The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea concluded on 25 August 325.

by Maggie Bell

The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea concluded on 25 August 325.  Among the many theological questions up for discussion was the role of images in Christian devotion. The Council ultimately ruled in favor of the use of images for didactic purposes as a biblia pauperum, or a bible for those who could not read. This idea took a powerful hold in the trajectory of religious art in Italy. The Franciscans in particular developed preaching strategies around images, perhaps most notably Saint Bernardino of Siena’s use of the emblem of the Holy Name of Jesus in the mid-fifteenth century.  

The ruling of the Nicaean Council came under discussion again during the Council of Trent (1545-1563), in response to the Reformation resistance to the use of images in religious practice. Leading voices in favor of the continued use of images were Cardinals Carlo Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti, both of whom were patrons of art and architecture, who argued that images did not only have a didactic function, but also had the capacity to remind viewers of important concepts or holy personages, and through those memories to be moved towards deeper devotion. 

Further reading: 

Margaret Mullett, et al. “Early Christian and Byzantine art.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T024432pg1.

Giuseppe Olmi. “Paleotti, Gabriele.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T064822.

Pamela M. Jones. “Borromeo.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T010180pg1.


Workshop of Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, Council of Nicaea, 1585-1589, fresco, Salone Sistino, Vatican Palace, Vatican City

Venetian; formerly attributed to Titian, Council of Trent, perhaps the 23rd Session in the Cattedrale di San Vigilio, mid 16th Century, painting, Musée du Louvre

Orazio Borgianni, Saint Charles Borromeo in Adoration of the Trinity, c. 1610-16, painting, Sacristy, S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome

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