Graven Images in the Catholic Church

Hello Everyone,

It’s been awhile since I posted, but I am hopeful many of you will help me out with this issue.

I cannot for the life of me understand why it is considered acceptable to have graven images of God, saints, angels, etc. in church when the Bible clearly seems to indicate otherwise. I have read some Catholic apologetics on this, but not a lot. I didn’t find any of their arguments very persuasive, so I was wondering if you all could point me in the right direction on this important issue.

Thanks and God Bless!


Does this help?



The prohibition against graven images, as found in the Decalogue, is clearly a prohibition against worshiping as ‘god’ things which are ‘creation’ and not ‘creator’. As Deuteronomy 5 states, “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.” Here, the issue is an ‘idol’ or ‘likeness’ which a person bows down to or serves.

If the problem was with ‘graven images’ in a pure sense, how would we understand God directing the Israelites to create graven images of angels on the Ark of the Covenant or the command to create an image of a snake and place it on a pole and look upon it?

So, if there is an image of an angel or saint or of Jesus in Church, and a person doesn’t bow down or serve the image (as opposed to bowing down to or serving Jesus), how does that break the commandment?

Thanks. I had already read that source…and while it answers some questions, it definitely does not prove the point.

The crux of the argument seems to be that only worship of graven images or images is prohibited, not the use of them in worship. But nowhere in the text will you find that qualification…and there is no evidence the Jews ever understood this commandment in the way the Catholic Church now teaches it. If the Catholic understanding is right, why didn’t the Jews see it the same way?

There is nothing “graven” about them.

What is it you believe that phrase to mean?

Thanks for responding!

The problem I have with your argument, which I have found to be the standard Catholic argument from what I have read so far, is that the Jews themselves completely disagreed with everything you are saying about the graven image command. How is it that they could be wrong for more than 1000 years?

Second, you are right that God commanded certain images to be made within the context of worship, but isn’t the point here that God commanded it? It wasn’t left for men to come up with it on their own. Again, this is how the Jews always understood it prior to and during the time of Christ. They did not believe that because God gave them a command to make statues of angels, for instance, that this gave them permission to create graven images on their own.

Maybe I have that wrong, but that is what the Talmud says and it’s what I understand to be true about ancient Judaism. If I am wrong, please correct me!


The commandment is against worshipping false idols. God commanded the Ark of the Covenant (the one Indiana Jones was looking for) be adorned with images of angels (Exodus 25:18: “And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover.”), so this apparently didn’t apply to other than images of Ba’al, Moloch, etc.

It is not correct to argue that it’s okay to have them as long as we just don’t bow to them, as Exodus 25:22 says that God will speak to Moses “from between the two cherubim,” we know that Moses is on his knees, or even on his face before God, and thus, before these two carved cherubim.

Obviously, Moses was not worshipping the cherubim, but God ordered him to use them as a reminder of divine realities, not an object of worship like a golden calf.

If we render the original word “PECEL” literally as “graven image,” then it’s okay to have pictures of saints, Jesus, etc. as long as they are not engraved, carved, or sculpted. Molded or cast statues = okay. And if we demand a literalistic interpretation of the commandment, one could argue thatit would be okay for a Christian to worship, say, a painting of Moloch, since it’s not graven. Clearly, it is not, so the “graven” part is not the part of the commandment that should concern us.

More seriously, you have to look at the use of the word in context: “graven images” literally means that in Hebrew, but it’s a bit misleading as a translation. The Hebrew word (PECEL) is used some 31 times in the Old Testament, and every time it refers to idols. So a better translation is “you shall not make idols.”

If you insist on a literalist interpretation as solely “graven images,” not as “idol,” then we as a species can’t have any sculpture, no Michelangelo’s David, no Rodin’s The Thinker, etc. If we interpret it literally as just “image,” then no store mannequins, no tombstones that show angels, no kid’s action figures, no Mount Rushmore. Also no paintings, no photos of your kids, no posting a photo online. That interpretation probably isn’t right.

That leaves us with the solution that the correct interpretation is not a prohibition against “images,” or even “graven images,” but “idols.”

An idol can be a lot of things, and it doesn’t have to be graven, or even tangible. Something worth thinking about.

The Book of Wisdom 13-14 gives you some more concrete information about what constitutes an “idol,” if you’re concerned about this, as does the early Church Father Tertullian in his “On Idolatry.”

More to the point, the commandment only prohibits worship of the images, but does not address whether images may be used in other contexts. My examples of the angels on the Ark and the graven serpent demonstrate that Jews did not see this as the absolute that you make it out to be. (In fact, the serpent on a pole only becomes an occasion of sin when the Jews worship it.)

But nowhere in the text will you find that qualification…and there is no evidence the Jews ever understood this commandment in the way the Catholic Church now teaches it.

Is there evidence that they rejected or even addressed this particular understanding? If not, then you can’t really make the assertion you’re attempting here. After all, the fact that double cheeseburgers aren’t mentioned in the OT doesn’t imply that the Jews believed that they were prohibited by God, either… :wink:

We worship Jesus who is himself an image…

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; (Colossians 1:15)

God commanded Moses to make a graven image of a serpent. Anyone who looked at the graven image was healed.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)


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To me statues are 3-D images (pictures) of people who we admire for their examples of Christian lives. They are art and represent role models for us. This reminds me of Paul who said be imitators of me (I Corinthians 4:16). We probably all have pictures of deceased loved ones in our wallets or in picture frames in our homes. We may even talk to them, but this doesn’t mean we worship them. The church is a family and statues are like pictures of our family members. We love them and want to remember them. If statues in churches are wrong then why aren’t statues of veterans, presidents, and other famous people wrong? It’s the same concept. They are people we admire and look up to.

You read Catholic apologetics, which is good, but what about the Orthodox Church? What about the Episcopalian Church? The Lutherans? (they have statues and stained glass and images of God etc too). It seems actually that the ‘older’ the Church is in Christian history, the more it has images, and that (on average), the ‘younger’ the Church, the ‘plainer’ it is. Probably a Puritan heritage, the Puritans, as Chesterton said, thinking that the only way to worship God was with ‘words’, and never with any of the senses, and never with anything beautiful. About the only ones who went ‘against the grain’ with that were the Shakers, who while they kept things ‘simple’ made simplicity beautiful (something almost no other ‘plain’ group ever managed). And it’s probably not a coincidence that the sect has now nearly died off completely.

" You shall make two **cherubim *of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat[f] with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites."

It is clear that graven images are images like the golden calf that do not honor God. Here are some other examples: Exodus 21:6-9, Numbers 21:6-9, 1 Kings 6:23-28, and 1 Kings 7:23- 39

The early Christians merely followed the Jewish tradition. Here is another example of Jewish icons with an article below about the history of icons in the Jewish tradition:

God Said To Make Them

People who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the Lord commands the making of statues. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold *; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Ex. 25:18–20).

David gave Solomon the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chr. 28:18–19). David’s plan for the temple, which the biblical author tells us was “by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all,” included statues of angels.

Similarly Ezekiel 41:17–18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and [on] the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim.”

The Religious Uses of Images

During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Israelites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21:8–9).

One had to look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations.

Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them. Catholics also use statues as teaching tools. In the early Church they were especially useful for the instruction of the illiterate. Many Protestants have pictures of Jesus and other Bible pictures in Sunday school for teaching children. Catholics also use statues to commemorate certain people and events, much as Protestant churches have three-dimensional nativity scenes at Christmas.

If one measured Protestants by the same rule, then by using these “graven” images, they would be practicing the “idolatry” of which they accuse Catholics. But there’s no idolatry going on in these situations. God forbids the worship of images as gods, but he doesn’t ban the making of images. If he had, religious movies, videos, photographs, paintings, and all similar things would be banned. But, as the case of the bronze serpent shows, God does not even forbid the ritual use of religious images.

It is when people begin to adore a statue as a god that the Lord becomes angry. Thus when people did start to worship the bronze serpent as a snake-god (whom they named “Nehushtan”), the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4).

What About Bowing?

Sometimes anti-Catholics cite Deuteronomy 5:9, where God said concerning idols, “You shall not bow down to them.” Since many Catholics sometimes bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus and the saints, anti-Catholics confuse the legitimate veneration of a sacred image with the sin of idolatry.

Though bowing can be used as a posture in worship, not all bowing is worship. In Japan, people show respect by bowing in greeting (the equivalent of the Western handshake). Similarly, a person can kneel before a king without worshipping him as a god. In the same way, a Catholic who may kneel in front of a statue while praying isn’t worshipping the statue or even praying to it, any more than the Protestant who kneels with a Bible in his hands when praying is worshipping the Bible or praying to it.*

The Jews had/have their icons since antiquity.

I just happen to have a blog article specifically on this one, so…
Iconoclasm: Or: Catholics Worship Graven Images NOT

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How could they be wrong about the Messiah for much longer than a 1000 years?

Once again, everything you’re saying conflicts with the entirety of early Judaism on these points. If all your interpretations are correct, then you are arguing the Jewish position was always wrong. The Talmud, for instance, clearly argues against it and understands the commandment to forbid the making of any images, flat, sculpted, or otherwise, that depict any humans.

So are you saying the Jews were always wrong about this?

First of all, we are talking about images, icons, and sculptures in the context of worship, not in all contexts. Second, you’re saying the passage only applies when people worship the images, etc. themselves, but that is not the plain reading of the text. You are reading that into the text (that doesn’t mean you’re wrong, by the way). Your assumption though about the Jews, based on all of the evidence I have seen, does appear to be wrong, however. As I already said…the Talmud, which is one of the oldest sources of Jewish tradition we have, specifically prohibits the use of any images, as My Jewish Learning explains:

You asked specifically about drawing the human form, so I’ll give you a bit more history on how that issue is treated in rabbinic literature. The Talmud comments on the second commandment, and takes a very strict stance against producing images of faces, ruling it forbidden, but sanctioning owning images of faces that were created by non-Jews (Avodah Zara 43a). The prohibition comes from a concern that even two dimensional images could be worshipped, or could represent idols. In some Jewish communities during the Middle Ages artists got around this prohibition by drawing human bodies topped with heads of other animals, including birds. The famous bird head Haggadah from 12th century Germany is an example of this phenomenon.

I’ve read many Lutherans on the subject. Anglicans don’t even agree on this issue since there is still a strong Reformed branch within that communion (certain parts). The Orthodox actually forbid 3d images, such as a statue, so they don’t even agree with your interpretation of the text. In fact, their interpretation specifically rejects many of the arguments Catholics make. For instance, the one that has been repeated many times here that because God commanded the creation of statues, engravings, etc. in certain instances, it is therefore permissible. If that’s true, then why don’t the Orthodox allow engraved images? I think that undermines your whole point.

You are right to suggest that the “older” churches say it’s permissible. However, I’d like to point out that the “older” churches also all say that adult converts should wait, sometimes for as much as three years, before being baptized. This, however, is clearly not biblical either. There isn’t a single instance of people waiting more than a day to be baptized in the biblical accounts. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it apostolic.

Now that is a good article and on-topic…

Although, you’ll notice nothing about statues, engravings, etc., which was my original point. Your article does seem to conflict with the source I mentioned in another post by a Jewish source that cites the Talmud (and I double-checked the section of the Talmud and it was verified).

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