Liturgical Use of Visual Arts and Paganism

Christian art’s rich history goes as far back as the 3rd century A.D. Ever since the first paintings were done on catacomb walls, Christians have endeavored to use visible means for expressing the invisible Almighty. Despite Christianity’s origins lying in Judaism, which forbids such imagery, the Incarnation concept made it essential to image God’s human face in Jesus. The intent was never portraiture. However, an image capable of opening the soul, mind, and heart in a manner that livened up an understanding and faith was critical for several centuries. Through it, the Church successfully established itself as a major “patron of the arts.” The previous pope, Pope Benedict XVI (formerly, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) draws on Christian iconography’s richness; since the tradition, he is in deep appreciation of demonstrates that the Gospels are preached via both spoken words and imagery. Artists of every era have provided the main facts pertaining to the secret of deliverance to believers’ wonder and contemplation, by representing them using the brilliance of color and the precision of beauty. Art indicates how, in the modern-day culture of imagery, in particular, sacred images are able to express a lot more than can be expressed in words, in addition to being a highly dynamic and effective means of conveying God’s message. Within Christian places of worship and the experiences of small worshipping communities, images will be able to reinforce the Gospel’s appreciation among followers of Christ more than ever before (McCarthy 2011; Webber n.d; Dillenberger 1986).

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For assessing the significance of scriptural visual arts in Liturgy and Church service, the foremost thing to do is define Liturgy, followed by revealing the existence of art in creativity of the Old as well as New Testaments, which provides them some measure of divine authority when linked to God. The term ‘liturgy’ implies the combination of rites through which individual civilizations express their relationship with the Lord, generating art; in fact, it is art. In certain cultures, creativity in liturgical service was regarded as God’s gift (Verdon 2007). The New Testament cites St. Paul as stating that Jesus is the unseen God’s image (Colossians 1:15), or the invisible Father’s incarnate “icon” and, consequently, these kinds of images are all the more significant. Imagery within the Old Testament was symbolic of the Lord’s presence, while within the New Testament, the concept of art is a declaration that God’s Kingdom is nearby. When employed in the liturgical context, art becomes an encounter in the same way as one encounters Jesus in Christian sacraments that were regarded as images by early theologians. This strong theological exegesis offers a sturdy foundation for imagery utilization by the oldest Christian church for encouraging development and propagation of God’s message. Now that a sound argument has been provided for religious imagery’s existence and continued uses, this paper will particularly address three concepts of art in Christianity, together with their application in liturgical and Church service. Firstly, it will explore the oldest recorded Christian art found in catacombs, particularly in the kingdom in Rome, attempting to account for how this ‘under-the-ground’ art form could serve clergymen in proclaiming God’s message. This investigation into early Christian history will briefly discuss the issue of idolatry. Secondly, the paper will deal with visual imagery use, for assessing and understanding their current use. Lastly, this paper will evaluate icon use as prayer aids and in Liturgy (Moore 2010).

Narrowly, one can state that the Bible does not contain any art, although its King James Version refers to art thrice: Acts 17:29, Chronicles 16:14, and Exodus 30:25. Interestingly, the latter two references are relating to the apothecary’s skill. It is only in the verse of Acts that visual art is referred to: “For as much then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29). But, if one expands art’s meaning, it will become clear that the Scripture is awash with colorful imagery, from start to end. It is abundant in its graphic descriptions of people, events, and landscapes, composed in words that easily appeal to readers’ minds (Moore 2010).


Prior to examining Biblical visual arts, a brief discussion of the topic of idolatry is essential. The issue springs from the Exodus’ report which states that, while Moses went away to Mount Sinai for a considerable period of time to converse with his Lord, the Israelites, upon becoming bored, decided to fashion a calf of gold and worship it (Exodus 32:1-10). By doing so, they disobeyed God’s command of not making for themselves carved images of earthly or heavenly things to serve or to which they would bow down (Exodus 20:4-5).

Christian reformers carefully analyze church history and Scripture, rejecting all illustrative (or didactic) as well as cultic (or devotional) applications of visual arts in the context of worship. They only allowed careful application of decorative artwork. Their opposition to liturgical or cultic application of visual arts starts with the 2nd commandment. They believe Christians need to hold on to this ideology, stating that the Almighty’s glory gets corrupted via impious falsehood if one attaches any form to him. They identify no less than four key reasons to explain why the Lord has prohibited the creation of any visual images to represent Him: 1) Imagery implies his worded self-revelation is lacking. The Almighty forbids image-making in the 2nd commandment, as He elected to use words to reveal Himself. 2) Adopting imagery will result in idolatry. The practice of idolatry is innate to images; as physical forms prove inadequate in the representation of God. He asks (Isaiah 40:18); indeed, both are misrepresentative and inadequate. That is, they teach lies (Habakkuk 2:18). Mankind cannot capture the Almighty’s “incomprehensible essence” in material form. 3) Image adoption in worship is a violation of the Scripture. In several ways, one can say that this concerns Reformers the most. Scripture outlaw’s images. Nothing more needs to be said. Aside from the aforementioned passages, Christian Reformers Quote God’s prophets, who constantly level devastating attacks on the practice of idolatry (e.g. Isaiah 40:18-20; 41:7,29; 44:12-17; 45:9; 46:5-7), as well as the Psalms that join in scorning imagery (e.g. Psalms 78:58; 96:5; 97:7; 115:4; 135:15). Sculpture or pictures will fail if they try to represent the Almighty. Silver, gold, or stone do not suffice in an attempt to represent Him. Human “thought” and “art” can do him no justice. 4) Lastly, images are a distraction. The sole visual aids the Church has been provided with by God himself are the living, symbolical ones — the rituals of Christ’s Supper and the baptism rite. Images that arise out of “human ingenuity” are just worldly things that distract worshippers’ attention from God-ordained ways to grace: prayer, the word, and sacraments (Johnson n.d; Forrester and Gay 2009).

But numerous passages can be found in the very same Old Testament in which the Almighty commands us to construct images linked directly to His presence; of these, one was the previously-mentioned sanctuary (Exodus 25-26). The above clear contradiction may be counteracted as follows: God cannot be seen; His invisibility is, hence, why creating His image would be an impossible feat. Moreover, man is to worship only one God, and this lies at the argument’s root. In Christianity, images aren’t worshipped as such; rather, Christians revere them for whom or they represent. That is, Christians aren’t worshipping these images but are merely using them as prayer devices, to aid them in becoming closer to the Lord on a spiritual level. In furthering the claim that Christian artworks if used properly do not equal idolatry, one is reminded that, according to legend, Jesus himself miraculously created the first Christian icon – a self-image (which wasn’t made by hand) on a piece of cloth for healing Edessa’s King Abgar (Tarasov and Milner-Gulland 2002). Though it has remained a subject of considerable controversy and debate, the Shroud of Turin could be another miraculous imagery of Jesus that was produced after his demise and subsequent entombment in the catacomb (Moore 2010).

Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs

Christian burials offer tangible proof of Western Christian art that may be traced back to catacombs of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, particularly in Rome. A few Church-owned cemeteries controlled by hierarchy portray biblical scenes. Meanwhile, other private crypts, usually owned by Roman gentry and other affluent families, included more personalized frescos that depicted individual beliefs, whether pagan or religious. The major part of surviving biblical imagery has sacramental themes, often of the Eucharist or baptism, with the former occasionally represented using the simple wine and bread, but more frequently using a banquet that represents, for instance, the Cana Wedding Feast (John 2: 1-11). These clearly show that Eucharist sacraments were a key liturgical theme right from the time of the Church’s earliest origins (O’kane 2008). But the question that one must strive to answer is: In what way can underground art forms serve the Church? Since its presence is virtually hidden in crypts, its effectiveness must undoubtedly be restricted. Modern scholars suggest that images inscribed in catacombs had a funereal purpose — the visualization of the beliefs and hopes of Christians who died ‘in Jesus’. The age-old Roman tradition of organizing banquets at deceased family members’ graves endured even after they converted to Christianity, ultimately becoming a key aspect of the martyr cult. Thus, it is stated that the banquets were held not for the overall Christian community but for those who attended the funeral rites of the deceased. An alternative hypothesis is: crypts formed the refuge of Roman Christians when they were persecuted. Hence, such imagery offered them true knowledge about their Lord and aided believers in holding on to their faith in Him (Moore 2010).

From a technical perspective, Early Christian painters and sculptors used a highly symbolic and synthetic figurative terminology. Biblical episodes’ narrative nucleus, as noted previously, was reduced to only the essentials, in order to allow the paintings to focus on no more than a couple of figures linked to characteristic attributes and signs. Additionally, the scenes were typically small-scale, as spaces in catacombs for wall decorations had continuous lines making up fairly small geometrical segments. The fact that a study of symbolic Early Christian artworks must pay careful attention to its formal aspects and context (nearly always in the archaeological context), as well as its significance as a concrete, tangible expression of Christians is worth reiterating. This is more so when evaluating the link between the Bible and Christian art; one needs to stress the fact that this link can’t merely be confined apparently in canonical biblical books (O’kane 2008).

Biblical-visual Images in the Modern Church

Perhaps the first use of visual artworks in worship mentioned in the Bible is the Hebrew people’s Passover experience. The unleavened bread and lambs’ blood on doorposts became ritualized, becoming an eternal symbol of the Lord’s deliverance of Israelites from bondage by the Pharaoh. This was followed by a rich system of rituals and sacrifices ordained by God for engendering submission and self-control among a willful, rebellious people. One simply needs to look at the thorough directions in Leviticus and Exodus to understand the importance of the Tabernacle’s visual representations for the Israelite’s relationship with God. The Lord demanded the best artisans’ skills for creating the glorious symbols of His power and presence: the altar, mercy seat, candelabra, the priests’ elaborate vestments, Ark of the Testimony, the ten posts, and the curtain that separates the “Holy of Holies.” All had to be made of the best materials, by skilled painters and sculptors, all to God’s glory. There is a prior case for the simple as well as elaborate use of visual art forms in instructing people with regard to, who our Lord is, and where we stand relative to Him. Following the Temple’s destruction and the sacrificial system’s suspension, worship became less elaborate visually and ritually, and moved to community synagogues. During the early era of Christianity, worship was extremely simple as well. In his preaching and parables, Christ created powerful though simple word pictures (Calhoun 1999).

The contemporary Church continues utilizing Biblical-visual imagery for celebrating the Liturgy and transmission of the Gospel. One example that is inspired by Jesus’s last journey across his passion as well as death in the holy land of Jerusalem has been represented in both Anglican and Catholic churches using succession of images called “Stations of the Cross.” These portray events that transpired during the final hours of Jesus’s earthly life. The symbolism and imagery contained in iconography functions similar to school paintings in liturgical and Church service, though on a significantly more extensive scale. The term ‘icon’ is derived from Greek; it means image and this very Greek term has been utilized in the Old Testament: “God created man in the image of himself” (Genesis 1:27). The New Testament cites St. Paul’s letter to Colossae’s Jewish Christians, wherein he states that Christ is the unseen God’s image (Colossians 1:15) (Baggley 1987). Prior to moving further into the topic of icons, one needs to bear in mind that just like the Early Christian argument with regard to idolatry in Christian imagery, a similar problem arose in the 8th century regarding the creation and utilization of icons. Individuals in favor of icon creation and use claimed a ‘visual equivalent’ to the Bible. Further, it was asserted that icons functioned as books to aid the illiterate, since they portrayed Biblical historical incidents, and saints’ lives, and just like the sacred text, their interpretation was needed as well. Lastly, the Gospel book’s veneration clarified as well as justified iconic veneration (Andreopoulos 2005 p.11). Though iconographers themselves, together with artisans and musicians, were placed at the very bottom of social hierarchy, they witnessed an elevation in status, owing to the ability of their work to be utilized for ecclesiastical and liturgical purposes. Icons do not merely represent religious or cultural artifacts; rather, they are intended for forging a connection with divinity. Icons constitute symbols that draw together divine and human domains (Baggley 1987, p.6). They aim at educating Christians on saints’ lives or the Gospel, and can, in fact, be considered as illiterate believers’ silent Gospel. They suggest a presence — of Jesus, or Mother Mary, or whichever saint is depicted through them. Icons also function as prayer aids, whether collectively in churches, or privately in believers’ homes. They do not require any particular setting. Moreover, they form a medium for uniting the spiritual and material realms (e.g., the modern Crucifixion icon, wherein Jesus is portrayed as the main figure, with four figurative representatives of people who were witness to his execution surrounding him) (Moore 2010).

Despite the relevant realism or accuracy depicted, icons nonetheless hint at the real presence of the benevolence of the individual depicted spiritually, far higher compared to that demonstrated in portraits. In icons and other liturgical art forms, aesthetic pleasure commonly linked to art gets replaced by metaphysical pleasures of the renewal of man’s links with his Creator. This reflects the true purpose of Jesus’s incarnation, Mary’s presence and that of saints in the facilitation of mankind’s salvation. Icons can draw on the Gospel as well as holy traditions; one cannot separate them from liturgy. They depict continuity between the physical and spiritual worlds. The Church, via liturgical practice, brings Christians together in Christ’s name, for binding them with the Lord’s body. (Incidentally, liturgy is defined as Eucharistic service in the Eastern world). This is achieved via good deeds, theology, liturgical practice, bestowal of sacraments, and worship (Andreopoulos 2005; Bible and Art — the Eastern Church n.d). Orthodox Christians admit a powerful connection exists between the earth and the heavens. Indeed, Jesus himself proved this by teaching his disciples the following prayer: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven? (Matthew 6:10). Christology shows that Jesus, being both wholly human and divine, constitutes the ultimate link. At his last supper, Jesus bequeathed his blood, body and the Eucharist in order that coming generations of Christians may continue being linked closely to Christ’s divine nature. He bestowed another means to maintain our link to God at Pentecost, by imparting of the Holy Spirit — the third being in the Blessed Trinity. Icons also function as ‘cosmological ladders’, allowing believers to overcome the divide between earth and heaven (Moore 2010).


Over time, religious visual art’s presence and utilization in Church service and Liturgy remains a controversial subject. While Christian art can be encouraged since it broadens an understanding of Scripture and facilitates celebration of God’s Word, bringing us nearer to Him, some contend that as God’s face can never be seen, one shouldn’t try to create misleading images of Him. Certainly, on the issue of crucifixion and icons, we have seen the alteration to the inscription for better reflecting its theology. Reformers present the opposite argument: icons and images are not necessary to the Church, since it could effectively be served by good preachers and God’s word (Dawtry and Irvine 2002). Moreover, it is claimed that theology ought to impact Christian art; however, if so many icons and images have surfaced since early Christianity, the question surfaces of whether artists, influenced by art instead of God’s Word, are at risk of informing theology as well as (subsequently) influencing it such that the faithful get misled. On balance, continued utilization of icons and images in Western and Eastern Christianity for two millennia apparently supports the argument that application of appropriate and suitable Biblical visuals does contribute significantly to liturgical and Church service (Moore 2010).

Recognition and a precise definition of the conditions of acceptability of biblical episodes or figures in sculptural or pictorial repertory are clearly highly important (Roberts 2010). Summarizing those already indicated, one needs to firstly emphasize the wish to reassert New and Old Testament continuity from a salvific standpoint. Secondly, individuals must recognize the considerable emphasis given to the Eucharist and Baptism, sacraments which may be connected directly to the New Testament text. Lastly, one needs to focus on identification of sources through which iconographers and those who support them draw individual themes (O’kane 2008).

Reference list

Andreopoulos, A., 2005. Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Baggley, J., 1987. Doors of Perception. Icons and their Spiritual.

Bible and Art — the Eastern Church, n.d [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].

Calhoun, A.M., 1999 The Work of Visual Artists in Worship – [online] The Work of Visual Artists in Worship. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].

Dawtry, A. and Irvine, C., 2002. Art and worship (Vol. 2). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Dillenberger, J., 1986. A theology of artistic sensibilities: the visual arts and the church. Oregon, Wipf & Stock.

Forrester, D. B., and Gay, D. 2009. Worship and liturgy in context: studies and case studies in theology and practice. London, SCM.

Johnson, T., n.d. The Christian Use of Visual Art in Worship Today. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].

McCarthy, A., 2011. Integration of visual art for small worshipping communities. Australian Journal of Liturgy, 12(4).

Moore, C.J., 2010. The Importance of Biblical-Visual Art in the Service of the Church and Liturgy.

O’kane, M., 2008. Imaging the bible: an introduction to biblical art. London, SPCK.

Roberts, M.D., 2010. Liturgical Colors and Visual Art in Worship. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].

Tarasov, O. and Milner-Gulland, R.R., 2002. Icon and devotion: Sacred spaces in imperial Russia. Reaktion Books.

Verdon, T., 2007. Art and the Liturgy. Interpretation, 61(4), pp.359-374.

Webber, R.E., n.d. The Visual Arts in Worship. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].