Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: May we place an icon of the parish patronal saint on the wall above the tabernacle? – P.S., Montreal
A: In order to respond to this question, we have to admit that Church documents, at least at the general level, usually give principles but not detailed norms with regard to questions such as these.
Thus the first council to deal explicitly with this topic, the Second Council of Nicaea, in the year 787 defended the traditional use of images in churches, which some had attacked while setting the foundation for their use in the future. The Fathers of Nicaea see the basis for the use of sacred images in the mystery of the incarnation of Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15): “the Incarnation of the Son of God initiated a new ‘economy’ of images”:
“We order with ever rigor 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 Savior Jesus Christ, or of Our Immaculate Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the Angels, the Saints and the just.
“The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly, this is not the full adoration (latria) in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honor paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.
“So it is that the teaching of our holy fathers is strengthened, namely, the tradition of the Catholic church which has received the gospel from one end of the earth to the other. So it is that we really follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire divine apostolic group and the holiness of the fathers, clinging fast to the traditions which we have received. So it is that we sing out with the prophets the hymns of victory to the church: Rejoice exceedingly O daughter of Zion, proclaim O daughter of Jerusalem; enjoy your happiness and gladness with a full heart. The Lord has removed away from you the injustices of your enemies, you have been redeemed from the hand of your foes. The Lord the king is in your midst, you will never more see evil, and peace will be upon you for time eternal.
“Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr’s holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.”
The Council of Trent, responding to Protestantism, had the following to say regarding the general principles:
“[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 [Psalm 134:15 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).”
Moving forward, Pope Pius XII, in the encyclical Mediator Dei, briefly addressed the question of statues and images:
“189. We desire to commend and urge the adornment of churches and altars. Let each one feel moved by the inspired word, ‘the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up’; [Ps 68,10 Jn 2,17] and strive as much as in him lies that everything in the church, including vestments and liturgical furnishings, even though not rich nor lavish, be perfectly clean and appropriate, since all is consecrated to the Divine Majesty. If we have previously disapproved of the error of those who would wish to outlaw images from churches on the plea of reviving an ancient tradition, We now deem it Our duty to censure the inconsiderate zeal of those who propose for veneration in the Churches and on the altars, without any just reason, a multitude of sacred images and statues, and also those who display unauthorized relics, those who emphasize special and insignificant practices, neglecting essential and necessary things. They thus bring religion into derision and lessen the dignity of worship.”
Much more recently the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) offers the following principles:
“291. For the proper construction, restoration, and arrangement of sacred buildings, all those involved should consult the diocesan commission for the Sacred Liturgy and sacred art. Moreover, the Diocesan Bishop should employ the counsel and help of this commission whenever it comes to laying down norms on this matter, approving plans for new buildings, and making decisions on the more important matters. […] “318. In the earthly Liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste, in that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem, toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have some share and fellowship with them.
“Thus, in sacred buildings images of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saints, in accordance with most ancient tradition of the Church, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful and should be so arranged so as to lead the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. Care should, therefore, be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and moreover that they be arranged in proper order so as not to draw the attention of the faithful to themselves and away from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church, as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images.
The 2002 Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy, also weighed in on the subject of sacred images:
“239. 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, and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“240. 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’;
“– sacred signs which, in common with all liturgical signs, ultimately refer to Christ; images of the Saints ‘signify Christ who is glorified in them’;
“– 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”;
“– 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’; 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.’
“241. 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 honor 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 honor given to sacred images is given to the prototypes whom they represent.’
“242. 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.
“243. 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.’ 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 to 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.
“244. 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, 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.’ The Church has published norms for the exposition of sacred images in churches and other sacred places which are to be diligently observed. 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. 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.”
Finally, although it refers only to the United States, the guidelines published by the U.S. bishops’ conference, “Built of Living Stones,” offer some useful pointers regarding sacred images:
“Reflecting the awareness of the Communion of Saints, the practice of incorporating symbols of the Trinity, images of Christ, the Blessed Mother, the angels, and the saints into the design of a church creates a source of devotion and prayer for a parish community and should be part of the design of the church. Images can be found in stained glass windows, on wall frescos and murals, and as statues and icons. Often these images depict scenes from the bible or from the lives of the saints and can be a source of instruction and catechesis as well as devotion. Since the Eucharist unites the Body of Christ, including those who are not physically present, the use of images in the church reminds us that we are joined to all who have gone before us, as well as to those who now surround us.
“In choosing images and devotional art, parishes should be respectful of traditional iconography when it comes to the way sacred images are recognized and venerated by the faithful. However, they also should be mindful that the tradition is not limited to literal images. While Mary is the mother of Jesus, she is also an icon of the Church, a disciple of the Lord, a liberated and liberating woman. She is the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of all America. Other symbols such as the crucifix, icons, or images of patron saints depicted in various ways can also draw us into the deeper realities of faith and hope as they connect us to the stories behind the image.
“The placement of images can be a challenge, especially when a number of cultural traditions are part of a single parish community and each has its own devotional life and practices. Restraint in the number and prominence of sacred images is encouraged to help people focus on the liturgical action that is celebrated in the church. Separate alcoves for statues or icons can display a variety of images through the year. Some parishes designate an area as the shrine for an image that is being venerated on a given day or for a period of time, such as the image of a saint on his or her feast day.
“It is important that the images in the church depict saints for whom devotion currently exists in the parish. It is particularly desirable that a significant image of the patron of the church be fittingly displayed, as well as an image of Mary, the Mother of God, as a fitting tribute to her unique role in the plan of salvation. As time passes and demographics change, saints who were once the object of veneration by many parishioners may at another time be venerated by only a few. When this happens, these images could be removed, provided sensitivity is shown with regard to the piety of the faithful and the impact on the building.”
After all this, can we answer our reader’s question: “May we place an icon of the parish patronal saint on the wall above the tabernacle?”
My opinion is that it would not usually be the best option, with the possible exception of a church dedicated to an evocation of the Lord, such as the Sacred Heart or the Risen Christ.
This is not so much because of any specific law but because the church exists above all for the celebration of the Eucharist, and the placement of the images in the church helps the building to be a true image of Jesus himself, now present and active in the world with his Body, the Church, as an organically structured priestly community (see the Catechism Nos. 1136-1139).
Placing the patron saint in a central position above the tabernacle would not seem to foster this concept of the church building.
Second, placing the image above the tabernacle would not seem to be the best way of fostering devotion to the saint as it would necessarily create a distance between the image and the faithful.
That said, I am here referring to a clearly stand-alone image. It is conceivable that in the apse there could be a representation in painting or mosaic in which the patron figures prominently along with other images and symbols.
However, not knowing the building as such, mine is just an opinion and, as mentioned above in the GIRM 291, it is best to consult with diocesan commission for the sacred liturgy and sacred art.
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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.