The subject of idolatry was raised as a religious polemic, a
monotheistic appraisal of the polytheism. Idolatry is concerned
with the rather ubiquitous belief among indigenous cultures
that images of gods can become a repository of divine power,
one development of animism, in which all of nature was imbued
with supernatural forces. The sympathetic magic of images
depended upon the image being a proper representation
of the god, and also being installed through a special invocatory
ceremony. Although the early Judaic commandment not to
worship graven images implied a new separate form of worship,
the statement that the Jewish god was ‘‘a jealous god’’ implied
that Pagan images possessed some power but that it
would be of rival demonic gods as distinct from the monotheism
of Moses.
The belief in the power of images is also related to the designation
of special sacred places—particularly striking natural locations
or buildings such as tabernacles, synagogues, and
churches where the presence of God might be enhanced. The
very structure of churches and cathedrals utilized architecture
to reinforce this belief, while rituals created a mental and emotional
structure to invoke divine presence. Allied to the use of
rituals are the geometrical shapes of mandalas, used as an aid
in meditation.
In the history of Christianity, the Judaic commandment
prohibiting images, in the face of their almost universal appeal,
caused great controversies in relation to the use of icons (flat
stylized picture of the saints), as opposed to statues of Christ
andor the Virgin Mary in churches, one major element in the
division of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers banned images in
their churches, and only in recent decades have they returned,
but only as decorative art.
The Catholic view is that such representations are not actually
worshiped, but are simply an aid for intercession with divine
power, that it is a more intangible god that is worshiped.
However, the concept of God as a father figure, and the tangible
representations of Jesus Christ merely remove imagery to
a mental and spiritual level, for which an image is a support.
Moreover, in some countries, the ‘‘veneration’’ of images
closely approaches actual ‘‘worship,’’ as for example, the famous
‘‘Child of Prague’’ image of the Carmelites Church of
Our Lady of Victories in the former Czechoslovakia (a statue
actually brought from Spain in the sixteenth century). This statue
has become known in many countries and venerated by
thousands of people, in the belief that it can render favors on
those who pray to it. Interestingly enough, the robes of this
image are changed regularly in accordance with the ecclesiastical
calendar. This custom of dressing images is also widely
practiced at the present day temples through India, indicating
that customs and beliefs relating to images are common to
many traditions.
Worship associated with ancient pagan Mother Goddesses
has much in common with Christian adoration of the Virgin
Mary. Some comparative religionists would go so far as to claim
that these are but different forms of one primal maternal force
in nature. Similarly the concept of a divine savior, born of a virgin
and crucified for the atonement of human sin, is also found
in some Pagan religions.
The belief that images might become actual centers of divine
power is still common in different religions. In Hindu temples,
images are installed with special ceremonies to invoke divinity,
and subsequently treated as living entities. The
installation ceremonies mark an important point in the opening
of a temple for public worship. In Swaminarayan temples,
for example, the installation of an image requires a ritual in
which, at the high point, a mirror is held in front of the deity’s
eyes, so that the power may not blind observers; the mirror is
said to be cracked by this force.
In Roman Catholicism, miracles continue to be associated
with statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Such miracles involve
statues that move, weep, or shed blood. In the phenomenon
of stigmata, an intensely devout individual or a saint may
become, in effect, a living statue upon which the wounds of
Christ are physically reproduced—the marks of scourging,
wounds on the shoulder and side, the bruising of wrist, and
bleeding hands. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary are a related
phenomenon in which a holy figure does not require the material
support of an image for manifestation but appears with independent
Even in modern times, there are claims of moving statues
of the Virgin Mary, notably at the village of Ballinspittle, in
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