Second Council of Nicaea - 787 A.D. part one

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  • Definition
  • Anathemas concerning holy images


    A recommendation to summon an ecumenical council, in order to correct the iconoclast heretics, had been addressed to Empress Irene, then acting as regent for her son Emperor Constantine VI (780-797) who was still a minor, both by Patriarch Paul IV of Constantinople (who had repented of his earlier iconoclast views) before his abdication from the see in 784 and by his successor as patriarch, Tarasius. The aim was to unite the church and to condemn the decrees passed by the council of 338 bishops held at Hiereia and St Mary of Blachernae in 754.

    The convocation of the council was announced to Pope Hadrian I (772-795) in a letter of Constantine VI and Irene, dated 29 August 784. They urged him either to attend in person or to send legates. Patriarch Tarasius sent the same message in synodal letters to the pope and the three eastern patriarchs. Pope Hadrian I gave his approval for the convocation of the council, stipulating various conditions, and sent as his legates the archpriest Peter and Peter, abbot of the Greek monastery of St Sabas in Rome.

    The council, which was summoned by an imperial edict in the summer of 786, met for the first time on 1 August 786, in the presence of Emperor Constantine and Empress Irene. When the proceedings were interrupted by the violent entry of iconoclast soldiers, faithful to the memory of Emperor Constantine V (741-775), the council was adjourned until the arrival of a reliable army under Staurakios. It assembled again at Nicaea on 24 September 787, the papal legates having been recalled from Sicily.

    After the bishops suspected of heresy had been admitted, 263 fathers embraced the doctrine concerning the cult of sacred images as explained in the letters of Pope Hadrian I, which were read out at the second session.

    The question of the intercession of saints was dealt with in the fourth session.

    Once all these matters had been approved, a doctrinal definition was decreed at the seventh session.

    At the eighth and last session, which was held at the request of Constantine and Irene in the Magnaura palace in Constantinople, the definition was again decreed and proclaimed and 22 canons were read out. The papal legates presided over the council and were the first to sign the acts; but in reality it was Patriarch Tarasius who presided, and it was he, at the command of the council, who informed Pope Hadrian I about it: "the occasion when the letters of your fraternal holiness were read out and all acclaimed them".

    Pope Hadrian I wrote no letter in reply, yet the defence he made of the council in 794 against Charlemagne shows that he accepted what the council had decreed, and that he had sent no acknowledgement because the concessions which he had requested in his letter of 26 October 785 to Constantine and Irene had not been granted to him, especially concerning the restoration of the papacy's patrimony to the state at which it had been prior to 731, that is, before Illyricum had been confiscated by the emperor Leo III. Emperor Constantine VI and his mother Irene signed the acts of the council but it is unclear whether or not they promulgated a decree on the matter.

    The translation is from the Greek text, since this is the more authoritative version. {Material in curly parentheses ,{ }, paragraphing, italicizing and bolding, are added by the hypertext editor. The material in square brackets [ ] is found in the hardcopy book from which the translation was taken.}


    The holy, great and universal synod, by the grace of God and by order of our pious and Christ-loving emperor and empress, Constantine and his mother Irene, assembled for the second time in the famous metropolis of the Nicaeans in the province of the Bithynians, in the holy church of God named after Wisdom, following the tradition of the catholic church, has decreed what is here laid down.

    {The council bases itself on the inspiration of Tradition & of itself}

    The one who granted us the light of recognizing him, the one who redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous insanity, Christ our God, when he took for his bride his holy catholic church, having no blemish or wrinkle, promised he would guard her and assured his holy disciples saying, I am with you every day until the consummation of this age. This promise however he made not only to them but also to us, who thanks to them have come to believe in his name. To this gracious offer some people paid no attention, being hoodwinked by the treacherous foe they abandoned the true line of reasoning, and setting themselves against the tradition of the catholic church they faltered in their grasp of the truth. As the proverbial saying puts it, they turned askew the axles of their farm carts and gathered no harvest in their hands. Indeed they had the effrontery to criticise the beauty pleasing to God established in the holy monuments; they were priests in name, but not in reality. They were those of whom God calls out by prophecy, Many pastors have destroyed my vine, they have defiled my portion. For they followed unholy men and trusting to their own frenzies they calumniated the holy church, which Christ our God has espoused to himself, and they failed to distinguish the holy from the profane, asserting that the icons of our Lord and of his saints were no different from the wooden images of satanic idols.

    Therefore the Lord God, not bearing that what was subject to him should be destroyed by such a corruption, has by his good pleasure summoned us together through the divine diligence and decision of Constantine and Irene, our faithful emperor and empress, we who are those responsible for the priesthood everywhere, in order that the divinely inspired tradition of the catholic church should receive confirmation by a public decree. So having made investigation with all accuracy and having taken counsel, setting for our aim the truth, we neither diminish nor augment, but simply guard intact all that pertains to the catholic church.

    {Recapitulation and re-affirmation of everything taught by any previous ecumenical council}

    Thus, following the six holy universal synods, in the first place that assembled in the famous metropolis of the Nicaeans {{1}Nicea I}, and then that held after it in the imperial, God-guarded city: {i.e. {2} Constantinople I} We believe in one God ...[the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed follows]. We abominate and anathematize - Arius and those who think like him and share in his mad error; also Macedonius and those with him, properly called the Pneumatomachi; we also confess our Lady, the holy Mary, to be really and truly the God-bearer, because she gave birth in the flesh to Christ, one of the Trinity, our God, just as the first synod at {3}Ephesus decreed; it also expelled from the church Nestorius and those with him, because they were introducing a duality of persons. Along with these synods, we also confess the two natures of the one who became incarnate for our sake from the God-bearer without blemish, Mary the ever-virgin, recognizing that he is perfect God and perfect man, as the synod at {4}Chalcedon also proclaimed, when it drove from the divine precinct the foul-mouthed Eutyches and Dioscorus. We reject along with them Severus Peter and their interconnected band with their many blasphemies, in whose company we anathematize the mythical speculations of Origen, Evagrius and Didymus, as did the fifth synod, that assembled at {5}Constantinople. Further we declare that there are two wills and principles of action, in accordance with what is proper to each of the natures in Christ, in the way that the sixth synod, that at {6}Constantinople, proclaimed, when it also publicly rejected Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Macarius, those uninterested in true holiness, and their likeminded followers.

    To summarize, we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the

  • written and
  • unwritten
    ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us.

    {Council formulates for the first time what the Church has always believed regarding icons}

    One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message.

    Given this state of affairs and stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are

  • the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and
  • the tradition of the catholic church --
  • for we recognize that this tradition comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her--
  • we decree with full precision and care that,
  • like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross,
  • the revered and holy images,
  • whether painted or
  • made of mosaic
  • or of other suitable material,
  • are to be exposed
  • in the holy churches of God,
  • on sacred instruments and vestments,
  • on walls and panels,
  • in houses and by public ways,
  • these are the images of
  • our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of
  • our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of
  • the revered angels and of
  • any of the saintly holy men.
  • The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

  • So it is that the teaching of our holy fathers is strengthened, namely, the tradition of the catholic church which has received the gospel from one end of the earth to the other.
  • So it is that we really follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire divine apostolic group and the holiness of the fathers, clinging fast to the traditions which we have received.
  • So it is that we sing out with the prophets the hymns of victory to the church: Rejoice exceedingly O daughter of Zion, proclaim O daughter of Jerusalem; enjoy your happiness and gladness with a full heart. The Lord has removed away from you the injustices of your enemies, you have been redeemed from the hand of your foes. The Lord the king is in your midst, you will never more see evil, and peace will be upon you for time eternal.

    Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr's holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.

    Anathemas concerning holy images

    1. If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in His humanity, let him be anathema.
    2. If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.
    3. If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and His saints, let him be anathema.
    4. If anyone rejects any written or unwritten Tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.

    See Part Two of the Second Council of Nicaea
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