Molanus discusses the difference between images and writings
Year mention: 1617
Relationship between art and poetry
Judging art

Images are to the illiterate what books are to the literate, therefore they should be treated similarly by authorities, thus that what is prohibited for books should also be prohibited for images

Molanus, Johannes
Frostispiece of Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), Antwerp, Gasparus Bellerus
Frontispiece of Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), Antwerp, Gasparus Bellerus
Augsburg, Staats- und Stadtbibliothek — Th H 1475. Digital Reproduction: München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 2015.

In the first part of the second book, Molanus discusses several times the relationship between paintings and poetry, or in a more general sense: the relationship between art and writings. The bottom line of his view is that these in many respects are very similar and that images occupy a similar place in the life of the illiterate or uneducated as books do in the life of the literate or educated; what is more, Molanus suggests that images might even be more influential than written text. Therefore, ecclessiastical and wordly authorities should treat them in the same way and unacceptable art should be banned, as was the case with prohibited books. Later on in book II, Molanus will develop his ideas about the role of images in society and argue that not only in the life of lay people or the uneducated images have a great influence, but also in the lives of men of great culture and saints (see: book II, ch. 17).

“Indeed, what is the difference between images and writings? What is a painting if not a painted writing if not a painted narrative? Hence it is called zoographia in Greek, which means living writing, as St. Bede notes in his book on the Temple of Solomon. Images are reputed to be the books of the laity and the illiterate, what books are for the educated, images are for those who cannot read. The role that writing plays for those who know how to read, the image plays for the uneducated, because ignorant as they are, they see in it what they should do on their own, and they read in it, they who do not know letters. Therefore, what is forbidden for books must also be forbidden for paintings, because painting often produces not a less strong impression on educated people than reading does. And the word of the pagan poet cannot be extended to sacred images: ‘The painters and the poets have always had the same authority to dare everything.'”

“Quid enim differunt picturae a scripturis? Quid est aliud pictura quam picta scriptura? Quam picta historia? Unde etiam Graece zoographia, hoc est viva scriptura, vocatur sicut annotat Beda in libro de templo Salamonis.
Picturae dicuntur laicorum et idiotarum libri, quod doctis sunt libri, hoc legere non valentibus sunt picturae. Quod legentibus scriptura, hoc idiotis praestat pictura cernentibus, quia in ipsa etiam ignorantes vident, quod sequi debeant, in ipsa legunt qui litteras nesciunt. Quod igitur in libris prohibetur in picturis quoque est prohibendum, cum ea quae pinguntur, saepe non minus etiam doctos afficiant, quam ea quae leguntur. Neque ad sacras Imagines extendum est quod gentiis Poeta dixit: ‘Pictoribus, atque poetis quidlibet audendi sempre fuit aqua potestas.'”

Quoted Authorities

St. Bede the Venerable, ch. 19, t. 8 Gregory, Registri, Book 9, ch. 9. Horace, Ars poetica

books, educated, illiterate, literate, paintings, prohibition, uneducated

Date mention

Historical Location


Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), book 2, ch. 2, 36

Molanus 1996, 125-126.

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