Thursday, April 5, 2012


My interest in religious iconography goes back to my childhood in Catholic school.  I marveled at the way Catholic crucifixes and statues were always more graphic than our Christian counterparts whose churches often had a plain, wooden cross over the altar.  Catholic churches were known for their often bloody representations of Jesus hanging by nails on the rough wood.  Saints, too, especially martyrs, were depicted with flaming hearts, barbs and wounds, clearly in torturous ecstasy in their pain.  I remember one statue I saw when I was in second grade:  St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, holding a plate with two eyeballs, visually telling the story of how she either had her eyes gouged out by her tormentors, or dug them out herself as sources of sin.

Recently, I attended a dedication of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima on a local corner in my neighborhood.  During the Mass, the priest tried to make the case that Catholic worship of icons was not idolatry, something forbidden by the Second Commandment.  He did not make a convincing case.  The question bothered me long after the Mass and dedication ended.  We bow and genuflect in front of statues and icons; we leave flowers and burning candles.  Some Catholics even kiss the icon.  How is this not idol worship?

I began research for a longer piece on this subject.  As a precursor to my study, I reviewed my photographs over the last few years and I realized I have made it a point to collect images of statues whenever I visited a California Mission or a Catholic church.  Many of the images were quite startling in their graphic depictions, but a few were striking because of the facial features, especially the eyes.  I decided to publish some of these photos here on the blog in keeping with the season of Easter.  As I continue to research and write, I am sure there will be more to come about these haunting icons and their importance to Catholics the world over.


  1. First of all, your photos are excellent; being a, as a friend of mine once characterized it, "serious, but non-professional" photographer myself, your work is very good.
    Re your comments on "idolatry"; it occurs to me that, rather than actually worshiping the icon, aren't we in fact worshiping what the icon represents? I know from my years as a Roman Catholic the importance the various crucifixes and statues play in the liturgy, but isn't it merely symbolism? I mean, even Catholics aren't Dagon-worshiping heathens. (I think. ;)) Although I agree with you about the graphic nature of some of the iconography, be that as it may, it's only supposed to remind us of the idea behind the icon, be it Jesus on the cross, or a saint or whatever.
    As always, very nice piece.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. My pictures are not professional but a way of taking notes on a subject to help my memory when it comes time to write. When I see what others do with a camera, I am often amazed. I simply try to catch the gist of the subject.

    As for the icons, you make the same argument the priest made, although you make it much more effectively. I do think, though, there is a fine line between symbolism and worship. Also, as several people from other Christian sects have told me over the years, would it not be possible to symbolize Jesus' sacrifice or the importance of a saint without the graphic bloodshed? This got me thinking that a more subtle approach might be just as effective.

    In any case, I am enjoying the research on the subject.

    Take care.

  3. Of my many memories of my Catholic childhood I remember reading the missal during Mass. Each day it had a saint's Feast Day attached to it a brief biography of his or her life was included and without exception it described the manner in which the saint was tortured. Roasted alive, teeth ripped from the mouth, lions (of course). Horrible, horrible stuff.

  4. I, too, remember those books. Such horrific tales for a youngster, a kind of "1000 Ways To Die." Those saints used to haunt my dreams, and then on Sunday, I'd see their representations in the church. Somehow, we survived, Kevin. There is no bigger fraternity than those of us who grew up in Catholic households or went to Catholic schools, or did both.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Great idea for a blog, John. I'm from one of the "Christian counterparts" that just shows a bare cross, but I've always been fascinated with how Catholics are up front with the brutality Christ endured. No sugar coating.


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