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  • Writer's pictureEthan A. Hayes

Principles Governing Duplicity of Images

Updated: Jun 16

Concerning sacred images, the General Instruction of The Roman Missal (GIRM) makes a small but important note that is often a stumbling block for parish administrators and caretakers saying in §318:

Care should be taken that [the sacred images'] number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as to not distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint..."

Admittedly, the GIRM is a very difficult and occasionally contradictory manual, so often such notes are glossed over as irrelevant, unread or forgotten, or just merely found too onerous and inconvenient to practically follow. Here is no exception, where particularly the duplicity of images in church makes for a thorn in many a custodian's side. These difficulties are especially strong for older, smaller, and more private chapels


In this article we will lay out principles useful to test for potentially unfitting duplicitous images, as well as means to identify what is a problem and what is not, and the reasoning for why the Church orders this.


First, let us ask:

  • Do the multiple images cheapen the realness of the sacred mysteries by breaking the simulation of the art?

  • Are the images all reductively essential? Can one apply Owen Jones' sixth proposition and say of the layout:

"...there are no excrescences; nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better." (Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones, 1856)
  • Does it unnecessarily bifurcate the devotion?

  • Does duplicity exist for merely petty or political reasons?

A crucifix in front of a mural of Christ flanked by St. Joseph and The Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's Catholic Center, College Station TX

Let us now look at scenarios that fail each test individually:


  • Statue of saint alongside icon of another saint Why? Icons are ordered as windows into the divine, but when side-by-side with full-round statues they can seem comparably flat and lifeless.


  • Two large crucifixes, one above the altar and another hung low against a collumn at the side. Why? Two images occupying the same functional category, especially being something with so prime a focus as the crucifix, can causes the people's devotional focus to be flipping back and forth between them. When this flipping occurs between two objects of utmost focus it creates dishamony in the aesthetics from the top down. This is likenable to trying to pray with spiritual double-vision.


  • Our Lady of Guadalupe alongside Our Lady of Perputual Help, or the Infant Christ in the arms of the BVM and also the Infant Christ in the arms of Joseph within the same shrine. Why? The imagery suggests that there is two of the thing is a given place where it is really a unique individual. Because of this, the real identity is doubted, and the devotion is weakened.


  • Retaining a second lower quality BVM statue merely because it was donated by a member of the parish many years ago. Why? Just because politics orders that an image be retained, it does not mean that it ought not be moved or removed for the good of the faithful.

 

However there are also situations where duplicities seem to exist but neither are problematic nor violate any principle:


  • Stations of the Cross, pictured Mysteries of the Rosary, or similar multi-scene high-altar triptychs Why not? Because much like in a comic book, the bilocated figures are seen more as figures of a united story. They are understood to be existing in different planes of space-time.


  • Holy Infant shrine with a crucifix somewhat elsewhere, or St. Anne and BVM statue with a proper BVM Queen statue elsewhere. Why not? Because architectural features are physically sorting the two image into different psychological spaces, i.e. not being part of the same high altar piece or other interior church face.


  • Myriads of angels Why not? Numerous, even identical angel figures are in no way problematic because it reflects the true number of the angels in a beautifully helpful way all other aesthetics not notwithstanding. Multiple copies of one particular angel, e.g. St Raphael, would likely still be quite problematic.


So why is this seemingly fussy concern actually important for the salvation of souls?

Many people of weak judgement might claim that these are petty artist concerns that aren't grounded in practical reality. Against this argument it must be maintained that:

A small cluttered and over-crowded Catholic chapel
St. Martin's Parish Church, Warrington TX

  1. Duplicity of images is not simple, it is inefficient (i.e. wasteful). It fails to share the Gospel with rhetorical efficiency.

  2. It is not helpful, it is confusing. It fails to save souls well, and can perhaps cause damage.


  1. It is not beautiful, it is disordered. It fails to manifest God and the life of grace in their attractive splendor.


Aesthetics is not merely a matter of good appearances but of practical piety.

To schedule an in-person consult with us for your church call 517-290-6544.

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