Biblia Pauperum

(Gregory the Great’s defense of images is one of my favorites.)

Among the writings of Gregory the Great (540-604) are two letters to Serenus, the bishop of Marseilles, who had instigated an episode of iconoclasm (the breaking of images) in his jurisdiction. Serenus’ response does not survive, but the opening of Gregory’s second missive suggests that the bishop was unapologetic. Gregory censures Serenus for his allegation that the first letter, and the legate who carried it, were fraudulent. Serenus had claimed that he thought it preposterous that the bishop of Rome should argue in favor of the use of images.

Iconoclasm in Christianity is often, (though not exclusively,) motivated by the prohibition of representational images found in the second commandment of the Hebrew Bible: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4) This proscription was based on fears of idolatry, which is made clear in the next verse: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:5)

Christians developed an enduring tradition of religious imagery despite this, and while the reasons for that development are varied, the most important of them is perhaps that Christianity was born into an already image-rich culture. Romans had a long tradition of representational imagery and a practice of using images to communicate information. As the ranks of the early church swelled with pagan converts, the use of imagery became more acceptable, and more practical. (For more on the romanization of Christianity, see Peter Brown’s excellent Cult of the Saints.) By the time Gregory the Great became pope, Christian representational art had existed for centuries.

It was partly on the basis of tradition that Gregory criticized Serenus’ destruction of images:

“Tell us brother, have you ever heard of any other bishop anywhere who did the like? This, if nothing else, should have given you pause. Do you despise your brothers and think that you alone are holy and wise?”

Gregory then introduces a defense of religious images based on their didactic potential: “To adore images is one thing, to teach with their help what is to be adored is another.” Note how he addresses the fear of idolatry, drawing an important distinction between the different ways in which pagans and Christians use images, i.e. Christians do not worship them. He continues, “What scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant, who see through them what they must accept; they read in them what they cannot read in books.” Gregory then reminds Serenus that “this is especially true of the pagans,” an important consideration for a bishop in Marseilles. He closes his letter enjoining Serenus to restore the destroyed images and “explain that it was not the sight of the story there related in a painted text that angered you, but the worship which had been paid to them illicitly.”

Gregory’s defense, sometimes summarized by the two words biblia pauperum (the bible of the poor,) became one of the most influential arguments in favor of the use of images in Christianity. In truth, it was not a thorough defense, as it’s more easily applied to narrative imagery, like the fifth-century mosaic cycle at Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome, than to iconic images, like the Madonna and Child or Christ as the Pantocrator. Moreover, it offers no defense of imagery aimed solely at literate elites, of the type Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) inveighed against, when he wondered what use monks had of unclean apes and monstrous centaurs in the cloisters of their monasteries. But that’s the subject of another post…


The text of Gregory’s second letter quoted above appears in in Caecilia Davis Weyer, Early Medieval Art 300-1150(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003) 47-49.

4 responses to “Biblia Pauperum

  1. How else could clerics teach the religious stories to the illiterate if not through pictures? So… did Serenus do as instructed and replace/repair the damaged images? This is such a good post – I'm with RMH – thank you!

  2. I'm not sure whether Serenus complied, though the lack of successive letters suggests that the issue was resolved. I don't know that sort of teaching of doctrine there was in the sixth and seventh centuries, but in the earliest centuries there was organized instruction for converts. (Still, even if Christians did receive some sort of education, visual images would have been of great help in keeping their knowledge fresh given that the vast majority couldn't read and had no access to books.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.