St Gregory reproves an iconoclast

Letter of St Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (c. 600AD)

Gregory to Serenus, etc.

The beginning of your letter so showed you to have in you the good will that befits a priest as to cause us increased joy in your Fraternity. But its conclusion was so at variance with its commencement that such an epistle might be attributed, not to one, but to different, minds. Nay, from your very doubts about the epistle which we sent to you it appears how inconsiderate you are. For, had you paid diligent attention to the admonition which in brotherly love we gave you, not only would you not have doubted, but have perceived what in priestly seriousness it was your duty to do. For Cyriacus formerly abbot, who was the bearer of our letter, was not a man of such training and erudition as to dare, as you suppose, to make up another, nor for you to entertain this suspicion of falseness against his character. But, while putting aside consideration of our wholesome admonitions, you have come to be culpable, not only in your deeds, but in your questionings also.

For indeed it had been reported to us that, inflamed with inconsiderate zeal, you had broken images of saints, as though under the plea that they ought not to be worshipped. And indeed in that you forbade them to be worshipped, we altogether praise you; but we blame you for having broken them. Say, brother, what priest has ever been heard of as doing what you have done? If nothing else, should not even this thought have restrained you, so as not to despise other brethren, supposing yourself only to be holy and wise? For to worship a picture is one thing, but to learn through the story of a picture what is to be worshipped is another. For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read. Hence, and chiefly to the nations , a picture is instead of reading. And this ought to have been attended to especially by you who live among the nations, lest, while inflamed inconsiderately by a right zeal, you should breed offense to savage minds. And, seeing that antiquity has not without reason admitted the histories of saints to be painted in venerable places, if you had seasoned zeal with discretion, you might undoubtedly have obtained what you were aiming at, and not scattered the collected flock, but rather gathered together a scattered one; that so the deserved renown of a shepherd might have distinguished you, instead of the blame of being a scatterer lying upon you.

But from having acted inconsiderately on the impulse of your feelings you are said to have so offended your children that the greatest part of them have suspended themselves from your communion. When, then, will you bring wandering sheep to the Lord's fold, not being able to retain those you have? Henceforth we exhort you that you study even now to be careful, and restrain yourself from this presumption, and make haste, with fatherly sweetness, with all endeavor, with all earnestness, to recall to yourself the minds of those whom you find to be disjoined from you.

For the dispersed children of the Church must be called together, and it must be shown then by testimonies of sacred Scripture that it is not lawful for anything made with hands to be worshipped, since it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall serve” (Luke 4:8). And then, with regard to the pictorial representations which had been made for the edification of an unlearned people in order that, though ignorant of letters, they might by turning their eyes to the story itself learn what had been done, it must be added that, because you had seen these come to be worshipped, you had been so moved as to order them to be broken. And it must be said to them, If for this instruction for which images were anciently made you wish to have them in the church, I permit them by all means both to be made and to be had. And explain to them that it was not the sight itself of the story which the picture was hanging to attest that displeased you, but the adoration which had been improperly paid to the pictures. And with such words appease their minds; recall them to agreement with you. And if any one should wish to make images, by no means prohibit him, but by all means forbid the adoration of images. But let your Fraternity carefully admonish them that from the sight of the event portrayed they should catch the ardor of compunction, and bow themselves down in adoration of the One Almighty Holy Trinity.

Now we say all this in our love of Holy Church, and of your Fraternity. Be not then shaken, in consequence of my rebuke, in the zeal of uprightness, but rather be helped in the earnestness of your pious administration.

Furthermore, it has come to our ears that your Love gladly receives bad men into its society; so much so as to have as a familiar friend a certain presbyter who, after having fallen, is said to live still in the pollution of his iniquity . This indeed we do not entirely believe, since he that receives such a one does not correct wickedness, but rather appears to give license to others to perpetrate the like things. But, lest haply by any subornation or dissimulation he should prevail on you to receive him and keep him still in favor, it becomes you not only to drive him further from you, but also in all ways to cut away his excesses with priestly zeal. But as to others who are reported to be bad, study to restrain them from their badness by fatherly exhortation, and to recall them to the way of rectitude. But, if (which God forbid) you seem not to profit them at all by salutary admonition, these also you will take care to cast off far from you, lest, from their being received, their evil doings should seem not at all to displease you, and lest not only they themselves should remain unamended, but others also should be corrupted in consequence of your reception of them. And consider how execrable it is before men, and how perilous before the eyes of God, if vices should seem to be nurtured through him whose duty it is to punish crimes. Attend therefore to these things diligently, most beloved brother; and study so to act as both wholesomely to correct the bad and to avoid breeding offense in the minds of your children by associating with evil men.

From Registrum Epistolarum Gregorii, Book XI, Letter 13, translated by James Barmby. Published in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13, Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Online at: Christian Classics Ethereal Library