The fourth council of Constantinople, held in 869-870 under Pope Hadrian II, is recognized as an official ecumenical council by the Roman Catholic Church (according to Catholic.com). The EWTN website has this to say regarding the infallibility of teachings promulgated by ecumenical councils:

Whenever the Pope alone or the bishops in union with the Pope exercise their divinely appointed office to teach on a matter of faith and morals to the whole Church, the teaching is infallible. The most solemn expression of this teaching authority would be an ecumenical council (which by definition would include and be in union with the Pope). Therefore, all the solemn teachings on faith and morals promulgated by the ecumenical councils are infallible.

This council, therefore, infallibly affirms the following canons:

Canon 1

If we wish to proceed without offence along the true and royal road of divine justice, we must keep the declarations and teachings of the holy fathers as if they were so many lamps which are always alight and illuminating our steps which are directed towards God. Therefore, considering and esteeming these as a second word of God, in accordance with the great and most wise Denis, let us sing most willingly along with the divinely inspired David, The commandment of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes, and, Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths; and with the author of Proverbs we say, Your commandment is a lamp and your law a light, and like Isaiah we cry to the lord God with loud voice, because your commands are a light for the earth. For the exhortations and warnings of the divine canons are rightly likened to light inasmuch as the better is distinguished from the worse and what is advantageous and useful is distinguished from what is not helpful but harmful.

This Canon goes on to proclaim that all preceding and forthcoming Canons are to be esteemed and obeyed as a second word of God thus elevating tradition to equal footing with Holy Scripture.

Canon 3

We decree that the sacred image of our lord Jesus Christ, the redeemer and saviour of all people, should be venerated with honour equal to that given to the book of the holy gospels. For, just as through the written words which are contained in the book, we all shall obtain salvation, so through the influence that colours in painting exercise on the imagination, all, both wise and simple, obtain benefit from what is before them; for as speech teaches and portrays through syllables, so too does painting by means of colours. It is only right then, in accordance with true reason and very ancient tradition, that icons should be honoured and venerated in a derivative way because of the honour which is given to their archetypes, and it should be equal to that given to the sacred book of the holy gospels and the representation of the precious cross.

This Canon goes on to include all iconic representations of Mary, angels, apostles, prophets, martyrs and holy men as well as those of all the saints. Additionally, this Canon pronounces anathema for all who are not inclined to so venerate icons:

Let those who are not so disposed be anathema from the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit.

  • Anathema - 1) something or someone that one vehemently dislikes; 2) a formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine.

So, there is a Catholic Canon, which is to be esteemed as equal in authority to the Gospels themselves (according to another Canon) and which is described as an infallible teaching to the whole Church regarding faith and morals, which infallibly pronounces anathema upon anyone who does not venerate icons with an honor equal to that given to the Gospels themselves.

  1. Do individual Catholics actually venerate icons with honor equal to that of the Gospels?

  2. Do those who do not consider icons and the Gospels equally honorable realize they have been pronounced separated from the Trinity by the 4th Council of Constantinople or has this particular Canon been cancelled?

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    An "anathema" was initially used in its ecclesiastical sense by St. Paul to mean the expulsion of someone from the Christian community. By the 6th century, the liturgical meaning evolved again to mean a formal ecclesiastical curse of excommunication and the condemnation of heretical doctrines, the severest form of separation from the Christian church issued against a heretic or group of heretics by a Pope or other church official.The phrase Latin: anathema sit ("let him be anathema"), echoing Galatians 1:8–9, was thus used in decrees of councils defining Christian faith. Is it a papal curse?
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 15:33
  • @KenGraham At the very least, Let those who are not so disposed be anathema from the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit. has to mean separation from the Godhead. Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 15:36
  • One question per post is the norm here. The Anathema subject matter could be dwelt as a separate question. Pax.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 22:24
  • @KenGraham These are not separate questions, I think, and very often there appears a main question with a derivative or follow up question within the same post. The question asks about what the Canon says should be done and about what the consequences are if they are not done. It is essentially one question about two sides of the same coin. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 1:16
  • "anathema" is a wider question. In the canons of the 869 Council of Constantinople, it appears in Canons 3 (the reference here), 6, 7, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21 and 22 dealing with many different issues including plaiting your hair to look like a priest.
    – Henry
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 10:16

2 Answers 2


From the tone of your question, I'm guessing you're thinking Catholics ought to find as much divine truth in paintings as they do in the written gospels. That's not the case. Venerating the book of the holy gospels is not the same as hearing its word.

Hey Alexa, define venerate

1: to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference

2: to honor (an icon, a relic, etc.) with a ritual act of devotion

Further explained by Denzinger

“[The holy Synod commands] that images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honor and reverence (debitum honorem et venerationem) are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols [Ps. cxxxiv, 15 sqq.]; but because the honor shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by kissing, uncovering to, kneeling before images we adore Christ and honor the saints whose likeness they bear” (Denzinger, no. 986)

So, what is veneration with regard to your question? It is the "due honor and reverence... [that] are to be paid to [the images]."

How is this veneration "given to the sacred book of the holy gospels..?" An example is given on catholic.com:

Liturgically, in the Latin rite, the veneration of the Gospel book is a gesture of the deacon or priest who has read it, or of the bishop if he is presiding over the liturgy at which the Gospel is read. In some local rites of the Mass in the Latin Church, the Gospel book is venerated by all the clergy in choir during the singing of the creed and also kissed along with the altar at the beginning of Mass.

In the Byzantine rite, the Gospel book is also venerated by the people at Matins, and it may be placed on the analogion or stand for icons to be venerated before and after going to confession. Generally, the Gospel book in venerated open in the Latin rite and closed in the Byzantine rite.

It's clear from these descriptions that Catholics venerate physical objects. Since Scripture is not a physical object, the honor and reverence paid to a physical book of gospels is "referred to the prototype which it represents," that is, the word of God (Scripture). Similarly, the honor and reverence paid to a painting of Jesus is "referred to the prototype which it represents," that is, the Christ.

I think what the canon you quoted is essentially saying is this: A book of the gospels and a painting of Christ reside in the same physical arena, therefore neither should be revered more than the other, lest we put God's Word on a pedestal higher than the Word himself.

  • Yes. That is clear in the 4th Constantinople council: The written word and the iconic images are to be venerated equally and derivatively because of the archetypes they represent. That still puts the Scripture and icons on the same leve,l with an anathema pronounced against those who do not do so. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 1:11
  • @MikeBorden that doesn't define Scripture and sacred icons as equal in any regard except their worthiness of veneration. For instance, the words of the Gospel are inerrant and true, whereas an icon may not depict Christ as He was (one example that comes to mind is that many icons depict Him as a member of different races, which was impossible). Therefore, errors in representation can exist in the icon. It is not on the same level as Scripture with regard to truth. Similarly, icons needn't be inspired in the same way or protected to the same degree as Scripture by the Holy Spirit.
    – jaredad7
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 14:36
  • @jaredad7 The words and syllables in the book of the gospels are equated in effectiveness regarding salvatory benefit with the colors of an iconic image by Canon 3. It is this equal effectiveness that produces the requirement of equal veneration and the anathema for those who are disinclined. Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 16:30
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    @MikeBorden - If you were in a room with both the Holy Spirit and Jesus, would you honor one more than the other? Similarly, when we're in a room with both a "picture" of God's word (a book of the gospels) and a "picture" of Christ (a painting of Jesus), we do not honor one more than the other.
    – qxn
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 17:01
  • Is that even possible? I think the Holy Spirit would be within both Jesus and myself and would point to and glorify Jesus just as He always does. Every knee bows to Him. The bible as a "picture" of God's word actually sounds like the written word has been de-elevated to the level of icon. As you say, there are images of Christ depicting Him as various races (which cannot all be true). These must all be venerated equally with the written word according to Constantinople 4. Do you honestly honor the Bible equally with paintings of Asian Jesus, White Jesus, and African Jesus? Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 17:34

Do Roman Catholics really venerate Icons and Holy Scripture equally?

The short answer is no!

The book of the gospels is not the same thing as the Gospels!

Although Catholics may venerate icons; they are not on the same level of veneration as with Sacred Scriptures.

Icons tend to be more attached to Catholic Popular Piety, whereas Scriptures Form part of the deposit of the Catholic Faith. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation is clear on the total equality of Scripture with Sacred Tradition when it says that "both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" because together they "form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church." The deposit of faith does not include icons or other sacred images or religious works of art.

The "sacred deposit" of the faith (depositum fidei) refers to the teachings of the Catholic Church that are believed to be handed down since the time of the Apostles – namely scripture and sacred tradition. St. Paul uses the Greek word paratheke ("deposit") in 1 Timothy 6:20: "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you"; and again in 2 Timothy 1:14 "Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us".

According to Dei Verbum, "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church [...] both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end." - Deposit of Faith

The Fourth Council of Constantinople clearly requires the honour given to icons to be equal to that given the book of the holy gospels. This is not the same thing as the Gospels.

Book of the Gospels is a codex or bound volume containing one or more of the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament – normally all four – centering on the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the roots of the Christian faith. The term is also used for a liturgical book, also called the Evangeliary, from which are read the portions of the Gospels used in the Mass and other services, arranged according to the order of the liturgical calendar.

Liturgical use in churches of a distinct Gospel book remains normal, often compulsory, in Eastern Christianity, and very common in Roman Catholicism and some parts of Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Other Protestant churches normally just use a complete Bible.

Thus the Gospels are not the same thing as a ”book of the gospels”. The first is the divine word. The second is paper and ink bound physical book. A book of the gospels and an image of Christ reside in the same physical arena, therefore neither should be revered more than the other, lest we put God's Word on a pedestal higher than the Word himself.

The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration”. Religious veneration is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.

Catholic piety usually takes on forms of devotion that are outside the liturgy and are popular on a private or sometimes a national (local) level.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy devotes separate chapters to consideration of practices associated with the liturgical year, veneration of the Mother of God, veneration of the other saints and the beatified, praying for the dead, sacred images and shrines and pilgrimages.

Under the heading "The language of popular piety", it speaks of gestures, texts and formulae, song and music, sacred music, sacred places and sacred times.

The veneration of sacred images, whether paintings, statues, icons, bas reliefs or other representations is an important aspect of popular piety.

Sacred Images

  1. The Second Council of Nicea, "following the divinely inspired teaching of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church", vigorously defended the veneration of the images of the Saints: "we order with ever rigour and exactitude that, similar to the depictions of the precious and vivifying Cross of our redemption, the sacred images to be used for veneration, are to be depicted in mosaic or any other suitable material, and exposed in the holy churches of God, on their furnishings, vestments, on their walls, as well as in the homes of the faithful and in the streets, be they images of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, or of Our Immaculate Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the Angels, the Saints and the just"(331).

The Fathers of Nicea see the basis for the use of sacred images in the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1, 15): "the Incarnation of the Son of God initiated a new "economy" of images"(332).

  1. The veneration of sacred images, whether paintings, statues, bas reliefs or other representations, apart from being a liturgical phenomenon, is an important aspect of popular piety: the faithful pray before sacred images, both in churches and in their homes. They decorate them with flowers, lights, and jewels; they pay respect to them in various ways, carrying them in procession, hanging ex votos near them in thanksgiving; they place them in shrines in the fields and along the roads.

Veneration of sacred images requires theological guidance if it is to avoid certain abuses. It is therefore necessary that the faithful be constantly remained of the doctrine of the Church on the veneration of sacred images, as exemplified in the ecumenical Councils(333), and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church(334).

  1. According to the teaching of the Church, sacred images are:
  • iconographical transcriptions of the Gospel message, in which image and revealed word are mutually clarified; ecclesiastical tradition requires that images conform "to the letter of the Gospel message"(335);

  • sacred signs which, in common with all liturgical signs, ultimately refer to Christ; images of the Saints "signify Christ who is glorified in them"(336);

  • memorials of our brethren who are Saints, and who "continue to participate in the salvation of the world, and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations"(337);

  • an assistance in prayer: contemplation of the sacred images facilitates supplication and prompts us to give glory to God for the marvels done by his grace working in the Saints; - a stimulus to their imitation because "the more the eye rests on these sacred images, the more the recollection of those whom they depict grows vivid in the contemplative beholder"(338); the faithful tend to imprint on their hearts what they contemplate with the eye: "a true image of the new man", transformed in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in fidelity to his proper vocation;

  • and a form of catechesis, because "through the history of the mysteries of our redemption, expressed in pictures and other media, the faithful are instructed and confirmed in the faith, since they are afforded the means of meditating constantly on the articles of faith"(339).

  1. It is necessary for the faithful to understand the relative nature of the cult of images. The image is not venerated in itself. Rather, that which it represents is venerated. Thus, sacred images "are given due honour and veneration, not because there are believed to contain some divinity or power justifying such cult, nor because something has to be requested of an image, nor because trust is reposed in them, as the pagans used to do with idols, but because the honour given to sacred images is given to the prototypes whom the represent"(340).

  2. In the light of the foregoing, the faithful should be careful not to fall into the error of raising sacred images to the level of paragons. The fact that some sacred images are the object of such devotion that they have become embodiments of the religious culture of nations or cities or particular groups, should be explained in the light of the grace which is at the basis of the veneration accorded them, and of the historical and social circumstances of the history surrounding them. It is good that a people should recall such events, to strengthen its faith, glorify God, conserve its cultural identity, and pray incessantly with confidence to the Lord who, according to his own words (cf. Mt. 7, 7; Lk 11, 9; Mk 11, 24), is always prepared to hear them; thereby causing an increase of charity and hope, and the growth of the spiritual life of the Christian faithful.

  3. By their very nature, sacred images belong to the realm of sacred signs and to the realm of art. These "are often works of art infused with innate religious feeling, and seem almost to reflect that beauty that comes from God and that leads to God"(341). The primary function of sacred images is not, however, to evince aesthetic pleasure but to dispose towards Mystery. Sometimes, the artistic aspects of an image can assume a disproportionate importance, seeing the image as an "artistic" theme, rather conveying a spiritual message.

The production of sacred images in the West is not governed by strict canons that have been in place for centuries, as is the case in the Eastern Church. This does not imply that the Latin Church has overlooked or neglected its oversight of sacred images: the exposition of images contrary to the faith, or indecorous images, or images likely to lead the faithful into error, or images deriving from a disincarnate abstraction or dehumanizing images, have been prohibited on numerous occasions. Some images are examples of anthropocentric humanism rather than reflections of a genuine spirituality. The tendency to remove sacred images from sacred places is to be strongly condemned, since this is detrimental for the piety of the Christian faithful.

Popular piety encourages sacred images which reflect the characteristics of particular cultures; realistic representations in which the saints are clearly identifiable, or which evidently depict specific junctures in human life: birth, suffering, marriage, work, death. Efforts should be made, however, to ensure that popular religious art does not degenerate into mere oleography: in the Liturgy, there is a correlation between iconography and art, and the Christian art of specific cultural epochs.

  1. The Church blesses sacred images because of their cultic significance. This is especially true of the images of the Saints which are destined for public veneration(342), when she prays that, guided by a particular Saint, "we may progress in following the footsteps of Christ, so that the perfect man may be formed in us to the full measure of Christ"(343). The Church has published norms for the exposition of sacred images in churches and other sacred places which are to be diligently observed(344). No statue or image is to be exposed on the table of an altar. Neither are the relics of the Saints to be exposed on the table of an altar(345). It is for the local ordinary to ensure that inappropriate images or those leading to error or superstition, are not exposed for the veneration of the faithful. - Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy Principles and Guidelines

Not all Catholics engage in this particular form of popular piety and remain free to do so. I would venture to say most traditional Catholics would have some form of sacred art in their homes to aid in their particular person devotions.

As for anathemas, Canon 3 of the Fourth Council of Constantinople states those who are not so disposed be anathema from the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit.

First of all a Catholic definition of the term.


Solemn condemnation, of biblical origin, used by the Church to declare that some position or teaching contradicts Catholic faith and doctrine.

"If anyone," Paul wrote to the Galatians, "preach to you a gospel besides what you have received, let him be anathema: (Galatians 1:9). Reflecting the Church's concern to preserve the integrity of faith, the Fathers anathematized heretics in a variety of terms. Polycarp called Marcion the firstborn of the devil. Ignatius saw in heretics poisonous plants, or animals in human form. Justin (c. 100-65) and Tertullian (160-220) called their teachings an inspiration of the Evil One. Theophilus compared them to barren and rocky islands on which ships were wrecked, and Origen said they were pirates placing lights on cliffs to lure and destroy vessels in search of refuge. These primitive views were later tempered in language, but the implicit attitudes remained and were crystallized in solemn conciliar decrees. The familiar anathema sit (let him be anathema, or excommunicated) appears to have been first applied to heretics at the Council of Elvira (Spain) in 300-6, and became the standard formula in all the general councils of the Church, as against Arius (256-336) at I Nicea in 787. (Etym. Greek anathema, thing devoted to evil, curse; an accursed thing or person; from anatithenai, to set up, dedicate.)

However, much confusion is understood by what Catholics mean when the Church employs this term. Only Catholic can be anathematized, since it is a term to be employed when excommunicating someone. Non-Catholic can not be excommunicated from the Church, since they are not part of the Church’s faithful.

Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-52) in the chapter Debent duodecim sacerdotes, Cause xi, quest. iii. - Anathema

Even the Apostle Paul used such terminology in his letters:

If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha. - 1 Corinthian 16:22

For I could wish that I myself were accursed (anathema), separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. - Rom 9:3

But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema). - Gal. 1:8-9

Also, for what it’s worth, the canons of the councils of the Catholic Church apply only to members of the Catholic Church: after one has formally separated from the Catholic Church and rejected its authority, then its disciplinary pronouncements have no more bearing on him. The declaration of anyone as “anathema” at the Council of Trent does not technically apply to Protestants today, only to Catholics who were espousing those doctrines. You can’t very well be excommunicated from something you were never formally a part of.

  • 1
    This doesn't address the anathema pronounced in Canon 3 of the fourth council of Constantinople. Did the second council of Nicaea nullify the 3rd canon of the fourth council of Constantinople which says, "If anyone then does not venerate the icon of Christ, the saviour, {*with honor equal to that given the Gospels} let him not see his face when he comes in his father’s glory to be glorified and to glorify his saints’, but let him be cut off from his communion and splendour."? Has the anathema been removed? Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 12:24
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    Also, the fourth council of Constantinople clearly requires the honor given to icons to be equal to that given the Gospels. What you have provided indicates that the honor given icons should be less than that accorded the Gospels. Which ecumenical pronouncement is valid and why? Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 12:27
  • @MikeBorden About the two further points, I will wait until I can see the origin Latin text. English translations are notorious with bad wordings.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 14:38
  • 1
    @MikeBorden - The Gospel is not the same thing as a book of the gospels. The first is the divine word. The second is paper and ink. A book of the gospels and an image of Christ reside in the same physical arena, therefore neither should be revered more than the other, lest we put God's Word on a pedestal higher than the Word himself. I think that's the essence of the canon you quoted.
    – qxn
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 16:31
  • @MikeBorden Hope my edit helps. Normally questions should be limited to one question. The Anathema part is should have been dwelt as a separate question.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 22:22

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