Why Do Catholics Use Graven Images?

The Interior of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem
Notice the Temple is filled with "Graven Images"
Image Source: Bible Architecture 

QUESTION: Why do Catholics have statues of Mary and other Saints?
ANSWER: Statues, sculptures and paintings of various figures from the Bible, and various persons throughout history, are called icons, and they serve as visual reminders of these persons and the virtues they represent. They are used as visual aids in the same way a Bible serves as a written aid. When one enters a private home it is common to see pictures of family members on the walls, both living and deceased. In the same way, when one enters a Catholic Church, the images of loved ones in the Church are commonplace. (Catechism 1159 - 1162)

QUESTION: Doesn't the Bible forbid the use of statues and "graven images?"
ANSWER: I certainly hope not, since a photograph of any kind would qualify as a "graven image" even if it is only graven with ink. You better toss those family photos if that is the case! The Biblical passage most commonly used to support the notion that graven images are forbidden by God is Exodus 20:4-5.  However, just five chapters later (Exodus 25:18-19) the very same God that supposedly forbade all graven images then commanded Moses to make graven images. So which is it? Are we to have graven images or not? Was God effectively saying; "Make no graven images, except this one?" Then in Numbers 21:8-9, God again commanded Moses to make a graven image. Then in 1st Kings 6:23-29 and 1st Kings 7:25-45, we see that God actually blessed Solomon's Temple (depicted above), made in God's honour, which was covered with graven images inside and out!  Clearly, God does not have a problem with graven images; not statues, nor icons, nor paintings.

If we take a closer look at the context of the prohibition against graven images in Exodus 20, we can see that what God was really forbidding was the making of graven images dedicated to false gods. What God actually forbade was the worship of false gods, and any image that represented such false divinity. He was not prohibiting the creation and display of graven images in general. Nor did he forbid their use in places of worship dedicated to him. What God forbade was the creation of images that represent a deity (god or goddess) other than himself.  For God is not only a jealous God, but he does not contradict himself either.  It is illogical to say that God prohibits all graven images, but then commands and blesses the use of graven images.  When reading the Bible, remember the Rule of Context, which is "context rules!" To say that God prohibits all graven images because of one particular verse, and then just leave it at that, is a gross violation of the rule of context. God does not prohibit all graven images! What he prohibits is graven images of false gods. There is a difference.

We need to stop and think about this. Many Christians go around condemning Catholics for having "graven images", but then quite hypocritically put up nativity scenes at Christmas time. How is this any different? Those same Christians might have a painting or two of Jesus around the house, and they might even have a statue of Jesus, or some symbol of him, such as a lion or a lamb, in their churches. If God truly did forbid all graven images, of any kind, than Christian churches would have to look like Islamic mosques to be compliant with the commandment. All paintings, sculptures and photographs would have to be destroyed, not only in churches, but in people's homes, museums and in the public square as well. If God truly did forbid all graven images, than every photograph of our loved ones would have to be burned, and the Internet (filled with all sorts of images) would have to be avoided entirely. It's ridiculous isn't it? It's absurd! Obviously that can't be what God meant. Again, it's all about context. When God forbade graven images, he was talking about false gods (Pagan divinities).

Catholics don't use images of false gods (Pagan divinities). We use statues of real people instead, such as; Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the Saints and Angels. This cannot be a sin, as I cited above that God even commanded the use of graven images in his own Temple during the Old Testament period.

More information on this topic can be found in my book Catholicism for Protestants.

More answers to questions on Catholic Christianity can be found on the Apologetics Page.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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