“Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
M. What is the meaning of these words?
S. As in the first commandment he commandeth that himself alone be honoured and worshipped, so in this commandment he restraineth us from all superstition, and from all wrongful and bodily inventions, forasmuch as the worshipping of him ought to be spiritual and pure; and chiefly he frayeth us from the most gross fault of outward idolatry.
M. It may seem then that this law wholly condemneth the arts of painting and portraiture, so that it is not lawful to have any images made at all.
S. Not so. But he first forbiddeth us to make any images, to express or couterfeit God or to worship him withal; and secondly he chargeth us not to worship the images themselves.
M. Why is it not lawful to express God with a bodily and visible form?
S. Because there can be no likeness or agreeing between God, which is a Spirit eternal, unmeasurable, infinite, incomprehensible, severed from all mortal composition—and a frail, bodily, silly, spiritless, and vain shape. Therefore they do most injuriously abate the majesty of the most good and most great God, when they go about in such sort to make resemblance of him.
M. Have not they then said well, which affirm that images are unlearned men’s books?
S. I know not what manner of books they be; but surely, concerning God, they can teach us nothing but errors.
M. What manner of worshipping is that which is here condemned?
S. When we, intending to pray, do turn ourselves to portraitures or images; when we do fall down and kneel before them with uncovering our heads, or with other signs shewing any honour unto them, as if God were represented unto us by them; briefly, we are in this law forbidden, that we neither seek nor worship God in images, or, which is all one, that we worship not the images themselves in honour of God, nor in any wise by idolatry or superstition abuse them with injury to his majesty. Otherwise the lawful use of making portraitures and of painting is not forbidden.
M. By this that thou tellest me, it may easily be gathered, that it is very perilous to set any images or pictures in churches, which are properly appointed for the only worshipping of God.
S. That that is true we have had already too much experience, by the decay in a manner of whole religion.
From A Catechism Written in Latin by Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s Translated into English by Thomas Norton