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§ 102. The Restoration of Image-Worship by the Seventh Oecumenical Council, 787.


Leo IV., called Chazarus (775–780), kept up the laws against images, though with more moderation. But his wife Irene of Athens distinguished for beauty, talent, ambition and intrigue, was at heart devoted to image-worship, and after his death and during the minority of her son Constantine VI. Porphyrogenitus, labored with shrewdness and perseverance for its restoration (780–802). At first she proclaimed toleration to both parties, which she afterwards denied to the iconoclasts. She raised the persecuted monks to the highest dignities, and her secretary, Tarasius, to the patriarchal throne of Constantinople, with the consent of Pope Hadrian, who was willing to overlook the irregularity of the sudden election of a layman in prospect of his services to orthodoxy. She removed the iconoclastic imperial guard, and replaced it by one friendly to her views.

But the crowning measure was an oecumenical council, which alone could set aside the authority of the iconoclastic council of 754. Her first attempt to hold such a council at Constantinople in 786 completely failed. The second attempt, owing to more careful preparations, succeeded.

Irene convened the seventh oecumenical council in the year 787, at Nicaea, which was less liable to iconoclastic disturbances than Constantinople, yet within easy reach of the court, and famous as the seat of the first and weightiest oecumenical council. It was attended by about three hundred and fifty bishops,543543    The accounts vary between 330 and 367. The Acts are signed by 308 bishops and episcopal representatives. Nicephorus, the almost contemporaneous patriarch of Constantinople, in a letter to Leo III., mentions only 150. See Hefele, III. 460. under the presidency of Tarasius, and held only eight sessions from September 24 to October 23, the last in the imperial palace of Constantinople. Pope Hadrian I. sent two priests, both called Peter, whose names stand first in the Acts. The three Eastern patriarchs, who were subject to the despotic rule of the Saracens, could not safely leave their homes; but two Eastern monks, John, and Thomas, who professed to be syncelli of two of these patriarchs and to have an accurate knowledge of the prevailing orthodoxy of Egypt and Syria, were allowed to sit and vote in the place of those dignitaries, although they had no authority from them, and were sent simply by a number of their fellow-monks.544544    Theodore of the Studium, himself a zealous advocate of image-worship, exposes this trick, and intimates that the council was not strictly oecumenical, although he sometimes gives it that name. The question connected with these two irresponsible monks is discussed with his usual minuteness and prolixity by Walch, X. 551-558. See also Neander, III. 228, and Hefele, III. 459.

The Nicene Council nullified the decrees of the iconoclastic Synod of Constantinople, and solemnly sanctioned a limited worship (proskynesis) of images.545545    The definition (ὂρος) sanctions the ἀσπασμὸς καὶ τιμητικὴ προσκύνησις, osculum (or salutatio) et honoraria adoratio, but not ἀληθινὴ λατρεία ἡ πρέπει μόνη τῇ θείᾳ φύσει, vera latria, quae solam divinam naturam decet. Mansi, XIII. 378 sq. The term Gr. ajpasmov” embraces salutation and kiss, the προσκύνησις, bowing the knee, and other demonstrations of reverence, see p. 450.

Under images were understood the sign of the cross, and pictures of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of angels and saints. They may be drawn in color or composed of Mosaic or formed of other suitable materials, and placed in churches, in houses, and in the street, or made on walls and tables, sacred vessels and vestments. Homage may be paid to them by kissing, bowing, strewing of incense, burning of lights, saying prayers before them; such honor to be intended for the living objects in heaven which the images represented. The Gospel book and the relics of martyrs were also mentioned among the objects of veneration.

The decree was fortified by a few Scripture passages about the Cherubim (Ex. 25:17–22; Ezek. 41:1, 15, 19; Heb. 9:1–5), and a large number of patristic testimonies, genuine and forged, and alleged miracles performed by images.546546    Walch (X. 572) says of these proofs from tradition: “Die untergeschobenen Schriften, die in der Hauptsache nichts entscheidenden Stellen und die mit grosser Unwissenheit verdrehten Aussprüche sind so haeufig, dass man sich beides über die Unwissenheit und Unverschämtheit nicht genug verwundern kann, welche in diesen Sammlungen sichtbar sind.” Even moderate Roman Catholic historians, as Alexander Natalia and Fleury, admit quietly the errors in some patristic quotations. A presbyter testified that he was cured from a severe sickness by a picture of Christ. Bishop after bishop, even those who had been members of the Synod of 754, renounced his iconoclastic opinions, and large numbers exclaimed together: “We all have sinned, we all have erred, we all beg forgiveness.” Some professed conscientious scruples, but were quieted when the Synod resolved that the violation of an oath which was contrary to the law of God, was no perjury. At the request of one of the Roman delegates, an image was brought into the assembly, and reverently kissed by all. At the conclusion, the assembled bishops exclaimed unanimously: “Thus we believe. This is the doctrine of the apostles. Anathema upon all who do not adhere to it, who do not salute the images, who call them idols, and who charge the Christians with idolatry. Long life to the emperors! Eternal memory to the new Constantine and the new Helena! God protect their reign! Anathema upon all heretics! Anathema especially upon Theodosius, the false bishop of Ephesus, as also upon Sisinnius and Basilius! The Holy Trinity has rejected their doctrines.” Then follows an anathema upon other distinguished iconoclasts, and all who do not confess that Christ’s humanity has a circumscribed form, who do not greet the images, who reject the ecclesiastical traditions, written or unwritten; while eternal memory is given to the chief champions of image-worship, Germanus of Constantinople, John of Damascus, and George of Cyprus, the heralds of truth. 547547    See the acts of the council in the twelfth and thirteenth vols. of Mansi, and a summary in Hefele, III. 460-482. On the different texts and defective Latin versions, see Walch, X. 420-422, and Hefele, III. 486. Gibbon calls the acts “a curious monument of superstition and ignorance, of falsehood and folly.” This is too severe, but not without some foundation. The personal character of Irene cuts a deep shadow over the Council, and would have been condemned even by the Byzantine historians, if her devotion to images had not so blinded them and Roman historians, like Baronius and Maimbourg, that they excuse her darkest crimes and overwhelm her with praise.

The decrees of the Synod were publicly proclaimed in an eighth session at Constantinople in the presence of Irene and her son, and, signed by them; whereupon the bishops, with the people and soldiers, shouted in the usual form: “Long live the Orthodox queen-regent.” The empress sent the bishops home with rich presents.

The second Council of Nicaea stands far below the first in moral dignity and doctrinal importance, and occupies the lowest grade among the seven oecumenical synods; but it determined the character of worship in the oriental church for all time to come, and herein lies its significance. Its decision is binding also upon the Roman church, which took part in it by two papal legates, and defended it by a letter of Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne in answer to the Libri Carolini. Protestant churches disregard the council because they condemn image-worship as a refined form of idolatry and as a fruitful source of superstition; and this theory is supported by the plain sense of the second commandment, the views of the primitive Christians, and, negatively, by the superstitions which have accompanied the history of image-worship down to the miracle-working Madonnas of the nineteenth century. At the same time it may be readily conceded that the decree of Nicaea has furnished aid and comfort to a low and crude order of piety which needs visible supports, and has stimulated the development of Christian art. Iconoclasm would have killed it. It is, however, a remarkable fact that the Catholic Raphael and Michael Angelo, and the Protestant Lucas Kranach and Albrecht Dürer, were contemporaries of the Reformers, and that the art of painting reached its highest perfection at the period when image-worship for a great part of Christendom was superseded by the spiritual worship of God alone.

A few months after the Nicene Council, Irene dissolved the betrothal of her son, the Emperor Constantine, to Rotrude, a daughter of Charlemagne, which she herself had brought about, and forced him to marry an Armenian lady whom he afterward cast off and sent to a convent.548548    Charlemagne afterwards offered Irene his hand with a view to unite the Eastern and Western empires, and she accepted the offer; but her prime-minister, Aëtius, who wished to raise his own brother, Leo, to the throne, prevented the marriage. From this time dates her rupture with Constantine. In her ambition for despotic power, she rendered him odious by encouraging his bad habits, and at last incapable of the throne by causing his eyes to be plucked out, while he was asleep, with such violence that he died of it (797). It is a humiliating fact that Constantine the Great, the convener of the first Nicene Council, and Irene, the convener of the second and last, are alike stained with the blood of their own offspring, and yet honored as saints in the Eastern church, in whose estimate orthodoxy covers a multitude of sins.549549    The memory of Irene is celebrated by the Greeks on the 15th of August. Her patriarch, Tarasius (d. 806), is canonized in the Roman as well as the Greek Church. She enjoyed for five years the fruit of unnatural cruelty to her only child. As she passed through the streets of Constantinople, four patricians marched on foot before her golden chariot, holding the reins of four milk-white steeds. But these patricians conspired against their queen and raised the treasurer Nicephorus to the throne, who was crowned at St. Sophia by the venal patriarch. Irene was sent into exile on the Isle of Lesbos, and had to earn her bread by the labors of her distaff as she had done in the days of her youth as an Athenian virgin. She died of grief in 803. With her perished the Isaurian dynasty. Startling changes of fortune were not uncommon among princes and patriarchs of the Byzantine empire.



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