Does Catholicism Destroy Pagan Idols?

The Church values pagan art, including pagan idols, for complex reasons.

If people are going to start destroying pagan idols, can we please beef up security at the Vatican Museums?

In all seriousness, I won’t get far into the decision of some fringe Catholic groups to condone stealing statues from Catholic churches in Rome and throwing them into the Tiber. Simcha Fisher does a fine job here. To summarize the situation, carved figures are on display in Catholic churches in Rome as part of the Amazon synod. Some believe they are pagan idols, and one figure was stolen from a church and thrown into the Tiber. The incident was recorded and has been praised by some.

The statue may or may not be a pagan idol, but the controversy raises questions about how the Church is to relate to such art. Assuming it is an indigenous idol, should the Catholic Church keep it? The decision seems to have been made at least since 1506, with the establishment of the Vatican Museums and their preservation of confirmed pagan idols. The Church has these idols on display for the Museums’ millions of annual visitors.

Even apart from this preservation, it’s hard to overstate the extent to which paganism has made its way into Catholic art. Michelangelo was present at the unearthing of the Greek statue of Laocoon in 1506, and scholars argue that the twisting body of the statue was the model for God in the Michelangelo’s painting of the Separation of Light and Darkness in the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo, “Separation of Light and Darkness,” Sistine Chapel
“Laocoön,” Vatican Museums

The unearthing of Laocoon was nearly 10 years after the Burning of the Vanities in Michelangelo’s hometown of Florence. The iconoclastic Dominican friar Savonarola had incited a massive burning of priceless books, works of art, mirrors, and other objects. This included works by Dante & religious art.

Savonarola objected to excesses of Renaissance Italy, which he thought included the preservation of pagan art. He advocated their destruction. Eventually, he was excommunicated for heresy and, after his execution (at the site of his Burning), his writings were (ironically) banned. The Church decided that the thing to destroy was the destruction itself.

All this is to say that the Church values pagan art, including pagan idols, for complex reasons. This has been so for hundreds of years. They have something to teach us about those in search of the divine. They take on new meaning when contextualized under the care of the Church and can inspire Christian artists. There will always be preservation of history and culture under the care of the Church.

But there will also be iconoclasts. Iconoclasts, who have no care for memory, will disdain actual history and its artifacts. Those of us who love art, culture, and religion must do what we can to preserve them.

This, of course, is a different question from whether non-Christian art (like pagan idols) and non-religious artifacts (like American flags) should be on display in Catholic churches.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

1 comment on “Does Catholicism Destroy Pagan Idols?

  1. paularuddy

    Thanks, Chris. I agree that Catholic sensibility should include everything human. The distinction between museums and place of worship is a good one. This question ties in with something I have been thinking about: to have a broad Catholic sensibility for everything human don’t we have to see ourselves as participants in history, as developing participants in an ongoing trajectory? It seems to me that a person who would throw a “pagan” idol into the Tiber sees him/her self as a person who is in a position of certainty, a position from which it is possible to make a final judgment to destroy the “other” as inferior or evil. I do understand that seeing one’s self and the creation as a work in progress in a dynamically changing universe is frightening. Life takes a lot of discernment. As you say, our Church includes both people who see themselves in a history and people who are fearful of that. I am hoping the leadership under Pope Francis is moving us in the direction of historical consciousness.


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