Jews sometimes used to (though certain groups still do) wear phylacteries – little boxes containing excerpts of Torah written in them. Christians sometimes wear crosses, or little images of Jesus, Mary, an angel, or some other saint. Is this idolatry? It’s a bit of a debate among various traditions as to what’s crossing the line, and what’s acceptable memorial. The Eastern Church draws the line at 3-D, focusing on the “no graven/carved images” line in the Ten Commandments. Roman Catholics allow a much broader expression of art, citing the various Tabernacle and Temple decorations dictated by God himself. Certain Protestant groups reject all images, and others still only reject those images in church buildings. Some are fine with them as long as they aren’t given too much attention – almost as if their beauty shouldn’t be appreciated.
The sanest answer to this sort of debate, I should imagine, is the question of use – how is art treated? If it’s an aid to our worship of God, then I’m all for it! Appreciating creation – be it God’s natural world or “the work of our hands” – is part of appreciating God. But if we consider our works of art as equal to God, or proof our own on godliness, then we’ve crossed a line to idolatry.
A neat piece of news came up online recently: near the Pool of Siloam, a little piece of Christian artwork was found, dated to the 500’s. It’s a little box made of carved bone. On its outside it has a cross, and when you slide it open it reveals a picture of a man inside and a woman on the inside cover. It’s not readily apparent who these people are supposed to be – Jesus and Mary? Two meaningful saints? Someone’s parents? It’s made of paint and gold, so it wasn’t frivolously thrown together! The box was very small – just a couple centimeters across – so it was pocket sized, or could’ve been worn as a pendant or something. It’s a neat glimpse into Early Christian culture, whatever it is. And a very likely example of the use of pictures in Early Christian personal devotions.