There is a common artistic motif in Roman catacomb art which, if correctly understood, is a demonstration that Christians used religious art for “cultic purposes”–scholarly jargon for veneration. In order to understand the evidence, one simple principle needs to be understood. In short, due to art not coming with directions, unless the art conveys something really obvious, one can only guess as to the art’s intended purpose.

As discussed elsewhere, the Grotto of Nazareth is an exceedingly rare example of art that came with directions. Archaeology has identified what is thought to be a graffiti where the most plausible rendering indicates that the artistic depiction of “M” was “adorned” (i.e. a form of veneration). Finding literal directions such as these are equivalent to catching lightning in a bottle, so it is very unlikely that another explicit piece of evidence like this will be unearthed. The fact that such directions were even written, let alone survived the sands of time, is suggestive to how widespread the practice of iconodulia was.

A Common Catacomb Motif. Nevertheless, such a compelling piece of evidence is hardly the only archaeological proof of iconodulia. There are no insignificant number of examples of ante-Nicene icons, intended to be venerated, in plain sight. Specifically, the icons venerated are that of the Good Shepherd, located on the ceiling of numerous catacombs. When someone enters any one of these tombs, they are immediately encountered by a large female figure, head appropriately veiled, praying:

Two details are noticeable when one looks at the woman. The figure’s posture is elevated with arms stretched upwards, in a prayer to heaven. Additionally, her eyes are deliberately painted with the pupils pointed towards the sky. The intent of the artist is obvious. He or she is inviting the onlooker to mimic the posture of the painting. Mimicking the figure in prayer, the tomb’s visitor would lift her/his head and hands in prayer towards God in heaven. In so doing, one looks at the tomb’s ceiling, straight at the icon of the Good Shepherd:

The Good Shepherd is surrounded by sheep. The symbolism is obvious. The Good Shepherd is Christ. The sheep are the saints He has saved. The pilgrim is intended to pray for the deceased person in the tomb, in imitation of the praying figure, to heaven in the direction of the icon of the Good Shepherd. This evidences that prayers for the dead were quire coveted, as patronizing such art was expensive, just as it would be today. These are not useless details. The iconography was painted with a deliberate purpose.

The above motif is repeated many times in the catacombs. This implies that the practice surrounding the veneration of the icon was common and expected. For those who are curious, as follows are several examples of other praying figures and other Good Shepherds from the catacombs. For more, see Jensen’s Ritual and Early Christian Art.

Concerning such art, Jensen asserts:

Among the visual images that decorated early Christian tomb chambers and stone sarcophagi are depictions of individuals engaging in certain ritual activities…These images may even prompt or depict ritual actions that take place in their presence. (Ibid., p. 588)

The ritual activity intended in the above is all too clear–prayer to the icon of Christ.

But Does That Mean the Icon Had To Be Venerated? There appears to be sort of hyper-skepticism applied to the use of religious art by those who study it, either casually or seriously. This skepticism is that unless the art is explicitly identified as venerated (again, catching lightning in a bottle), they refuse to believe that it was. Such skepticism exists despite a survey of every single instance of early recorded evidence describing the explicit use of art either conveys its veneration and/or apotropaic qualities. One would be hard pressed to devise any other explanation for Christian art’s use aside from its “cultic incorporation,” or in other words, its veneration.

So, why is it that so many people, including art historians, do not recognize this fact? As iconography scholar Father Steven Bigham observed in a recent interview, veneration may have not always looked the same. People look at ancient evidence expecting to see icons being kissed or candles being lit according to the Orthodox custom. Not finding this, they reflexively conclude that Christian art was not venerated.

Is this justified? Veneration practices are described in early souces. This demonstrably includes prostration (according to Saint Epiphanius in identifying the custom of his opposition within the Church and Eusebius in discussing the statue at Paneas), adorning (according to Saint Irenaeus, The Acts of John, and the Grotto at Nazareth), and prayer and weeping in an icon’s direction (according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa in describing the veneration of a depiction of the Martyr Theodore). None of the preceding would be out of place in an Orthodox Church today. Granted, certain physical demonstrations of veneration are not attested to in the early source material such as kissing or the lighting of candles in the presence of icons. The preceding does not mean it did not occur (judging from the preceding, it probably did). It just means it is not preserved in the written evidence.

Even if for the sake of argument it is conceded to the aniconists that there has been no visible continuity whatsoever in gestures and practice with how early Christian art was venerated, this still does not mean it was not venerated. As the above shows, details within the art in the catacombs demand that the purpose of the art was to invoke prayer in the direction of an icon that represented Christ. This exhibits marked continuity with universal Christian practice before the Protestant Reformation.

Conclusion. One would think the burden of proof would solidly be on the aniconist side as it is they who expound a revisionist interpretation of the evidence wildly out of step with: 1. universal Christian practice, 2. the consensus of documented evidence on the subject, as well as 3. suggestive indicators within the art itself conveying veneration practices taking place. Sadly, due to the confused state of the study of the topic, the burden of proof appears to be shifted to the traditional, iconodulic camp. Nevertheless, one does not need to become an experienced art critic or historical expert to decide the question. There are no shortage of catacomb paintings on the internet. In fact, simply look at the above. If that does not prove the art was used for veneration then what possible evidence can?