From its earliest days, the Christian Church has decorated its meeting rooms with images (e.g. the life of Moses; Jonah and the whale; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace). Examples of these include the Catacombs of Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome) and the church at Dura Europos (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos#The_house_church). In many cases images appear to have been chosen for their ambiguity, in order to avoid arrest by the pagan powers. Synagogues were also decorated during the Roman period, featuring symbols, such as the Menorah, and images of the sun in his chariot at the centre of the zodiac (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beit_Alfa#Archaeology).
However, images continued to remain controversial right into the Byzantine era, when the iconoclast debate raged. These debates are evidence of different readings of Scripture that reflect very real concerns not only about heresy, but also about paganism. Paganism died a slow death, clinging on in the countryside, when the term is derived, a paganus being a rustic fellow in late antiquity. Despite Theodosius’ effort to crush non-Christian religion, it lingered on in the Anatolian hinterland and elsewhere. Thus Christians who would not tolerate even a hint of compromise eschewed anything that reminded them of idolatry, be it a statue, a painting, or a mosaic.
Looking at this heated of the debate, where each side contended for the importance of its agenda, it can be easy to forget that images are not an essential of the Christian faith. Whether one finds a church “pure” or “sterile” when images or absent, whether one finds it “elegant” or “gaudy” when images are present, the point is the same: the faith always was, first and foremost, about reconciliation to God through the Cross of Christ Jesus (Rom. 10:1-12; Col. 1:19-23). We can do without images; we cannot do without Christ. Elaborate settings for the liturgy are not always possible, whether through poverty or persecution, but Christ has promised to be present wherever believers truly meet in His name. Where He is, there is the glory.
That lesson should remain as the foundation of the debate; nevertheless, there is an important point to be learned about the representation of Christ in art. The crucifix is a reminder of what salvation cost our Lord.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
He endured physical suffering, emotional suffering, and spiritual suffering. No one can fully describe it; no one can truly know what it was like. He came as a man and died as a man, so that He might be our great High Priest, to make atonement for our sins, deliver us from the evil one, and reconcile us to God. The crucifix is a reminder of the humanity of Christ, which He has permanently assumed.
Sometimes the Orthodox and Protestants make the point that Catholics leave Christ on the Cross: their preponderance of crucifixes absorb the attention, so that we forget the empty tomb on Easter morning. Maybe that is so, but one can hardly generalize about so big a phenomenon. The other extreme is worse: to forget about the suffering of the Son of God.
The Church is made up of many kinds of people: rich and poor, clever and simple, male and female, “cultured” and “barbarian”. In God’s house there is room enough for all of us who bow the knee to Christ. We will have clashes of conscience – in this age they are inevitable. We must bear with one another.