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E06415: A letter of Pope Gregory the Great (Register 11.10) of 600, to Serenus, bishop of Marseille, condemns his destruction of images of saints in Marseille (southern Gaul), arguing that they are for the instruction of the illiterate. Written in Latin in Rome.

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posted on 2018-09-11, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Pope Gregory the Great, Register of Letters 11.10

Perlatum siquidem ad nos fuerat quod inconsiderato zelo succensus sanctorum imagines sub hac quasi excusatione, ne adorari debuissent, confringeres. Et quidem quia eas adorari uetuisses omnino laudauimus, fregisse uero reprehendimus.  Dic, frater, a quo factum sacerdote aliquando auditum est quod fecisti? Si non aliud, uel illud te non debuit reuocare, ut despectis aliis fratribus solum te sanctum et esse crederes sapientem? Aliud est enim picturam adorare, aliud per picturae historiam quid sit adorandum addiscere. Nam quod legentibus scriptura, hoc idiotis praestat pictura cernentibus, quia in ipsa ignorantes uident quod sequi debeant, in ipsa legunt qui litteras nesciunt; unde praecipue gentibus pro lectione pictura est.

‘For indeed it has reached our ears that as you were burning with uncontrolled zeal, you began breaking the images of the saints with the rather weak excuse that they ought not to be worshipped. Indeed, that you had banned their adoration, we fully applauded you, but we condemn you for having broken them. Tell me, brother, when have you ever heard of some other priest doing what you did? If never, should that not have warned you that you were despising all other brethren in your belief that you alone were holy and wise? For the worship of a picture is one thing but learning what should be worshipped through the story on a picture is something else. For what writing provides for readers, this a picture provides for uneducated people looking at it, for in it the ignorant see what they should follow and the illiterate read the same from it. Thus a picture serves as a text, especially for pagans.’

Gregory continues to encourage Serenus to gather together his congregation and tell them that, whilst it is forbidden to worship images, they should learn from them.

Text: Norberg 1982, vol. 2, 873-4. Translation: Martyn 2004, vol. 3, 745, lightly adapted.


Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory the Great (pope)

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Condemnation/rejection of a specific cultic activity

Cult activities - Use of Images

  • Public display of an image

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Pagans


A letter transmitted as part of Gregory the Great’s Register of Letters. This letter collection, organised into fourteen books, is large and contains letters to a variety of recipients, including prominent aristocrats, members of the clergy and royalty. The issues touched on in the letters are equally varied, ranging from theological considerations to mundane administrative matters. This collection of letters, which was possibly curated by Gregory, was originally much larger. The surviving Register comprises several groups of letters which were extracted at several later moments in history, the largest of which took place in the papacy of Hadrian I (772-795).


This letter became a classic text in the defence of images in the West: that they were for the instruction of the unlettered.


Edition: Norberg, D., S. Gregorii Magni, Registrum epistularum. 2 vols. (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 140-140A; Turnhout: Brepols, 1982). English translation: Martyn, J.R.C., The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004). Further Reading: Dal Santo, M., Debating the Saints' Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great (Oxford: OUP, 2012). McCulloch, J., "The Cult of Relics in the Letters and Dialogues of Gregory the Great," Traditio 32 (1976), 145-184. Neil, B., and Dal Santo, M. (eds.), A Companion to Gregory the Great (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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