Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Thomas Aquinas's Conception of Image in Summa Theologica

Louis Chammings


I am working as a researcher at the French Audiovisual Institute in Paris. And I am a philosopher, disciple of Jacques Maritain. It is the reason why I am interested in studying the philosophical aspects of image.

Today, image takes up so great a deal of room that some maintain that our society can be defined as a civilization of image. In what extent is it true?

Materially speaking, the answer is obviously positive. But formally speaking, as far as «_civilization_» means a specific manner of achieving man, what can be the part of image in such an ambition?

The first thing needed when we try to answer that question, is a clear definition of what is «_image_». Surprisingly, Thomas Aquinas can be helpful in this attempt.

I. Texts(1) on image in Summa Theologica

I.1. The Image in God: The Son as Word (S.Th., Ia Q.35)

The Son, and only Him, is said to be Image because of his relation of similitude to the Father as his origin: «_Whatever imports procession or origin in God, belongs to the persons. Hence the name "Image" is a personal name_» (Ia Q.35 a.1 Resp.)

Here Thomas gives us his definition of image: «_Image includes the idea of similitude(2). Still, not any kind of similitude suffices for the notion of image, but only similitude of species, or at least of some specific sign. In corporeal things the specific sign consists chiefly in the figure. For we see that the species of different animals are of different figures; but not of different colors. Hence if the color of anything is depicted on a wall, this is not called an image unless the figure is likewise depicted. Further, neither the similitude of species or of figure is enough for an image, which requires also the idea of origin; because, as Augustine says (QQ. lxxxiii, qu. 74): "One egg is not the image of another, because it is not derived from it." Therefore for a true image it is required that one proceeds from another like to it in species, or at least in specific sign_». (Id.)

The Holy Ghost is not said to be the Image of the Father or of the Son, or of both of them, although He proceeds from them: «_As the Holy Ghost, although by His procession He receives the nature of the Father, as the Son also receives it, nevertheless is not said to be "born"; so, although He receives the likeness of the Father, He is not called the Image; because the Son proceeds as word, and it is essential to word to be like species with that whence it proceeds; whereas this does not essentially belong to love, although it may belong to that love which is the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as He is the divine love_». ( cf. Ia Q.35 a.2 Resp.)

In God, Image is identical to Word, but the analogy of Word lays on a more specific knowledge basis than the one of Image: Word signifies an emanation of the intellect: and the person Who proceeds in God, by way of emanation of the intellect, is called the Son_» (Ia Q.34 a.2 Resp.). The analogy of Image focuses on the similitude between the Father and the Son: «_For the Son's nativity, which is His personal property, is signified by different names, which are attributed to the Son to express His perfection in various ways. To show that He is of the same nature as the Father, He is called the Son; to show that He is co-eternal, He is called the Splendor; to show that He is altogether like, He is called the Image; to show that He is begotten immaterially, He is called the Word. All these truths cannot be expressed by only one name_» (Ia Q.34 a.2 ad 4).

I.2. The image of God in man: man as a spirit (Ia Q.93)

It is written (Gn. 1:26): «_Let Us make man to Our own image and likeness._» So, we have to consider the difference between image and likeness.

« It is clear that likeness is essential to an image; and that an image adds something to likeness--namely, that it is copied from something else. For an "image" is so called because it is produced as an imitation of something else (imago = ad imitationem ago); wherefore, for instance, an egg, however much like and equal to another egg, is not called an image of the other egg, because it is not copied from it. But equality does not belong to the essence of an image, as we see in a person's image reflected in a glass. Yet this is of the essence of a perfect image; for in a perfect image nothing is wanting that is to be found in that of which it is a copy.». (Ia Q.93 a.1 Resp.)

The Son is said to be «_Image_» of God, whereas man is said «_to the image_» of God. Whence come two distinctions: 1/ perfect and imperfect image; 2/ natural and artificial image. In a perfect image, image is equal to its model; in a natural image, image is of the same nature as his exemplar (the king generates his son by nature, when the coin is produced by art):

«_First-Born of creatures is the perfect Image of God, reflecting perfectly that of which He is the Image, and so He is said to be the "Image," and never "to the image." But man is said to be both "image" by reason of the likeness; and "to the image" by reason of the imperfect likeness. And since the perfect likeness to God cannot be except in an identical nature, the Image of God exists in His first-born Son; as the image of the king is in his son, who is of the same nature as himself: whereas it exists in man as in an alien nature, as the image of the king is in a silver coin_». (Q.93 a.1 ad 2)

«_Boethius here uses the word "image" to express the likeness which the product of an art bears to the artistic species in the mind of the artist. Thus every creature is an image of the exemplar type thereof in the Divine mind. We are not, however, using the word "image" in this sense; but as it implies a likeness in nature, that is, inasmuch as all things, as being, are like to the First Being; as living, like to the First Life; and as intelligent, like to the Supreme Wisdom_». (Ia Q.93 a.2 ad 4)

I.3. Image as mental (phantasma) (Ia Q.85 a.1; Q.84 a.7)

Now we are turning toward image as involved in understanding. The first point is that man cannot think without images (phantasm = mental image): «_In the present state of life in which the soul is united to a passible body, it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to the phantasms.

First of all because the intellect, being a power that does not make use of a corporeal organ, would in no way be hindered in its act through the lesion of a corporeal organ, if for its act there were not required the act of some power that does make use of a corporeal organ. Now sense, imagination and the other powers belonging to the sensitive part, make use of a corporeal organ. Wherefore it is clear that for the intellect to understand actually, not only when it acquires fresh knowledge, but also when it applies knowledge already acquired, there is need for the act of the imagination and of the other powers. For when the act of the imagination is hindered by a lesion of the corporeal organ, for instance in a case of frenzy; or when the act of the memory is hindered, as in the case of lethargy, we see that a man is hindered from actually understanding things of which he had a previous knowledge.

Secondly, anyone can experience this of himself, that when he tries to understand something, he forms certain phantasms to serve him by way of

examples, in which as it were he examines what he is desirous of understanding. For this reason it is that when we wish to help someone to understand something, we lay examples before him, from which he forms phantasms for the purpose of understanding.

Now the reason of this is that the power of knowledge is proportioned to the thing known. Wherefore the proper object of the angelic intellect, which is entirely separate from a body, is an intelligible substance separate from a body. Whereas the proper object of the human intellect, which is united to a body, is a quiddity or nature existing in corporeal matter; and through such natures of visible things it rises to a certain knowledge of things invisible. Now it belongs to such a nature to exist in an individual, and this cannot be apart from corporeal matter: for instance, it belongs to the nature of a stone to be in an individual stone, and to the nature of a horse to be in an individual horse, and so forth. Wherefore the nature of a stone or any material thing cannot be known completely and truly, except in as much as it is known as existing in the individual. Now we apprehend the individual through the senses and the imagination. And, therefore, for the intellect to understand actually its proper object, it must of necessity turn to the phantasms in order to perceive the universal nature existing in the individual. But if the proper object of our intellect were a separate form; or if, as the Platonists say, the natures of sensible things subsisted apart from the individual; there would be no need for the intellect to turn to the phantasms whenever it understands_». (Ia Q.84 a.7 Resp.)

The second point is that human thought does not end in images, but reaches the universal, which is abstracted from images: «_The Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 4) that "things are intelligible in proportion as they are separate from matter." Therefore material things must needs be understood according as they are abstracted from matter and from material images, namely, phantasms_». (Ia Q.85 a.1, Sed contra)

«_The human intellect holds a middle place [between sense and angelic intellect]: for it is not the act of an organ; yet it is a power of the soul which is the form the body, as is clear from what we have said above (76, 1). And therefore it is proper to it to know a form existing individually in corporeal matter, but not as existing in this individual matter. But to know what is in individual matter, not as existing in such matter, is to abstract the form from individual matter which is represented by the phantasms. Therefore we must needs say that our intellect understands material things by abstracting from the phantasms_». (Q.85 a.1 Resp.)

I.4. Idea and species (creative image vs cognitive image):

The kind of image involved in a creative process, as in art or fiction, is different from the image involved in a cognitive process:

«_Boethius here ["Holding the world in His mind, and forming it into His image." (De Consol. iii)] uses the word "image" to express the likeness which the product of an art bears to the artistic species in the mind of the artist. Thus every creature is an image of the exemplar type thereof in the Divine mind.». (Ia Q.93 a.2 ad 4)

«_It must necessarily be held that ideas are many [in the divine intelligence]. (...) It can easily be seen how this is not repugnant to the simplicity of God, if we consider that the idea of a work is in the mind of the operator as that which is understood, and not as the image whereby he understands, which is a form that makes the intellect in act. For the form of the house in the mind of the builder, is something understood by him, to the likeness of which he forms the house in matter_ (ideam operati esse in mente operantis sicut quod intelligitur, non autem sicut species qua intelligitur, quæ est forma faciens intellectum in actu)_». (Ia Q.15 a.2 : "Utrum sint plures ideæ in Deo")

As a result, the kind of truth asked for by creative images (e.g. fiction), as measured by the adequation to the author's idea, is different from the truth asked for by cognitive images (e.g. reporting), as we will see below.

I.5 Image as physical: (IIIa Q.25 a.3,4)

Let us have a look at Saint Thomas's solution to the Iconoclastic controversy.

[«_The Iconoclastic controversy lasted from 726, when Emperor Leo III (717-741) began an attack on the use of religious images, until 843 when The Empress Theodora allowed their restoration. The two periods of Iconoclasm were separated by the reign of the iconodule Empress Irene, under whom the Second Council of Nicea 787 was held. Although politics, and especially the politics of church and state were involved, there were serious theological issues at stake. A number of defenses of Icons were made: based on the existence of Divinely approved images in nature and Scripture; based on the reality of the incarnation; and based on a Platonic metaphysics of ascending images which participated in the prototype._» (from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook)]

«_As the Philosopher says (De Memor. et Remin. i), there is a twofold movement of the mind towards an image: one indeed towards the image itself as a certain thing; another, towards the image in so far as it is the image of something else. And between these movements there is this difference; that the former, by which one is moved towards an image as a certain thing, is different from the movement towards the thing: whereas the latter movement, which is towards the image as an image, is one and the same as that which is towards the thing. Thus therefore we must say that no reverence is shown to Christ's image, as a thing--for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature. It follow therefore that reverence should be shown to it, in so far only as it is an image. Consequently the same reverence should be shown to Christ's image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of "latria", it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of "latria"._» (IIIa Q.25 a.3 Resp.)

Saint Thomas is iconodule!

II. The concept of image

II.1. Definition

«_For a true image it is required that one proceeds from another like to it in species, or at least in specific sign ». (Ia Q.35 a.1 Resp.)

- similitude (conformity or communication of form)

- specificity: whether according to the species of the thing; or according to any specific sign of it, chiefly the shape.

- origin; comes from the model or pattern (exemplar, prototype) either naturally -the king's son, or artificially -the coin bearing the king's effigy.

II.2. The concept of image is analogical

Vocabulary: imago, phantasma, species, idea, idola... The latin concept of image is analogical, though more specific than ours, which could be equivocal.

II.3. Image as a sign

- Sign belongs to the genus of relation, whereas image is defined by similitude; but similitude depends on form, rather on relation: «_Nec similitudo proprie secundum relationem attenditur, sed secundum formam_». (Pot. q.2 a.4, 4 ad 3; cf. q.10 a.1, ad 17). «_Since likeness is based upon agreement or communication in form, it varies according to the many modes of communication in form_». (Ia Q.4 a.3)

- word is the sign of concept, whereas image is the sign of thing.

- the seduction of image originates in the ambiguity which follows its intermediate status between sign and thing: it is a kind of sign which tend, more than any other, to substitute to the thing...

III. The truth of image

III.1. Truth is not in image

(nor in concept), but in the judgement which come with it...

III.2 Speculative and practical truth;

the twofold functionality of mental images: - cognitive images, creative images, (phantasma, idea)

- involve two different relations to truth (cf.TV: News vs Fiction programs).


Old Aquinas can still help us in making some contemporary questions clearer, such as the truth of images, old and modern...

1. Quotations come from the Internet english version of Summa Theologica translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Copyright © 1947 Benzinger Brothers Inc., Hypertext Version Copyright © 1995, 1996 New Advent Inc.

2. Underlining is always mine.