A curiousity of history – Catholic Charlemagne’s view concerning the veneration of images


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Deuteronomy 4

9 Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons; 10 specially the day that thou stoodest before the Lord thy God in Horeb, when the Lord said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. 11 And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. 12 And the Lord spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice. 13 And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.

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The Pilgrim Church (Hardcover)

The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent is helpful in getting an overview of the history of Christianity, especially the history of Bible Christians, from the days of the apostles to the early 20th century. 

In it I learned something that surprised me about Charlemagne, that his view concerning images was opposed to that which Romanism held then and holds today (Nicaean CouncilsTrent, the Council of (Concilium Tridentinunm); Catechism of the Catholic Church).

In learning and trying to write about this, I’ve waded out into waters over my head, however, though the history is complex, I think it’s fair to draw conclusions from the basic elements I know. 

Emperor Charlemagne called and presided at the Council of Frankfurt, which not only addressed the adoptionist heresy but responded to the acts of the Second Council of Nicea, which upheld the veneration of images. The issue of making and venerating images was extremely contentious back then, even violent. I wish that we too would be concerned about it, but in a peaceful, respectful manner.

Selected timeline:

754 – The Iconoclast Council rules against the veneration of images, and many images are destroyed. (Sometimes this council is referred to derisively as “The Mock Synod of Constantinople.”) (Please note that this link takes you to Jesuit Fordham University.)

787 (786) – The Second Council of Nicea reinstates veneration and anathematizes the Iconoclast Council.

790 – The Caroline Books are written; in them the veneration  of images is shown to be unBiblical.

792 – Charlemagne forwards materials on the Second Council of Nicea to Offa, king of the Mercians in Britain.

794 – The Council of Frankfurt opposes veneration of images but retains their use for instruction and adornment.

800 – Charlemagne is crowned emperor. Under his leadership the Carolingian Renaissance of learning continues.

Opposition to the veneration of images remains in Francia and Britain for an extended period.

Seeing that the Council Frankfurt rejected the veneration of images, while retaining their use for instruction and adornment, it is fair to say that Charlemagne’s view of images was closer to that of many evangelicals today than it is to that of Catholics of his own day and ours.

What is your view? Evangelical, Catholic, Biblical? Guess my own view is showing…

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Charlemagne instructing his son, Louis the PiousThe COUNCIL of FRANKFURT AD 794 (from The Pilgrim Church)

“The question of images had an important place in the Council called and presided over by Charlemagne at Frankfurt (794).3  Both civil and ecclesiastical rulers were present, so that it legislated on all matters. The pope sent his representatives. The decisions of the Second Council of Nicea, which had established the service and adoration of the images, were set aside, though they had been confirmed by the pope and accepted in the East. In their zeal for images, those who favored their use went so far as to call their opponents not only iconoclasts but also ‘Mohammedans.’ Nevertheless it was laid down in Frankfurt that all worship of images was to be rejected; there was to be no adoration, worship, reverence, veneration of them; no kneeling, burning of lights or offering of incense before them, nor any kissing of lifeless images, even though representing the Virgin and the Child. But images might be allowed in churches as ornaments and as memorials of pious men and pious deeds.

“Also the teaching that God can only be worshiped in the three lanagues – Latin, Greek, and Hebrew – was controverted, and it was affirmed that ‘there is no tongue in which prayer may not be offered.’ The representatives of the pope [Adrian I] were not then in a position to protest. The general feeling of the Franks, in their wars against, and missions to, the heathen Saxons was not favorable to idolatry.

“Louis, the third son of Charlemagne, who was at that time King of Aquitaine, succeeded his father as Emperor (AD 813). He was an admirer of a Spaniard named Claudius, a diligent student of the Scriptures, who had become renowned for his Commentaries on the Bible. As soon as he became Emperor, Louis appointed Claudius Bishop of Turin. The new bishop, with his knowledge and love of Scripture, took immediate advantage of the favorable circumstances created by the Council of Frankfurt, going even beyond its decrees in removing from the churches of Turin all images, which he called idols, not excepting the crosses. So many approved that no effective resistance could be made in Turin. Claudius also taught publicly that the apostolic office of St. Peter ceased with his life, that ‘the power of the keys’ passed to the whole episcopal order, and that the Bishop of Rome had apostolic power only so far as he led an apostolic life. There were naturally many who opposed this. Prominent among them was the abbot of a monastery near Nimes (look up for diacritical marks), yet even he admitted that most of the Transalpine prelates agreed with the Bishop of Turin.”

3. Latin Christianity, Dean Milman, Vol. III.

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11 thoughts on “A curiousity of history – Catholic Charlemagne’s view concerning the veneration of images

  1. Thanks, Maria. Interesting. Charlemagne is said to have founded the church that would later become the Grossmunster that we visited in Zurich. Of course, it was Zwingli who had all the statues and ornaments removed 700 years later. Catholics take their statues for granted and would be surprised to learn about the struggle over this issue.

    Liked by 2 people

      • No, I haven’t discussed the statue issue with any Catholics. I only learned myself that it was a major controversy in the evolving (more like devolving) church in the last six months or so.

        I’m a bit of a history nerd so visiting the church Zwingli pastored when he broke with Rome was a thrill. In the church you can see the empty alcoves where the statues once stood.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maria – I’ve discussed it with some uber Catholics, and they adamantly insist they do not worship the images, but the the images help make the deity more “present.” Whatever that means. They used to scare me when I was small!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sage, I understand this fear. Some of these statues are incredibly lifelike.
          Catholics who bow down to and serve, pray in front of or to statues, learned to do this and have been taught this is right – it is a blindness. Their theologians teach that reverence or veneration is done to what the statue represents, and that veneration and adoration are very different.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Maria,
    Last Friday I went on a school field trip with my child’s class (from a Christian school) to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was a history field trip to especially view ancient, medieval & Renaissance art. Nearly all of the art was rankly idolatrous, but the worst, it seemed to me, was a Medieval/Renaissance gallery completely filled, wall-to-wall, with images (paintings and sculptures) of madonna & child (queen of heaven/ashteroth & tammuz) and was characterized by the museum in their explanatory plaques as “Christian Art.” My comment to another mom was that it was clear that the “artists” had not read the ten commandments. 😦 She nodded, but I’m not sure she was as repelled by it as I was. Another painting of the “Trinity” showed Jesus on the cross, flying behind and above which was a dove to represent the Holy Spirit and behind that was God the Father, represented as a bearded man wearing a papal tiara! All three figures were surrounded by the oval-shaped sunburst which often appears in idolatrous Catholic art revealing its sun-worship origins and inclinations.

    Thanks for your post. I’m glad to learn that these issues were wrestled with even in the time of Charlemagne and there were true faith contenders during every part of church history. Our Lord always preserves a remnant for Himself at all times. It’s just disappointing that the false church has and still does wear down the true saints so much of the time.

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