Did the Early Church Consider Images to be Idols?

Part Three in the Series, The Image-less Idol: How Iconoclasm leads to Idolatry

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Imageless Idol: How Icolonoclasm leads to Idolatry

Early Church Attitudes towards Images

Did the Early Church Consider Images to be Idols

Did the early church consider icons to be idols? How did the early church view images? Is there any evidence that the early church even used images in their worship?

Images have been a part of the Christian church from its infancy; catacombs bear witness to the numerous and varied forms of art that formed an integral part of Christian life and worship. “Proto-Christian art is largely symbolic and anagogical. Christ, for example, is depicted as the good shepherd. Christians, depicted themselves as the three children in the fiery furnace, showing endurance and salvation in the midst of persecution.”(1) The art of the early Christians borrowed heavily from Egyptian and Roman pagan art, adopting symbolism and imagery to suit Christian themes. Even the style of later iconography has roots in the Faiyum funerary portraits painted in Roman Egypt.

Although early Christian art displays Roman and Egyptian influence, its aesthetic gradually developed into a distinct art form. “As conversions increased among the upper classes, new aesthetic demands made themselves felt; as a result, buildings were constructed under the patronage of this new Christian aristocracy, thus necessitating an adaptation of the Christian aesthetic vision. Throughout the whole empire, the majority of artists worked only for the glory of the new faith.” (2) Over time, a distinctly Byzantine canon of design developed, guiding the work of Christian artists with a unified vision.

While imagery may have been prevalent throughout the early Christian Church, images did not necessarily enjoy universal acceptance. “There were some hierarchs in the early Church who were outright opposed to figurative images, most notably the fourth-century Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. He asserted that Christ’s humanity was deified at the Resurrection in such a way that He was impossible to depict thereafter. But because the disciples did in fact behold Him numerous times after the Resurrection, this argument, along with other iconoclastic assertions, was rejected by the Church.” (3)

Bishop Eusebius was not the only voice of opposition, “motivated by a fear of idolatry, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minuscius Felix, and Lactancius had [also] sounded an alarm; paganism and its art were still too much alive, and too threatening, for the first Christians were just beginning to deepen their faith.” (4) Not all church fathers, however, were opposed to images either; St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nyssa were both staunch supporters of iconography in the early church. St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379), in his homily on the martyrdom of Barlaam, says: “Arise now before me, you iconographers of the deeds of the saints … Let me be overwhelmed by your icons depicting the brave acts of the martyr! Let me look at the fighter most vividly depicted in your icon … Let also Christ, Who instituted the contest, be depicted in your icon.” (5)

Did the Early Church Consider Images to be Idols? The Canon 36 and the Council of Elvira

In the early part of the fourth century, circa 304-309, a local council convened at Elvira, Spain to discuss the general conduct and rapport of Christians. Among the canons issued at Elvira, a canon relating to images, Canon 36, was issued by the council. It read: “It seemed good to us that images should not be in churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on walls.” (6) Along with the few writings that seem to condemn the use of icons in the early church fathers, this canon stands as a bulwark against images. “Christians with an iconophobic tendency see in this canon a confirmation of their point of view. Iconodules, on the other hand, are somewhat embarrassed by an open interdiction of images in churches and try to limit the canon’s importance, scope, and meaning.” (7) In order to comprehend the importance of the canon, however, it is important not only to place it in context to the local church community, but also to investigate its reception by the wider church community.

It is important to remember when analyzing any of the church councils, whether they be local or ecumenical in nature, that they are always called in response to some type of problem or controversy; the council of Elvira was no different. Most of the canons deal with issues of sexual misconduct, marriage, and the conduct of clergy; canon 36 is the only canon which deals with the use of images in the church. It can therefore be assumed by the existence of canon 36 that images predated the council in Spanish churches. If the council determined that there was a need to address the use of images within the church, then that need implies that images already existed within the church.

Whatever the impetus the council had in issuing the canon, it does not seem to have any great effect on the local church community. The canon seems to have no real consequence on “the Spanish Christians of subsequent history because they continued to paint images on the walls of Spanish churches … there has never been an iconoclastic controversy in the Spanish church.” (8) It would seem that the main purpose of Canon 36 was to regulate, rather than prohibit images. What that regulation might entail, or why the council found it necessary, is unknown. What is known is that the council didn’t seem to have any great effect of deterrence upon the local church community; images continued to be painted inside churches and there is no known reference to any punishment or censure being levied against any persons or church communities on account of their use and creation of images.

The wider, universal church community also apparently ignored Canon 36 of the Elviran Council. Several councils of the 4th century adopted certain of Elvira’s canons verbatim, they did not however adopt canon 36. “Even though it had existed since the beginning of the 4th century, the canon had no historical importance until the 16th century. Since that time, iconoclasts and iconophobes have used it as a weapon against iconodules both Catholic and Orthodox.” (9) Not even the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries cited the canon. It would appear that Canon 36 had no serious implications on the attitude towards images within the church.

The prominence of images and icons within the church was unscathed by the short edict issued by the Council of Elvira. No real arguments were put forth, nor penalties attached to the ruling; it was simply stated more as a matter of opinion than of doctrine. It differs widely from the other canons issued by the council, many of which carry the force of censure, penance, and excommunication. “If Canon 36 is, in fact, a disciplinary canon attempting to regulate but not condemn a well established practice, then the council of Elvira doesn’t deal with the basic theological question: the legitimacy of Christian images. Another 400 years will have to go by before that question is clearly and directly asked and answered.” (10)

Icons and Idolatry in the Council of Trullo

Did the early church consider icons to be idols?

The Council of Trullo (692), or the Quinisext council as it is known, was a council called to complete the canons of both the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical councils, hence the name Quinisext which literally means, fifth and sixth. While most of the canons simply reiterate those already passed by previous councils, the Quinisext council did issue regulations attempting to reform certain practices within the church that have strong pagan origins.

Of all the 102 canons issued at Trullo, only three deal with images:

Canon 73 – Reiterates the importance of the cross and its veneration.

Canon 100 – Prohibits deceitful paintings which expose the public to corrupt intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures.

Canon 82 – In certain reproduction of venerable images, the Precursor is figured, pointing to the lamp with his finger. This representation had been adopted as a symbol of grace, but was a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ our God, which was shown to us according to the law. Having thus the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves, as a fulfillment of this law. In consequence, and in order to expose to the sight of all, even with the help of painting, what is perfect, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in His human form instead of the ancient lamb. (11)

It is clear from these three canons that there is no prohibition against images as such, but rather a refinement of purpose and scope. Christ is not to be personified; rather, He must be directly represented. Whereas in the early church, artists adopted the pagan imagery of the good shepherd, showing Christ as a personified lamb or as some generic shepherd, He must now be depicted as a distinct human person. This will have profound implications for the future defense of icons, equating image with incarnation. The difference between personification and person are vast. Personification asks, “Who is that?” The personified source of something is not a “someone” and, therefore, runs up against the ecclesial tradition which requires that a human form occupying so central and dominant a position in an icon represents someone, not something.” (12)

According to Canon 82, Christ should no longer be depicted symbolically but rather as He is, as a person. In the incarnation God became man, depictable, and distinct. The church decided that whenever given the choice, the shadow should never be preferable to the light. (13) Direct representation of Christ is always preferable to the symbol. Direct representation has stronger ontological links to the prototype, whereas symbols shroud and conceal, offering abstractions rather than reality. Father Stephen Bigham explains:

By “direct representation,” we mean an image of a person, an icon, and not an indirect symbol of that person, for example a fish for Christ or keys for St. Peter. Due to the direct link between the icon and its personal prototype, we can ask the question, “who is that?” The answer can be either “that is Jesus Christ.” Or “that is an image of Jesus Christ.” In either case, the key word in the question is “who” because it assumes that the object of the question is a person, whether human, angelic, or divine. In the case of an indirect symbol of a person, a fish, we have a direct image of some other thing, and that thing makes us think about the person absent but hinted at in the symbol. Standing in front of a catacomb image of a fish, we cannot really ask “who is that?” as though the question was meant to fall on the personal identity of the fish. The first question is “what is that?” And then we can ask “who or what does that represent?” (14)

An icon depicts a person, a who, not an abstract idea or a symbol. This is one of the distinguishing factors between icon and idol; as it will be argued in the coming centuries during the era of iconoclasm, the prototype and the icon have an ontological connection. Idols are dead and lifeless symbols, abstractions; icons have a personal connection to their prototype. The Church is beginning to realize “the full dogmatic impact of the incarnation on her art. It is not until the council of Trullo in 692 that the Church comes out categorically in favor of depicting Christ as He is rather than as a symbol.”1 Saint John of Damascus puts it succinctly: “The Old Testament is a silhouette of things to come in a future age, while the New Testament is the portrait of those things.” (15)

Read the Next Articles in the Series on the Imageless Idol: How Iconoclasm leads to Idolatry


(1) Hart, Aidan, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting (England: Gracewing Publishing, 2011), 9.

(2) Sendler, Egon. The Icon, Image of the Invisible: Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique. Redondo Beach, Calif: Oakwood Publications, 1988. Print, 14.

(3) Hart, 9.

(4) Sendler, 17-18.

(5) Cavarnos, Constantine, Orthodox Iconography (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1985), 13.

(6) Bigham, Steven, The Image of God the Father (Oakwood Publications, 1995), 112.

(7) ibid.

(8) ibid, 115.

(9) ibid, 116.

(10) ibid, 115.

(11) Sendler, 20.

(12) Bigham, Steven. (1992). Allegorical Personification in Orthodox Iconography. Sacred Arts Journal, 13(2), 66-37.

(13) Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 27.

(14) Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 2.

(15) Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 9.

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