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Idols

idolatry worship pagan testament

The term idol derives from the Greek eidolon (“image”). The word was used in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) to translate a number of different Hebrew words with various shades of meaning, and it appears in the Latin Vulgate Bible translated as either idolum or simulacrum . Idols may be defined as material things or images, created by humans, which serve as objects of worship or, more remotely, as symbols of illusory realities. The construction and veneration of idols (idolatry) was specifically prohibited in the  second commandment, which forbids the making and worship of “graven images,” either of the Hebrew *God, or of false, foreign, pagan gods. Idols of various sorts are frequently described in the Old Testament as the Hebrews encountered and sometimes emulated the idol-worshipping practices of surrounding cultures (e.g., Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Philistine, and Chaldean) in spite of the perpetual warnings of the *prophets. Idolatry is described in the New Testament, and by early Christian and later medieval theologians as an extremely serious error, both in action and conception, inspired by *demons and the *Devil.


Idols thus appear frequently in early Christian and medieval art, especially in narrative contexts in which the worship of idols is negatively portrayed or the destruction of idols is shown as a positive event. Numerous examples range from the Israelites’ *Worship of the Golden Calf , to the *Holy Family’s *Flight into Egypt where, upon their arrival, many little statues of pagan gods fell from their platforms. (This episode is found in New Testament *Apocrypha.) Saint *Augustine’s City of God contains a detailed discussion of idolatry; illustrated versions of the text often show pagans worshipping statues. Frequently, idols will have a grotesque or demonic appearance (e.g., horned) or will be nude (as per classical statuary). Numerous hagiographic stories recount saintly battles against idolatry and refusals to worship pagan gods or imperial images, resultant in many *saints’ *martyrdoms.


The *vice of Idolatry, often represented by a person kneeling before a pagan statue, is frequently found paired with or overcome by Faith, in cycles inspired by *Prudentius’s Psychomachia , for example, in manuscripts and Romanesque and Gothic sculpture and stained glass. The concern for avoiding idolatry was also cited as an issue in the Byzantine *Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries.

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