I have previously expressed my amusement that so many of the greatest proponents of the ten commandments consistently violate the second. The most devout Christians I've known through the years have surrounded themselves with religious imagery. They bow and pray before crosses. They also wear them. Catholics, in particular, are heavily invested in statues of saints and the Blessed Virgin, some of which are believed to have healing properties and even exude divine unction. (Yes. In many cases it turns out to be a coating of air-born cooking oils most likely caused by frying a lot of zeppoles but we don't need to go there.)
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
The bottom line: Most Christians -- and Catholics in particular -- are idolators. The prohibition in the second commandment was probably a reaction against Egyptian practices and useful for stamping out pagan practices as Christianity expanded. And as I've pointed out previously, the iconoclast movements have long since been abandoned by Jews and Christians, making the second commandment a sort of vestigial relic.
I was ruminating on this irony just yesterday while I was in the shower. (I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower.) And I was wondering what real underlying motivation it could possibly serve to strip people of their freedom to express their spirituality in art or to appreciate some of these magnificent images. This new article by William Henry had me contemplating the issue again this morning. In it he discusses the legend of St. Francis of Assissi receiving the gift of stigmata through contemplation of images of the crucified Christ, beginning with a Byzantine image.
The likely source for this linkage is THE REMEMBRANCE OF THE DESIRE OF A SOUL, written by Thomas of Celano soon after the death of Francis. Thomas recounts Francis’s vision of Jesus speaking to him from the Byzantine image of a crucified Jesus at San Damiano, a dilapidated church near Assisi. Christ is alive on the crucifix. His eyes are wide open, as if contemplating his ascension, which is portrayed just above his head. The voice from the crucifix commanded Francis to “go rebuild My house.” As a result of this vision Francis went about repairing the church at San Damiano and reforming the Catholic Church.
Thomas says soon after the vision (which is thought to have occurred in 1205) Francis’s body began to change. “From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.
It is clear that Thomas believed that the seeds of the stigmata were planted in Francis’s gentle heart at the moment the Crucifix spoke and would later manifest/germinate in his body as the stigmata after Francis’s encounter with Jesus as a seraphim. But that happened later.
St. Catherine of Siena also attributed her stigmata to a crucifix.
Art, especially sacred art, has extraordinary, even supernatural, power. Saint Catherine of Siena received the stigmata from a crucifix. I saw our Lord fastened upon the cross coming down towards me and surrounding me with a marvelous light...Then there came down from the holes of his blessed wounds five bloody beams, which were directed towards the same parts of my body: to my hands, feet, and heart. This was how, according to legend, Saint Catherine of Siena described receiving the stigmata.
Art is one of the most powerful and immediate ways to depict core mythologies and archetypes. And myth has the ability to, as Joseph Campbell put it, make us "transparent to the transcendent." Campbell gives one explanation of this experience in Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Here, he may as well be speaking directly of the experience of these two saints and their merging with Christ.
Now, when you have a deity as a model, your life becomes transparent to the transcendent, so far as you realize the inspiration of that god. This means living, not in the name of success or achievement in the world, but rather in the name of transcendence, letting the energy come through.
This, at least, is how I experience spiritual artwork. I have always had a certain fondness for religious art and iconography. But as my spiritual path has deepened, so has my love for images of angels, gods, goddesses, the Buddha, and, well, many other things in heaven above and on the earth below. In part it is due to my study of sacred geometry -- and the proper use of these geometries in art is also a powerful psychic trigger -- but my response to the art itself is far more intuitive and emotional. I am at times utterly transported by images of angels. As I explained in my Christmas message last year, I have been moved to a kind of reverie that causes me to lose chunks of time while gazing at lawn ornaments in Target. Do I bow down and worship these idols? No. But then I don't bow down and worship anyone or anything... which puts me afoul of Christianity for entirely different reasons.
The experience is of one of merging with an idealized, dare I say mystical, state expressed through these archetypes. While these "peak" states are not dependent on images, symbolism in art is a powerful mover. It is not surprising that churches and other religious structures are full of it or that all those second commandment ignoring Christians surround themselves with it.
This also suggests another reason for the attempt to suppress religious iconography in the finished Bible and the ensuing iconoclast movements: The suppression of the mystical experience itself. The experience of personal transcendence has always been suspect within organized religion and at times violently suppressed. William Henry often points to the genocide of the Cathars as one such example. The execution of Joan of Arc is yet another example of the church persecuting one who "pierced the veil" -- only to rethink it and canonize her long after she was dead. Such is the difficult relationship between organized religion as spiritual authority and the personal revelations of practitioners that can result from religious experience. Only some of these experiences can be recast as fitting into orthodox beliefs; the rest become heresy.
The experience of the ascension process has been ruthlessly suppressed both in Biblical stories and by the Christian Church. Two of the best examples of this have been repeatedly referenced by William Henry: The destruction of the Tower of Babel and the "fall" of Adam and Eve. Both of these myths refer to the raising of kundalini. Towers, as I've stated previously, are symbols of the spine. (See here and here.) Babel means "gate to God." Trees are also used to symbolize the spine and in the case of Eve's "temptation" it is fairly obvious, as a serpent is in the tree. Trees also connect heaven and earth. Both of these stories are about humans being banished from paradise; from the realm of the gods or ascended beings.
As Henry points out in this article, the Seraphim, ascended beings, are also depicted guarding the gate to paradise. But many images of the Seraphim provide important clues to our own ascension process. As per Henry, the word Seraphim means "winged and/or fiery serpents." In other words, the fully ascended kundalini. They are suggestive of the merkaba with its whirling, counter-rotating fields. And in many of these images, they are covered with eyes, suggestive of the awakened pineal gland.
So many graven and other images of heavenly processes are filled with such symbolism. Art like this actually wakes us up and we can't have that now can we.