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Cult image

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In the practice of religion, a cult image is a man-made object that is venerated for the deity, spirit or daemon that it embodies or represents. Cultus, the outward religious formulas of "cult", often centers upon the treatment of cult images, which may be dressed, fed or paraded, etc. Religious images cover a wider range of all types of images made with a religious purpose, subject, or connection.

Cult images in Ancient Egypt

An example of a cult image in ancient Egypt was the Apis Bull.

Cult images in classical Greece and Rome

The Parthenon contains a cult image of Athena, the Greek goddess of civilization and the noble side of war. This cult image was done by Phidias, the sculptor and head supervisor of building the Parthenon. This cult image was used for religious sacrifices at this Athenian temple.

In Greek and Roman mythology, a "palladium" was an image of great antiquity on which the safety of a city was said to depend, especially the wooden one that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was later taken to Rome by Aeneas. (The Roman story was related in Virgil's Aeneid and other works.)

Opposition from Abrahamic religions

Members of Abrahamic religions identify cult images as "idols" and their veneration as "idolatry", the worship of hollow forms. The paradox inherent in the veneration of cult images was given classic expression in the Book of Isaiah:

Their land also is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.[1]

The avoidance of such a degrading paradox was expressed in the early Christian idea of miraculous icons that were not made by human hands, acheiropoietoi. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians make an exception for the veneration of image of saints, which is not considered adoration or latria. The word idol entered Middle English in the 13th century from Old French idole adapted in Church Latin from the Greek eidolon ("appearance" extended in later usage to "mental image, apparition, phantom"). Greek eidos was employed by Plato , Platonists and in Neo-Platonism to signify perfect. immutable "form" [2]

Idols in Mecca

Towards the end of the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian city of Mecca; an era otherwise known as جاهلية, or al-Jahiliyah, the pagan merchants of Mecca controlled the sacred Kaaba, thereby regulating control over it, and, in turn, over the city itself. Innumerable people flocked there to place their idols in the Kaaba, in the process being charged tithes to place their idols in the Kaaba, thus helping the Meccan merchants to incur substantial wealth.

By the time the Prophet Muhammad was born, the city was a beacon for the pagan activities that surrounded the Kaaba, attracting countless peoples throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Some six months before his birth, the Prophet lost his father; by the age of six, tragedy struck again when he lost his mother. From that point, he lived with his grandfather and then his uncle. The Prophet's uncle was a merchant, a profession the young Prophet eventually took up as well. It was on one of his travels that he met Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and soon to be his first wife. Theirs was an awkward relationship, for Khadijah was much older than Muhammad (the Prophet is estimated to have been twenty-five years of age and that Khadijah was fifteen years his senior, thus making her at least forty years of age) when, according to the Arab customs of the time, she proposed to him via her relatives.

Their marriage was by all accounts a long and happy one, lasting a good twenty-five years. Yet, for all of his wealth, the Prophet was still inclined to contemplative discontent and, on a daily basis, he would go up to a cave on Mt. Hira in order to pray and meditate, reflecting on his life's experiences that had changed him so much. In the year 610 the angel Gabriel appeared before the Prophet and told him that he was the Messenger of God. Soon the Prophet, who was illiterate, began to memorize and recite the revelations revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, forming the very first chapters, or sura of the Quran. Thus he began to preach monotheism (tawhīd and wāḥid), of the oneness of Allah and urging his fellow Meccans to stop worshipping idols.

The Prophet's preaching incurred the wrath of the pagan merchants, causing them to plot against the young Prophet. The opposition to his teachings grew so volatile that the Prophet and his followers were forced to flee Mecca to Medina for protection; leading to armed conflict and triggering many battles that were won and lost, which finally culminated in the conquest of Mecca in the year 630. In the aftermath, the Prophet did three things. Firstly, with his companions he visited the Kaaba and literally threw out the idols and destroyed them, thus cleansing the Kaaba from the stains of Jahiliyyah. Secondly, he ordered the construction of a mosque around the Kaaba, the first Masjid al-Haram after the birth of Islam (although Muslim belief holds that the mosque was created by angels before the creation of mankind). Thirdly, in a magnanimous manner, the Prophet pardoned all those who had taken up arms against him. With the destruction of the idols and the construction of the Masjid al-Haram, a new era was ushered in; facilitating the rise of Islam.

Cult images in Christianity

Frans Hogenberg Bildersturm 1566

Frans Hogenberg, The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566, Hamburg, Kunsthalle. In 1566, many paintings and church decorations, particularly images of the Virgin Mary and saints that were considered "cultic" by Reformers, were destroyed in a brief, but violent, iconoclastic outbreak in the Low Countries. Several similar episodes occurred during the early Reformation period.

Christian images that are venerated are called icons. Christians who venerate icons make an emphatic distinction between "veneration" and "worship", though the proliferation of wonder-working images since at least the 4th century shows that the distinction is blurred in ordinary practice: see Image of Edessa, Veronica etc.

The introduction of venerable images in Christianity was highly controversial for centuries, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy: see the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the West, resistance to idolatry delayed the introduction of sculpted images for centuries until the rise of Romanesque art and the use of the crucifix. The intensified pathos that informs the poem Stabat Mater takes corporeal form in the realism and sympathy-inducing sense of pain in the typical Western European corpus (the representation of Jesus' crucified body) from the mid-13th century onwards. "The theme of Christ's suffering on the cross was so important in Gothic art that the mid-thirteenth-century statute of the corporations of Paris provided for a guild dedicated to the carving of such images, including ones in ivory".[3]

The 16th-century Reformation engendered spates of venerable image smashing, notably in England and Scotland, the Low Countries and France. Often the damage was concentrated on three-dimensional venerable images, especially images of the Virgin Mary and saints, but the iconoclasts ("image-breakers") also smashed representations of holy figures in stained glass windows and other imagery. Further destruction of cult images, anathema to Puritans, occurred during the English Civil War. Less extreme transitions occurred throughout northern Europe in which formerly Catholic churches became Protestant. In these, the corpus (body of Christ) was removed from the crucifix leaving a bare cross and walls were whitewashed of religious images.

Catholic regions of Europe, especially artistic centres like Rome and Antwerp, responded to Reformation iconoclasm with a Counter-Reformation renewal of venerable imagery. Veneration of the Virgin Mary flourished, in practice and in imagery, and new shrines, such as in Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore, were built for Medieval miraculous icons as part of this trend.


The focus for image worship among many Jains is the icon of the Tirthankara in either a domestic shrine or temple shrine room. Jainist doctrine holds that Tirthankaras cannot respond to such worship, but that veneration of the image can function as a meditative aid. Although most worship takes the form of prayers, hymns and recitations, the idol is sometimes ritually bathed, and often has offerings of made to it; there are eight kinds of offering representing the eight karmas of Jainism.[1]

This form of reverence is not a central tenet of the faith, and there seems to be debate about the value of this form of worship.


  1. Isaiah 2.8, reflected in Isaiah 17.8.

See also


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