The basis of all phenomenal–i.e., relative–existence is name and form. When someone says “tree,” we see the form of a tree in our mind. If someone points out a tree to us, we think: “Oh, a tree!” Thus name and form are interchangeable. The name gives rise to a form and the form gives rise to a name.
A higher view
However, on the level of higher realities, form is not form, name is not name. Rather, they are the dual manifestations of great creative power. Therefore in Hinduism there is an entire science of mantra–creative spoken sound–and yantra–creative visualized form. Yantras are diagrams of the energy patterns or force fields produced when certain mantras are recited correctly. Some American psychiatrists have obtained remarkable results in healing mental illness through having their patients visualize certain classical Indian Yantras.
Irresponsible whimsy prohibited
Since an image both reflects and produces states of consciousness, this commandment prohibits the whimsical making of imagery–especially of trying to encompass through imagery That Which knows no bounds. Even further, an image can be a point of contact between the beholder and the (usually) invisible worlds.
God has divided His universe into many mansions (John 14:2), or zones. Just as within our bodies we have barriers to keep the bacteria and elements of the various systems from crossing over into one another, so it is with the external realms. But it is possible to open gates for communication between them and even for denizens of one region to pass into another.
Perhaps the most powerful instrument for such interdimensional communication was the Ark of the Covenant. Although it is commonly believed that the Ten Commandments prohibit the religious use of images, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus that assertion is clearly disproven. God Himself says to Moses regarding the construction of the Ark: “And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark” (Exodus 25:18-21).
What was the purpose of this construction with images of cherubim? “And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:22). God not only spoke from between the cherubim (Numbers 7:89), several times in the Old Testament, God is declared to be perpetually dwelling between the cherubim (I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2; II Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; Psalms 80:1). Consequently there can be no doubt that images are viable esoteric elements in divine contact.
An important insight
However, the use of images for contacting the Divine or worshipping the Divine through them is not the same as worshipping them as though they were themselves the in-all and be-all of the Divine, and it is this latter action which is prohibited by the Commandment.
The Trinity of all existence
The principle being dealt with in this commandment is the esoteric fact that there is a Trinity embracing all modes of being: Consciousness, Name, and Form. In the highest sense, God the Father is Consciousness, God the Son is Name (Logos), and God the Holy Spirit is Form. And the three are one. All relative existence is a reflection of this Trinity in endless permutations and gradations.
Forms are thus gateways to corresponding modes of consciousness. They are tools to be used, the prohibition in this Commandment being only of their misuse–or premature use. For after the advent and transmutation of Jesus the Christ, the use of imagery became a vital aspect of Christian esoteric practice, including worship.
Let us look at an instance in the Old Testament which shows that images are means of channeling power from the higher realms of consciousness.
“And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:6-9). Healing energies flowed into whoever gazed upon the image. Ironically, later on the Israelites started worshipping the bronze serpent itself and it had to be destroyed.
The Staff of Aesculapius, with its intertwined serpents, is a version of Moses’ healing image–though the Greeks who made it famous as a symbol of healing were not aware of its origins. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches the bishops carry such staffs because originally no one could be made a bishop who did not evidence special healing powers.
Perhaps the most amazing example of the power of visual form is found in the thirtieth chapter of Genesis (Genesis 30:25-43). Jacob asked that he be given any striped or spotted sheep or goats from the flock of his father-in-law, Laban. When Laban agreed, Jacob took wooden poles and peeled them so they would be striped and set them up where the goats and sheep would see them when they bred. As a result, many of their offspring were striped or spotted! This may sound too strange to believe, but that is because we have not begun to fathom the power of the mind and its modes of perception. There are many instances of children being affected by their mothers’ visual experiences during their pregnancies, but instead of studying them we shrug them off as old wives’ tales–and remain ignorant. (I know a woman who went outside to view a solar eclipse while pregnant. Several of her neighbors warned her that this would affect the unborn child’s eyesight. She ignored them, considering them superstitious. But her opinion was changed when the child was born with internal–and inoperable–cataracts that rendered her nearly blind.)
So form is both invocative and evocative–that is, it can put us in touch with states of consciousness either outside of us or within us. As a result, it obviously must be handled carefully and according to esoteric knowledge.
Saint Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians makes the situation quite clear: “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (I Corinthians 8:4). Of itself an image is nothing, but it may become a vehicle for communication with negative intelligences roaming through the lower inner planes to which such beings are banished. Seeking a gateway into this world, they may be able to use an image which has been energized by the attention of human beings–for, being made in the image of God, we, too, have the power to instill a form of life into matter. Such an enlivened–or magnetized–image can become a “sounding board” between our world and theirs, and even be developed into a means of their entry into the earth plane.
The obverse side
Of course, if images can be points of contact between us and negative entities, they can also become the means of our communication with highly evolved and illumined beings, as well. This possibility was made an actuality through Jesus. The body, the actual physical form, of Jesus was a manifestation of perfected, divine consciousness. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Therefore a depiction of it can become a communication point with the supreme state of being: “God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).
Moreover, since they have become one with Christ in perfect union, the saints–those Just Men Made Perfect (Hebrews 12:23)–are also perfect channels of the highest consciousness, therefore many of them have remained incorrupt after death, and from the bodies of all of them flow healing and illumining power even to this day. Their images, too, can become links to the Highest.
Sacred images, then, are actual invocations of the consciousness of those they depict, powerful means of attunement to the highest planes of evolution from which the Light of Christ flows into this world, enlightening the darkness of anyone who employs them with the understanding of their purpose and power. The physical icon-image is linked to its spiritual prototype, making it an open door between the higher and lower worlds.
In the early temples of the Christians, two-dimensional images known as icons were an important part–especially behind and above the altar where a mural of the Virgin Mother would often be painted. The Virgin was usually depicted with raised arms, and in a circle within her breast would be the Christ Child. This symbolized the Holy Spirit bearing the presence of Christ in his perpetual descent–through her–upon the Altar. In some early temples Christ is shown as Helios, the God of the Sun. The symbolism is evident.
Eastern Christians call icons “windows into heaven,” an expression that can hardly be improved upon. Windows are means of two-way communication and illumination, even of entry, for as we have said, the holy images can be gateways. This is why it is beneficial to have icons throughout our home, and especially where we meditate and pray. Their very presence will help us in attuning ourself to higher levels of awareness.
Although it is not of major significance here, let us look at the esoteric reason behind the Eastern Christians’ preference for two-dimensional, stylized icons rather than three-dimensional statuary or natural-looking paintings. The basic motivation is the psychological effect. A two-dimensional icon by its very nature causes us to deal with it as an idea in color and form rather than mistake it for a “present reality” confined to time and space. The stylization of the icon causes the mind of the beholder to vibrate to the ideational side rather than the historical, material, or emotional aspect–as would be the case with a naturalistic painting. Further, the stylization depicts the transfiguration of consciousness which the holy subject embodies. When we look at the icon our consciousness begins to be attuned to that transfigured state. In this way our own ascent to higher consciousness is aided. In short, the use of two-dimensional, stylized imagery ensures that the viewer is approaching it through his illumined intelligence and understanding, maintaining–even strengthening–his self-awareness rather than losing it in contemplation of an external object.
The summing up
When we again call to mind the fact that this Commandment prohibits the making of images with the intention of worshipping them–or of worshipping negative intelligences through them–we have the correct perspective both on how to use images correctly and how to avoid their misuse.
A more esoteric consideration
The foregoing covers the intention of the Commandment regarding images, but there is another more esoteric side to visual imagery–the nature of the mind itself and the consequent power of imagery to shape the mind.
The mind is actually a mass or field of energy, more fluidic and responsive than water. We never really see an object, but rather we perceive the shaping of the mind-substance in response to optical stimuli. Light reflected from an object enters the eye and causes stimulation of the optic nerves whose impulses are then carried to centers in the brain and from there into the subtler energy level of the mind, which reacts by shaping itself in response. It is this response which we see–never the actual object. (The same is true in relation to all the senses.) So what we see is the shaping of our own mind. It is all a matter of vibrating energies.
It should be obvious then that we can profoundly alter the vibratory rate and character of our mental energies simply through imagery. Therefore we must be as careful about what we look at as we are about what we eat. This being so, it becomes evident that motion pictures and television shows that vividly show violence and evil have a negative effect on our consciousness. The same is also true of supposed art that depicts negative sights or deeds.
The importance of religious imagery thus becomes quite evident as a tool for inducing states of spiritual awareness. This is especially true of the stylized Christian icon. The stylized icon of a saint is not only an historical depiction of the saint or a psychic contact point with the individual intelligence of the saint, it is also an objectification of the saint’s illumined state of consciousness. By gazing upon it intently we can evoke within ourselves at least a hint of the same state. When we look at an icon we not only tune in to the immortal one depicted by the icon, we also begin to partake of the illumination of that one. As a consequence, an icon is a means of communication and communion. The possibilities for the transmutation of consciousness through the use of icons are very real.
Another, higher view
Let us look again at the command: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
In its highest meaning, this is a prohibition of allowing material consciousness to displace our spiritual consciousness, for when we mistake the evanescent external world for the realities of spirit, we then “bow down and serve” the false idols of material objects–the greatest idol being our own physical body with which we ignorantly identify.
This Commandment also relates to our meditations, during which no objects of sight, sound, taste, smell, or feeling should be allowed to draw our attention away from its object: God. Meditation is the most accurate test of how much we are truly freed from the idolatry of materiality. When, in meditation, we allow any object to catch our attention and pull us away from our contemplation, we are committing idolatry in a very real sense.
It is sad to realize that most of those who condemn the who use of imagery to lift the awareness to the invisible presence of God are themselves allowing their minds and hearts to be crowded with the idols of earthly thoughts and images throughout the day, including their times of prayer and meditation. May it not be so with us.
Read the next article in Gnosis of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.