The Artist and the Church - Nicaea

"The composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative of the artist, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and by religious tradition... The execution alone belongs to the painter, the selection and arrangement of subject belongs to the Fathers."

The above quote is often cited as an "instruction" from the Second Council of Nicaea, but this passage is not found in the dogmatic canons issued by the Council. Where does it come from and what does it mean to the contemporary Christian artist?

Venerable Images

We should begin by defining the type of art the council was addressing. There is something of a hierarchy of images. Simply stated, the purpose of art is to draw us closer to God. Some types of art accomplish this better than others. Religious art, for example, draws upon religious themes and events and attempts to draw our hearts and minds to God. But the "summit" of religious art is sacred art, that is, art that depicts Jesus, Mary, and the saints and is used either liturgically, to adorn our churches, or in our homes for private devotion.

This is the type of art with which the Council of Nicaea was concerned, the holy and venerable images used in our churches and our homes as a way of drawing us closer to God through His saints. For us today, that would include what we refer to as "icons," but also any art intended to help us in our prayers and growth in our faith.


Why did the Council of Nicaea deem it necessary to address the use of holy images? To understand that we need took at the history and context of the Council.

In the history of the Church there have been two great periods of iconoclasm. "Iconoclasm" means "image-breaking," and during these two periods the use of religious imagery in churches was opposed by ecclesial elements within the church as well as secular elements in the imperial court.

The so-called "First Iconoclasm" lasted from A.D. 726-787. In the year 754, the Roman Emperor Constantine V called for an Ecumenical Council to be held in the palace of Hieria near the capital city of Constantinople. Constantine was an iconoclast and the council was called to support his position against the use of sacred imagery. This "Iconoclast Council" or "Mock Council" was rejected by the Church, as no patriarchs or representatives from the five great patriarchates were present. The Church at this time had not yet separated into Eastern and Western communions and so this was truly a rejection by the one, holy, universal, apostolic Church.

The rulings of the council were condemned by the Lateran Council of 769 and finally overturned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea, or Nicaea II in 787.

An  icon  of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century,  Novodevichy Convent ,  Moscow ).

An icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century, Novodevichy ConventMoscow).

Nicaea II

Within the sessions of the Council of Nicaea the rulings of Hieria would be read aloud and then refuted. This would take the form of a dialogue between Gregory, the bishop of Neocæsarea, and John Epiphanies, deacon and chancellor of the most holy great Church of Constantinople.

Gregory reads (from the rulings of Hieria):-
"What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted—that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy—the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali."

John Epiphanius reads:-
"The Formation of images is no invention of the painter, but the approved ordinance and tradition of the Catholic Church. According to the divine Basil, reverence is due to antiquity; and both the antiquity of the practice bears witness in its favor and the doctrine of our inspired fathers. For when they saw these in venerable temples they joyfully received them, and also when they themselves built venerable temples they set up images there, where also they offered to God the Lord of All, their pious vows and the unbloody sacrifice. Verily, to them belongs the invention and tradition, not to the painter: the workmanship alone is the painter's – the peculiar application belongs to the fathers who raised these edifices. (The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nicea, translated by the Rev. John Mendham, London, 1850, William Edward Painter)

Or as Father Phillippe Labbe put it in his work, "Sacrosancta concilia ad regiam edition exacta,""The composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative of artists, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and by religious tradition... The execution alone belongs to the painter, the selection and arrangement of subject belongs to the Fathers." (Labbe, Concil., viii., col. 831 Syn Nicaea ii)

The Canons

The "instruction" from Nicaea is therefore not so much an instruction as it is a statement of the understanding of the relationship between the artist and the Church in the 8th Century.

So what does the Council of Nicaea say about the use of sacred images?

Ecclesiastical Canons, issued by Ecumenical councils, are "rules or norms of conduct or belief prescribed by the Church." Out of 22 canons issued by Nicaea, three of them support the use of sacred  images.

Canon 7: "Accordingly upon the heels of the heresy of the traducers of the Christians, there followed close other ungodliness. For as they took out of the churches the presence of the venerable images, so likewise they cast aside other customs which we must now revive and maintain in accordance with the written and unwritten law. "

Canon 9: "All the childish devices and mad ravings which have been falsely written against the venerable images, must be delivered up to the Episcopium of Constantinople, that they may be locked away with other heretical books."

Canon 16: "When the root of bitterness sprang up, there was poured into the Catholic Church the pollution of the heresy of the traducers of the Christians. And such as were defiled by it, not only detested the pictured images, but also set at naught all decorum,"

Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

The Artist and the Church

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, set an historic precedent by validating the use of sacred images in our churches and our homes. But the popular quote that begins this article can easily be misunderstood. The Church has never established an "official" style of sacred art.   While there have been manuals written to artists by other artists to guide them in composing sacred art, there is, to my knowledge, no written instruction with the authority of the Church, that dictates how an artist is to compose sacred imagery.

It is, therefore, all the more important that the artist that dedicates their gifts to the creation of sacred art, be thoroughly grounded in the faith and the artistic traditions of the past. In this way we can avoid much of the sacrilegious art that we have seen in recent years.

The Master of Sacred Arts program offered by, provides just such a background and formation.

this article originally appeared at


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Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at