Popular Piety: Icons and Images

Popular Piety: Icons and Images

Liturgical icons can be found not only in Catholic Churches; in our homes also we can find a lot of images depicting the saints, the Mother of God or Jesus Christ. We might ask why and for what purpose we need them? What is their role in our faith? Probably many of us keep photos of our families member in our wallet or have a family album at home. We do this, because we love these people and we would like to have something to remind us of them especially if they are far away.
There is a very similar rationale in the case of the images and their role in our devotion. Portraits of saints help us to follow their example by reflecting on their life. They are similar to photos of our friends who are in heaven and intercede for us. The same is is true in the case of images of the Mother of God or Jesus Christ. They give us some sense of the reality that is in some way beyond us, and make them more accessible.                                                              

In the Bible we can find some passages concentrating on this issue. In the Old Testament, God ordained (the ark of the covenant, the cherubim) or permitted (“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form or anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under earth” – Dt 5:8) the making of images. In the New Testament, one fact has a great and important meaning for us when we talk about sacred painting, that is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God received flesh and became a man. And St. Paul writes in his letters “He being found in human form” (Phil 2:7) and “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

In the history of Church there is one very well-known image of Christ and this is very unusual picture, because Jesus Christ Himself is its co-author. This is the picture of the Merciful Jesus. One time he appeared to Sister Faustina and said: “Paint an image according to the pattern you see: with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You”. Jesus desired this image and with it made special promises for anybody who prays and puts their trust in Him before this sacred icon.

We have to remeber that “the honour paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration’, not the adoration due to God alone” (CCC 2132). The great Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “The worship of religion is paid to images, not as considered in themselves, nor as things, but as images leading us to God incarnate. Now movement to an image as image does not stop at the image, but goes on to the thing it represents” (Summa Theologica II-II, 81, 3, ad 3).

Paweł Szylak OP