Idol worship: Christians venerate statues of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary


The subject of idolatry was raised as a religious polemic, a monotheistic appraisal of the polytheism. Idolatry is concerned with the rather ubiquitous belief among indigenous cultures that images of gods can become a repository of divine power, one development of animism, in which all of nature was imbued with supernatural forces. The sympathetic magic of images depended upon the image being a proper representation of the god, and also being installed through a special invocatory ceremony. Although the early Judaic commandment not to worship graven images implied a new separate form of worship, the statement that the Jewish god was"A jealous god"Implied that Pagan images possessed some power but that it would be of rival demonic gods as distinct from the monotheism of Moses.

The belief in the power of images is also related to the designation of special sacred places—particularly striking natural locations or buildings such as tabernacles, synagogues, and churches where the presence of God might be enhanced. The very structure of churches and cathedrals utilized architecture to reinforce this belief, while rituals created a mental and emotional structure to invoke divine presence. Allied to the use of rituals are the geometrical shapes of mandalas, used as an aid in meditation.

In the history of Christianity, the Judaic commandment prohibiting images, in the face of their almost universal appeal, caused great controversies in relation to the use of icons (flat stylized picture of the saints), as opposed to statues of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary in churches, one major element in the division of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers banned images in their churches, and only in recent decades have they returned, but only as decorative art.

The Catholic view is that such representations are not actually worshiped, but are simply an aid for intercession with divine power, that it is a more intangible god that is worshiped. However, the concept of God as a father figure, and the tangible representations of Jesus Christ merely remove imagery to a mental and spiritual level, for which an image is a support.

Moreover, in some countries, the"veneration"of images closely approaches actual"Worship," as for example, the famous"Child of Prague"Image of the Carmelites Church of Our Lady of Victories in the former Czechoslovakia (a statue actually brought from Spain in the sixteenth century). This statue has become known in many countries and venerated by thousands of people, in the belief that it can render favors on those who pray to it. Interestingly enough, the robes of this image are changed regularly in accordance with the ecclesiastical calendar. This custom of dressing images is also widely practiced at the present day temples through India, indicating that customs and beliefs relating to images are common to many traditions.

Worship associated with ancient pagan Mother Goddesses has much in common with Christian adoration of the Virgin Mary. Some comparative religionists would go so far as to claim that these are but different forms of one primal maternal force in nature. Similarly the concept of a divine savior, born of a virgin and crucified for the atonement of human sin, is also found in some Pagan religions.

The belief that images might become actual centers of divine power is still common in different religions. In Hindu temples, images are installed with special ceremonies to invoke divinity, and subsequently treated as living entities. The installation ceremonies mark an important point in the opening of a temple for public worship. In Swaminarayan temples, for example, the installation of an image requires a ritual in which, at the high point, a mirror is held in front of the deity's eyes, so that the power may not blind observers; the mirror is said to be cracked by this force.

In Roman Catholicism, miracles continue to be associated with statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Such miracles involve statues that move, weep, or shed blood. In the phenomenon of stigmata, an intensely devout individual or a saint may become, in effect, a living statue upon which the wounds of Christ are physically reproduced—the marks of scourging, wounds on the shoulder and side, the bruising of wrist, and bleeding hands. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary are a related phenomenon in which a holy figure does not require the material support of an image for manifestation but appears with independent life.

Even in modern times, there are claims of moving statues of the Virgin Mary, notably at the village of Ballinspittle, in Ireland.



Abbott, John. The Keys of Power: A Study of Indian Ritual and Belief. London: Methuen, 1932. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.
Bevan, Edwyn Robert. Holy Images; An Inquiry Into Idolatry and Image— Worship in Ancient Paganism and in Christianity. London: George Allen, 1940.
Breasted, J. H. Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912.
Graves, Kersey. The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Boston, Mass., 1875. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1971.
Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. 12 vols. Edinburgh: James Clark, 1908.
Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1871.

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