The Reformation of Images

I’ve been doing some reading on the first commandment and its appendix on images (the second commandment according to a different division of the Decalogue).

It is well known that images of Christ provoke sharp disagreement among Protestants (though you will find none saying that religious worship should be paid to such images). It is often alleged that one problem with them is that they are inherently Nestorian, because they divide Christ’s divinity from his humanity, attempting to show only the latter. One might suggest that this line of attack proves too much unless one wants to forbid all images of any human being as well, for the latter, too, do not show the whole person, but only his visible aspect. In other words, it might suggest a misunderstanding of what, e.g., painters do in the first place, viz., depict outward forms.

In fact, Peter Martyr Vermigli makes just this response to that argument in Loci communes 2.5.10, a passage I was directed to by a citation in Johann Gerhard’s treatment of the appendix to the first commandment in the Loci theologici. I translate the passage below.

Now let us look to those images that depict created things, in what way they can be tolerated or not tolerated. Quite the first thing that comes to mind is Christ himself in so far as he is man, for in such a way he can be both fashioned and painted. For this neither conflicts with the nature of the thing, since he was truly man, nor with the art of painting, which can imitate bodies.

On the other hand, there was indeed a decree in the Seventh Council, which the papists do not accept (though it was held by Constantine and his son), that Christ was not to be painted or fashioned even as far as his human nature was concerned. And the reason given is that nothing can be expressed by art except his humanity, whence those who make such things seem to embrace the error of Nestorius, who separated the human from the divine nature.

But, to tell you the truth, I little approve of this reasoning. If it were true, it would not be permitted to paint any man, because the soul, which is the spirit, cannot be expressed. And those who paint the human nature of the Lord do not exclude the divine nature from our understanding, nor do they demonstrate or show that the humanity of Christ was or is destitute of his divinity.


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