What was the ante-Nicene Fathers' view on image veneration and its use inside churches?

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    The real problem with this particular question is that the Early Church was under persecution during the first four centuries and churches rarely existed in the sense that we know them now. Early Christians often met in homes or Catacombs.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 23:05
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    Are you looking for a response from a Catholic, or from anyone familiar with the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers? Commented May 10, 2022 at 0:58
  • 1
    @HoldToTheRod I am currently researching these subjects, and I am willing to accept any Good answer.
    – Wenura
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


What was the ante-Nicene Fathers' view on the veneration of images and its use inside churches?

The real problem with this particular question is that the Early Church was under persecution during the first four centuries and churches rarely existed in the sense that we know them now. Early Christians often met in homes (house churches) or Catacombs. Persecuted the Early Church writers are silent on this issue. But the Early Christian art exists from the catacombs. Their art has been preserved!

The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the second to early fourth centuries on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome.

Early Christian art is generally divided into two periods by scholars: before and after either the Edict of Milan of 313, bringing the so-called Triumph of the Church under Constantine, or the First Council of Nicea in 325. The earlier period being called the Pre-Constantinian or Ante-Nicene Period.

Early Christian art and produced by Christians from the earliest period of Christianity to, depending on the definition used, sometime between 260 and 525. In practice, identifiably Christian art only survives from the 2nd century onwards.

It is hard to know when distinctly Christian art began. Prior to 100, Christians Were constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion not well endeared in the Roman world, the lack of surviving writings is more than understandable. Some of these catacombs are over 10 miles (16 kilometres) long!

The veneration of images

Distinct from the admission of images is the question of the way they are treated. What signs of reverence, if any, did the first Christians give to the images in their catacombs and churches? For the first period we have no information. There are so few references to images at all in the earliest Christian literature that we should hardly have suspected their ubiquitous presence were they not actually there in the catacombs as the most convincing argument. But these catacomb paintings tell us nothing about how they were treated. We may take it for granted, on the one hand, that the first Christians understood quite well that paintings may not have any share in the adoration due to God alone.

Christian images before the eighth century

Two questions that obviously must be kept apart are those of the use of sacred images and of the reverence paid to them. That Christians from the very beginning adorned their catacombs with paintings of Christ, of the saints, of scenes from the Bible and allegorical groups is too obvious and too well known for it to be necessary to insist upon the fact. The catacombs are the cradle of all Christian art. Since their discovery in the sixteenth century — on 31 May, 1578, an accident revealed part of the catacomb in the Via Salaria — and the investigation of their contents that has gone on steadily ever since, we are able to reconstruct an exact idea of the paintings that adorned them. That the first Christians had any sort of prejudice against images, pictures, or statues is a myth that has been abundantly dispelled by all students of Christian archaeology. The idea that they must have feared the danger of idolatry among their new converts is disproved in the simplest way by the pictures even statues, that remain from the first centuries.

The idea that the Church of the first centuries was in any way prejudiced against pictures and statues is the most impossible fiction. After Constantine (306-37) there was of course an enormous development of every kind. Instead of burrowing catacombs Christians began to build splendid basilicas. They adorned them with costly mosaics, carving, and statues. But there was no new principle. The mosaics represented more artistically and richly the motives that had been painted on the walls of the old caves, the larger statues continue the tradition begun by carved sarcophagi and little lead and glass ornaments.

The Dura-Europos church is known as the earliest identified Christian house church.

The church was uncovered by a team of archaeologists during two excavation campaigns in the city from 1931 to 1932. The frescos were removed after their discovery and are now preserved at Yale University Art Gallery.

The Dura-Europos church (or Dura-Europos house church) was the earliest-identified Christian house church. It was located in Dura-Europos, Syria, and was one of the earliest-known Christian churches, and seems to have occupied an ordinary house that was converted for worship some time between 233 and 256.

Conversion to a church

During the conversion of the private house into a church, a wall between two small rooms was demolished to make space for the large assembly room. This signified the shift to "church houses", which were more permanently adapted for religious use. As noted in The Oxford History of Christian Worship; "one of the larger rooms served as a baptistery, another for the celebration of the Eucharist, and a third possibly for the instruction of catechumens".


The surviving frescoes are probably the oldest-known Christian paintings. The "Good Shepherd", the "Healing of the paralytic" and "Christ and Peter walking on the water" are considered the earliest depictions of Jesus. A much larger fresco depicts three women approaching a large sarcophagus; this most likely depicts the three Marys visiting Christ's tomb or the Parable of the Ten Virgins. There were also frescoes of Adam and Eve, and David and Goliath. The frescoes clearly followed the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic tradition but they are more crudely done than the paintings of the nearby Dura-Europos synagogue.



There is artwork in one form or another in Christianity as far back as the archeological record can take us (As already noted by Ken Graham, precious little has survived from the very earliest years of the Christian era, when it was an overwhelmingly persecuted minority religion, so we have little data until a few generations later). At the very least, we can conclude that artwork is present in Christianity from very early on (further reading here). Perhaps more relevant to the question, however, is what was its purpose?



Historian William Manchester summarized:

Neither Jesus nor his disciples had mentioned sainthood. The designation of saints emerged during the second and third centuries after Christ, with the Roman persecution of Christians. The survivors of the catacombs believed those who had been martyred had been received directly into heaven...They revered them as saints, but they never venerated idols of them. All the early Christians had despised idolatry, reserving special scorn for sculptures representing pagan gods. (as quoted in Callister The Inevitable Apostasy p.257)


Honoring/praying to images

Origen of Alexandria had much to say about prayer, and how he believed it was misused (by some) in his day:

Another reason also why we abstain from doing honour to images, is that we may give no support to the notion that the images are gods. It is on this ground that we condemn Celsus, and all others who, while admitting that they are not gods, yet, with the reputation of being wise men, render to them what passes for homage. (Contra Celsum 7.66)

We believe, therefore, that things under the bondage of corruption, and subject to vanity, which remain in this condition in hope of a better state, ought not in our worship to hold the place of God, the all-sufficient, and of His Son, the First-born of all creation. Let this suffice, in addition to what we have already said of the Persians, who abhor altars and images, but who serve the creature instead of the Creator. As to the passage quoted by Celsus from Heraclitus, the purport of which he represents as being, that it is childish folly for one to offer prayers to images, while he knows not who the gods and heroes are, we may reply that it is easy to know that God and the Only-begotten Son of God, and those whom God has honoured with the title of God, and who partake of His divine nature, are very different from all the gods of the nations which are demons; but it is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images. (Contra Celsum 7.65)

Celsus forgets that he is addressing Christians, who pray to God alone through Jesus. (Contra Celsum 8.37)

the Gospel requires them not to busy themselves about statues and images, or even about any of the created works of God but to ascend on high, and present the soul to the Creator. (Contra Celsum 5.35)

this knowledge [of angels], making known to us their nature, and the offices to which they are severally appointed, will not permit us to pray with confidence to any other than the Supreme God, who is sufficient for all things, and that through our Savior the Son of God. (Contra Celsum 5.5)

Cyprian was sharp in his counsel:

that to pray otherwise than He [Jesus] taught is not ignorance alone, but also sin; since He Himself has established, and said, You reject the commandments of God, that you may keep your own traditions. Let us therefore, brethren beloved, pray as God our Teacher has taught us. (Treatise 4 - On the Lord's Prayer: 2-3)



The early fathers explicitly taught that prayers should be addressed to God; they did not unilaterally condemn artwork, but were sharp in their critiques of reverencing or praying to man-made images.

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    This actually addresses nothing to the Christian concept of the veneration of images from a Christian artistic perspective. Origen of Alexandria Is addressing pagans not Christian art of the catacombs or in house churches.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 3:34
  • @KenGraham I'm not sure I follow your comment. When Origen refers to "we" or "us" he's talking about what Christians do (to correct misrepresentation by Celsus & others). He's saying Christians don't pray or do honor to images. I agree though that he is not speaking against the use of art; he's criticizing the worship of art. Commented May 11, 2022 at 4:04
  • In any case, he is not disallowing the usage, but simply that homage (adoration) should not be given them. Celsus was a pagan philosopher and controversialist who had written a scathing attack on Christianity in his treatise The True Word.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 11:02

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