the beaten party, became converts to Christianity.
The above-mentioned work is filled with fables still more extravagant than the one which I have related, and which entirely throw into the shade the celebrated tales of Munchausen. Jerome complained that many people, whom, in his Christian meekness, he calls Scyllean dogs, were laughing at the stories related in those works, and which he begins by invoking the assistance of the Holy Ghost. Was it then a wonder that a Christianity, defended by such wretched superstitions, was frequently abandoned by individuals, who, comparing the Christian legends of the kind quoted above with the fictions of Pagan mythology, preferred the latter as being more poetical? and, indeed, we have instances of the ridicule which the Pagans attempted to throw upon Christianity, by comparing its saints with their own gods and demigods.
I must, however, return once more to Vigilantius. The Roman Catholic historian of the church, Baronius, who calls him a horned beast, a fool, and furious, who had reached the last degree of folly and fury, &c., &c., maintains that his heresy was solemnly condemned by the Pope Innocent I., whom the bishops of Gallia had addressed on this subject. He also says that the same heresy produced terrible consequences; because two years after Vigilantius had spread his doctrines, the Vandals and other barbarians invaded Gallia, and destroyed all his adherents. Admitting even with Baronius that Vigilantius was a damnable heretic, it cannot be denied that this learned historian had a very strange notion of divine justice, because the barbarians alluded to above destroyed a great number of churches and relics, as well as those who prayed at their shrines, whilst Vigilantius died quietly, and, notwithstanding the assertion of Baronius, never was excluded from the communion of the church, or even condemned by her legal authorities.
We know from Vigilantius’ opponents that his opinions were approved by many, and there can be no doubt that there was, not only in his days, but long after him, a good number of witnesses for the truth, who opposed the rapid spread of Pagan ideas and practices in the church. Thus, at the end of the sixth century, Serenus, bishop of Marseilles, removed all the images from his church, because the people worshipped them. This produced a great discontent amongst many people of his diocese, who appealed to Pope Gregory I. in favour of the images. The Pope advised a middle course, i.e., that the images should remain in the church, but that it should not be allowed to worship them. Serenus, however, who well knew that the one infallibly led to the other, refused to comply with the papal injunctions, upon which Gregory wrote to him again, saying that he praised his zeal in not suffering the worship of any thing that was made by the hand of man; but that images should not be destroyed, because pictures were used in churches to teach the ignorant by sight what they could not read in books, &c.
We therefore see that at the end of the sixth century, the celebrated Pope Gregory I., surnamed the Great, considered the worship of images as an abuse to be prohibited, but which was afterwards legalised by his successors, and an opposition to it declared heresy.
I could produce other evidences to show that the worship of images was condemned by many bishops and priests of the period which I have described, though they approved their use as a means of teaching the illiterate, or tolerated them as an unavoidable evil. The limits of this essay allow me not, however, to extend my researches on this subject, and I shall endeavour to give in the next chapter a rapid sketch of the violent reaction against the worship of images in the east by the iconoclast emperors, and of the more moderate, but no less decided, opposition to the same practice in the west by Charlemagne.