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The Place of Sacred Art in Early Christian Prayer and Worship

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians incorporated sacred art in their celebration of the sacraments, liturgical rites, and private prayer. This was a departure from the traditions of Judaism and many pagan cultures that forbid figurative representations of any deity, even in abstract forms. Scripture and historical books speak of the majesty of the great temple in Jerusalem, but made no mention of crafted images of God or the prophets within its walls. However, the very first principle of Christianity was the doctrine of the incarnation, where God had become man and dwelt among us. God became visible that we may see Him, hear Him, and worship Him. Christianity by its very nature is a religion of the human senses –a faith to be seen and touched.

There are many ancient traditions that the apostles brought icons (or painted images) with them as tools for evangelization. Such holy images would give the audience a glance at face of Christ or the Virgin Mary, as the apostles recounted their stories. For example, all statues of St. Jude Thaddeus, one of the twelve apostles, portray him holding a dinner plate sized coin (a round icon of the face of Christ). Tradition is that he used an icon in his missionary work, and that it provided a miraculous cure of a prince in Persia. Sadly, this cure eventually led to his arrest and martyrdom. Another example is the famous icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, known as the icon of Poland. However, historical traditions teach that it was painted in the first century by St. Luke, the gospel writer, as a teaching tool for those who he was evangelizing.          

Christian art was also used in the liturgies of the early Church. The catacombs of Rome have many tombs (sarcophagi) dating back to the second century bearing Christian art and sculptures. Most of these holy images depict Jesus, the apostles, and symbols taken from the gospel (ie., the Good Shepherd, baptism, or the breaking of the bread). In areas near the altar, scenes from both the Old and New Testaments are frequently found painted on the walls of the catacombs. These images give testimony to the first Christians using art to teach the faith, and to help them pray, mindful that the sacraments were an entrance into the divine and transcendent life of God and the saints.  

In particular, crucifixes or images of the passion, were used by the early Church to help spread the faith. The rule of life lived by many of the first monks and hermits in the Church, spoke of their rule of life, with daily prayer before a crucifix or symbols of the passion. Many researches of the Shroud of Turin also speak of it first being kept in homes for private veneration and prayer. Centuries later, with the legalization of Christianity, it became exposed for public devotion. The veneration of the shroud, and its powerful testimony of the Lord’s passion, led to many artist to paint copies, so that other families and religious communities could also have holy images of the passion to use in their devotions. 

The use of art among the early Christians saw sacred art as essential part to their worship, their faith, and their mission to evangelize. Their traditions and images still bear fruit in the Church today.