Interconfessional Polemics: who needs Holy Images?

The polemic peak between the Protestant critics of the images of saints and their defense by Catholics reached in the late 16th century. In 1580–1582, the Calvinist Gregory of Żarnowiec published a “Sermon on images and idols,” to which Jesuit Jacob Wujek replied with his sermon “On Images” published in 1584.

Andreas Volanus fought against idolatry

In 1583 Andreus Volanus, an eminent theologian of Evangelical Reformation, scholar, and secretary to the Grand Duke authored a booklet in Latin, entitled “The Condemnation of Idolatry by Vilnan followers of Loyola and the response to their new criticism”. It was a reply to the statement targeted at him and made by an unidentified Jesuit, joined by a Calvinist theologian Sudrovius, and “a famous doctor” Rupert. In response to Andreas Volanus’ publication, a statement was made again by a Jesuit, Master of Philosophy Manuel de Vega and Andreas Jurgiewicz, canon of Vilnius Cathedral.

Volanus regarded the aforementioned polemics as a dispute over an authentic spiritual heritage of Christianity. “Even though those [advocating sacred images] chose to use all the powers of their mind with the aim of substantiating the statement that Christians were allowed to worship images and to persuade us that such were instructions of the Apostles, this is merely an extraordinary manifestation of vanity, abounding in emptiness and untruth, as testified by the statements made by some prominent writers and the authority of holy and universal ancient times.” Andreas Volanus drew upon the Byzantine and Western disputes over holy images and showed sympathy towards the Byzantine and Charles’ the Great iconoclasm. He condemned the Second Council of Nicaea and Pope Gregory III for recognizing the worship of images. In such a way, this confrontation between Christian confessions partially repeated and reflected on the content of Byzantine controversy between iconodulism-iconoclasm.

Rejoinder by Catholics: why is image not equivalent to an idol?

The continuation of the aforementioned debate in the late 16th century is best illustrated by the “Sermon on the Sacred Images, as they must be Respected” published in 1629 by the Dominican preacher Fabian Birkowski in Krakow.  The Sermon presents a developed theory on holy images and church art, as an important component of religious experience. The Sermon was well known in the times of GDL. In Vilnius, copies of the Sermon could be found in the libraries of Jesuit, Basilian, Discalced Carmelites and Dominican monasteries.

Fabian Birkowski starts working on the definition of a proper relationship with holy images with the following words from the Old Testament, aimed at forbidding images: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness”. The preacher seeks to prove that a holy image is not an idol, and its worship is not idolatry, as claimed by “heretic censors” or “critically disposed Catholics” (Ex. 20). Therefore, images of Christ and saints should not be regarded as idols but as “images of genuine things”. Authenticity and trueness of images is identified by the preacher with their content. The image of a non-existent thing is devoid of content, whereas the image of an existing thing is content-permeated. If God is existent and genuine, then his image is genuine as well; if God is regarded as non-existent, then his image is devoid of any meaning. This division found in the Old and New Testaments is further developed by Birkowski, following the teaching of St. John of Damascus who derived Christian doctrines from the New Testament texts and claimed that only the image Christ as  God Incarnate in the New Testament could be  accepted. According to him, Christ, unlike the God in the Old Testament, lived among people and was visible.

An image is a book for the poor

F. Birkowski highlights five distinct types of benefit related to holy images, such as instruction, ignition of faith, veneration, emulation of what is seen, and church decoration. The benefit embraces both the properties and purpose of holy images. Furthermore, it covers different relationship with holy images as well as the arguments underlying the expediency of those images during the polemics with contemporary Protestants. The aforementioned benefits are related to the three most important goals of rhetoric, namely training (improving performance), bringing delight and arousing feelings. In a treatise dedicated to images (published in 1582), Gabriele Paleotti was the first to compare the delight caused by a work of painting to the delight caused by the art of eloquence. Like orators’ words, the plastic language of painting seeks to persuade. If the purpose is the same, then the ways of implementation are also similar.

“An image is a book for the poor” abounds in arguments and provides illustrations on various stories and topoi. Birkowski emphasizes and comments the thesis made by Pope Gregory the Great: “What writings give the readers, pictures give the simple folk who looking at them see what they ought to emulate and thus those who cannot read, read from them (…)

When the common folk looks at the story of Lord’s birth or other mysteries of Redemption, conveyed through works of painting, they regard them both as the Doctor and the Book. They feel more instructed and elated by such live representation than listening to the preacher’s sermons.

The image of Jesus Christ held by the Virgin awakens in us the faith in Incarnation. Furthermore, those looking at Christ crucified on the Cross perceive the price of their own Redemption. Those looking at St. Lawrence on grating, or St. Peter with keys, or St. Paul carrying a sword, or St. Catherine with the wheel, or St.  Stephen amidst the shower of stones, St. Magdalene at the Cross. or Mother of God, pierced by a sword, perceive the sufferings the saints were exposed to prior to attaining eternal glory.”

Spiritual aspect of ornateness

In his attempts to substantiate the aforementioned benefit brought by the holy images, the preacher touches upon the most important themes of ecclesiastical (and religious) art, such as the nature of original images of Jesus on imprinted shrouds, metaphoric and symbolic images conveying divine attributes, the imaging of saints with the help of various attributes, miracle-working power of images, the phenomenon of church decor and ornateness.

An element of ornate church decoration was topical during confessional polemics with Protestants. More background information on it is provided by Albert Wijuk-Kojałowicz, author of the book „Curiosities about the state of Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’, and more specifically in the chapter called “Emergence and Prevalence of Heresies in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania” in which a quotation by  Stanisław Orzechowski is given: “Priests have been expelled, altars demolished, houses of worship turned into pigsties.” In a similar manner, Calvinist churches are compared to cattle-sheds in the Sermon by Fabian Birkowski: “compared to our churches, [they] look like barns or stables, or cow-sheds.” Like other Catholics, Fabian Birkowski regards ornate decoration of churches an essential feature of a house of worship. A church to them is a reflection of divine Jerusalem or a promise of Heaven. Decor is associated with holiness and ulterior reality. The House of God has to embody beauty and the pursued eternity, whereas holy images carry the function of a “‘visible ladder’, which helps us elevate our hearts all the way to the invisible God”.

Tojana Račiūnaitė