Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath...Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" (Exodus 20:4-5; also Deuteronomy 5:8-9)The Baltimore Catechism, a Catholic religious textbook long used to educate Catholic children in the Faith, says: "We do not pray to the crucifix or to the images of Christ and of the saints, but to the persons of whom they remind us" (q. 96). Contrary to popular misunderstanding, we Catholics do not worship statues! Rather, we use them to remind us of our beloved family in heaven, even as you might look at a photo of a relative when he or she is far away. We know the Ten Commandments and would never address our prayers to a plaster statue, since the statue itself can do nothing.
The portion of the First Commandment cited above opposes the making of pagan idols to worship, such as the Golden Calf, which was an image of the false Egyptian god Apis. That's why God added the words "Thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship them." He doesn't want us to make images for the purpose of idolatrous worship. This commandment does not apply to artwork, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or monuments like the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty, since none of these images are intended for idolatrous worship. And since we Catholics do not worship our holy images or attribute divinity to them, this commandment does not apply to Catholic practice either.
The Bible makes it clear that, as long as they are not worshipped, God does not absolutely forbid the use of statues and other images in houses of worship. After all, in Exodus 25:18, shortly after issuing the Commandment in question, God commands Moses: "Thou shalt make also two cherubims of gold: of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat". These cherubim on the Ark were images of things "in heaven above", and so seemingly prohibited by Exodus 20:4-5! Is God contradicting Himself? No, for although they were intended for use in the Tabernacle, and thus had a religious purpose, they were not themselves objects of worship!
Again, in Numbers 21:8-9, when the Israelites were plagued by serpents, the Lord told Moses to "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone who is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live". Moses did so, and people were healed by looking at it! If God opposed all images, why would he have chosen to heal His people through one, and even made it a type of the Messiah (John 3:14-5)? Evidently, He does not oppose all images.
1 Kings 6:29 tells us that the walls of the Temple were covered with "carved figures of cherubims, and palm trees, and open flowers, within & without". These are also likenesses of things in heaven and on earth. 1 Chronicles 28:18-19 indicates that King David made numerous gold and silver images to adorn the future temple, and that he did so according to God's command (vs. 19)! And 2 Chronicles 3:10-13 informs us that Solomon had two huge golden statues of angels constructed for the Holy of holies (in addition to the two on top of the Ark, that is!).
Nowhere does God ever object to this proliferation of images in the Temple of Jerusalem, in fact His blessing of the Temple implies divine pleasure with the whole thing (see 2 Chronicles 7:18). Many Catholic churches are similarly filled with holy images; indeed, the Temple of Solomon resembled a Catholic church more than it did a typical Evangelical one!
In the Old Testament, the images in the Temple could only be of angels since there were no human beings in Heaven yet. Now Christ has opened heaven to humanity, so we can adorn the houses of worship of the New Covenant with images of the saints in heaven. As long as the sacred images are not themselves worshipped, God has no problem with us making them.
From the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.A.M.D.G.
2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone: Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.
2141 The veneration of sacred images is based on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It is not contrary to the first commandment.
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