Religious Art In Worship

One of the most drastic changes to affect the church after the first century was the introduction of religious art into worship. This innovation so obviously smacked of the idolatry prohibited by the second commandment that it was slow to catch on. Notice:

"Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria regarded this prohibition as absolute and binding on Christians. Images and cultic statues belonged to the demonic world of paganism. In fact, the only second-century Christians known to have had images of Christ were radical Gnostics.. Yet before the end of the second century Christians were freely expressing their faith in artistic terms" (Henry Chadwick, The Pelican History of the Church, p. 277).

The earliest example of a church that had pictures on the wall was a third-century building in Dura on the Euphrates. Even then, it was primarily Old Testament scenes. As late as the Emperor Constantine, many leaders of the professing Christian church were still shocked at the idea of having pictures or images of Christ. We read:

"About 327 [ad] the learned historian Eusebius of Caesarea received a letter from the emperor's sister Constantia asking him for a picture of Christ.. Eusebius wrote her a very stern reply. He was well aware that one could find pictures of Christ and of the apostles. They were for sale in the bazaars of Palestine, and he had himself seen them. But Eusebius did not think the painters and shopkeepers selling these mementos to pilgrims were Christians at all. [he] takes it for granted that only pagan artists would dream of making such representations" (ibid., pp. 280-281).

Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth-century church leader, was horrified to find a curtain in a church-porch in Palestine with a purported picture of Christ. He not only lodged a vehement protest with the bishop of Jerusalem, but personally tore down the curtain and destroyed it. By the time of his death in 403ad, however, portrayals of Christ and the saints were becoming increasingly widespread. This was accompanied by the veneration of Mary which, by 400ad, was occupying an ever-increasing place in private devotions.

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