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Second Council of Nicaea

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Second Council of Nicaea
Menologion of Basil 024.jpg
Accepted by
Previous council
Next council
Convoked byConstantine VI and Empress Irene (as regent)
PresidentPatriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, legates of Pope Adrian I
Attendance350 bishops (including two papal legates)
Documents and statements
veneration of icons approved
Chronological list of ecumenical councils

The Second Council of Nicaea is recognized as the last of the first seven ecumenical councils by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. In addition, it is also recognized as such by the Old Catholics and others. Protestant opinions on it are varied.

It met in AD 787 in Nicaea (site of the First Council of Nicaea; present-day İznik in Turkey) to restore the use and veneration of icons (or, holy images),[1] which had been suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717–741). His son, Constantine V (741–775), had held the Council of Hieria to make the suppression official.


The veneration of icons had been banned by Byzantine Emperor Constantine V and supported by his Council of Hieria (754 AD), which had described itself as the seventh ecumenical council.[2] The Council of Hieria was overturned by the Second Council of Nicaea only 33 years later, and has also been rejected by Catholic and Orthodox churches, since none of the five major patriarchs were represented. The emperor's vigorous enforcement of the ban included persecution of those who venerated icons and of monks in general. There were also political overtones to the persecution—images of emperors were still allowed by Constantine, which some opponents saw as an attempt to give wider authority to imperial power than to the saints and bishops.[3] Constantine's iconoclastic tendencies were shared by Constantine's son, Leo IV. After the latter's early death, his widow, Irene of Athens, as regent for her son, began its restoration for personal inclination and political considerations.

In 784 the imperial secretary Patriarch Tarasius was appointed successor to the Patriarch Paul IV—he accepted on the condition that intercommunion with the other churches should be reestablished; that is, that the images should be restored. However, a council, claiming to be ecumenical, had abolished the veneration of icons, so another ecumenical council was necessary for its restoration.

Pope Adrian I was invited to participate, and gladly accepted, sending an archbishop and an abbot as his legates.

An icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow).
An icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow).

In 786, the council met in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. However, soldiers in collusion with the opposition entered the church, and broke up the assembly.[4] As a result, the government resorted to a stratagem. Under the pretext of a campaign, the iconoclastic bodyguard was sent away from the capital – disarmed and disbanded.

The council was again summoned to meet, this time in Nicaea, since Constantinople was still distrusted. The council assembled on September 24, 787 at the church of Hagia Sophia. It numbered about 350 members; 308 bishops or their representatives signed. Tarasius presided,[5] and seven sessions were held in Nicaea.[6]


  • First Session (September 24, 787) – There was debate over whether bishops who had accepted iconoclasm when under iconoclast rule could remain in office.
  • Second Session (September 26, 787) – Letters from Pope Adrian I were read out in Greek translation, approving the veneration of images, but severely critical of Byzantine infringement of papal rights. Ignoring the latter, the bishops answered: "We follow, we receive, we admit".
  • Third Session (September 28, 787) — The supposed representatives of the oriental patriarchates presented their credentials. From these it is clear that their patriarchs had not in fact appointed them.
  • Fourth Session (October 1, 787) — Proof of the lawfulness of the veneration of icons was drawn from Exodus 25:19 sqq.; Numbers 7:89; Hebrews 9:5 sqq.; Ezekiel 41:18, and Genesis 31:34, but especially from a series of passages of the Church Fathers;[1] and from hagiography.
  • Fifth Session (October 4, 787) – A further florilegium was read out, "proving" that iconoclasm originated from pagans, Jews, Muslims, and heretics.
  • Sixth Session (October 6, 787) – The definition of the pseudo-Seventh council (754) and a long refutation of the same (probably by Tarasius) were read.
  • Seventh Session (October 13, 787) – The council issued a declaration of faith concerning the veneration of holy images.
    Hagia Sophia of Nicaea, where the Council took place; Iznik, Turkey.
    Hagia Sophia of Nicaea, where the Council took place; Iznik, Turkey.
    Hagia Sophia, İznik
    Hagia Sophia, İznik

    It was determined that

    As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent veneration, not, however, the veritable adoration which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone – for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.

    This definition of the proper religious veneration of images centers on the distinction between timētikē proskynēsis, meaning the "veneration of honour", and "alēthinē latreia", meaning "true adoration." The former is permitted to images in the same way as to other holy things, notably the cross and the gospel-book, while the latter, "latreia", is reserved for God alone. But the statement that follows, to the effect that the honor paid to the image passes over to its prototype implies on the contrary that there are not two different degrees of veneration, but a single veneration that is not idolatrous since it treats the image as a door or window through which the person praying to the image perceives and adores the heavenly personage who is depicted in it. This could not lead to a worship of images of the Godhead in Byzantium, since no attempt was made to represent Godhead in art. But a problem remains over the human nature of Christ, which is certainly represented in art and which at the same time shares fully in the adoration paid to Christ as God: it would be heretical to worship Christ's Godhead but only honour his humanity.
  • The so-called "Eighth Session" (October 23, 787) held in Constantinople at the Magnaura Palace supposedly in the presence of the emperors Constantine IV and Irene. Erich Lamberz has proved that this "session" is a late ninth-century forgery (see Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, 655-6). The purpose of the addition was to do justice to the role of the emperors at this ecumenical council as at its predecessors.
The twenty-two canons[7] drawn up in Constantinople also served ecclesiastical reform. Careful maintenance of the ordinances of the earlier councils, knowledge of the scriptures on the part of the clergy, and care for Christian conduct are required, and the desire for a renewal of ecclesiastical life is awakened.

The council also decreed that every altar should contain a relic, which remains the case in modern Catholic and Orthodox regulations (Canon VII), and made a number of decrees on clerical discipline, especially for monks when mixing with women.

Acceptance by various Christian bodies

The papal legates voiced their approval of the restoration of the veneration of icons in no uncertain terms, and the patriarch sent a full account of the proceedings of the council to Pope Hadrian I, who had it translated (Pope Anastasius III later replaced the translation with a better one). The papacy did not, however, formally confirm the decrees of the council till 880. In the West, the Frankish clergy initially rejected the Council at a synod in 794, and Charlemagne, then King of the Franks, supported the composition of the Libri Carolini in response, which repudiated the teachings of both the Council and the iconoclasts. A copy of the Libri was sent to Pope Hadrian, who responded with a refutation of the Frankish arguments.[8] The Libri would thereafter remain unpublished until the Reformation, and the Council is accepted as the Seventh Ecumenical Council by the Catholic Church.

The council, or rather the final defeat of iconoclasm in 843, is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite as "The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy" each year on the first Sunday of Great Lent, the fast that leads up to Pascha (Easter), and again on the Sunday closest to October 11 (the Sunday on or after October 8). The former celebration commemorates the defeat of iconoclasm, while the latter commemorates the council itself.

Many Protestants who follow the French reformer John Calvin generally agree in rejecting the canons of the council, which they believe promoted idolatry. He rejected the distinction between veneration (douleia, proskynesis) and adoration (latreia) as unbiblical "sophistry" and condemned even the decorative use of images.[9] In subsequent editions of the Institutes, he cited an influential Carolingian source, now ascribed to Theodulf of Orleans, which reacts negatively to a poor Latin translation of the council's acts. Calvin did not engage the apologetic arguments of John of Damascus or Theodore the Studite, apparently because he was unaware of them.[citation needed]

Critical edition of the Greek text

  • Concilium universale Nicaenum Secundum, in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, ser. 2, vol. 3, in 3 parts, ed. Erich Lamberz, Berlin 2008-2016. Also includes the Latin translation by Anastasius Bibliothecarius.


There are only a few translations of the above Acts in the modern languages:

  • English translation made in 1850 by an Anglican priest, John Mendham; with notes taken largely from the attack on the council in the Libri Carolini. The aim of the translation was to show how the Catholic veneration of images is based on superstition and forgery.
  • The Canons and excerpts of the Acts in The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, translated by Henry R. Percival and edited by Philip Schaff (1901).
  • Translation made by Kazan Theological Academy (published from 1873 to 1909) – a seriously corrupted translation of the Acts of the Councils into Russian.[10]
  • A relatively new Vatican's translation (2004) into Italian language. Publishers in Vatican mistakenly thought[11] that they made the first translation of the Acts into European languages.[12]
  • The new (2016) Russian version of the Acts of the Council is a revised version of the translation made by Kazan Theological Academy, specifying the cases of corruption by the Orthodox translators.[13] There are several dozens of such cases, some of them are critical.
  • 'The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), translated with notes and an introduction by Richard Price', Liverpool 2018. The first translation from the new critical edition of the Greek text.

See also


  1. ^ a b Gibbon, p.1693
  2. ^ Council of Hieria, Canon 19, "If anyone does not accept this our Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Synod, let him be anathema from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!"
  3. ^ Warren T. Treadgold (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford University Press. p. 388. ISBN 978-0-8047-2630-6. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  4. ^ Ostrogorsky, p.178.
  5. ^ Gibbon, p.1693.
  6. ^ Ostrogorsky, p.178
  7. ^ "NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils - Christian Classics Ethereal Library".
  8. ^ Hussey, J. M. (1986). The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 49–50.
  9. ^ cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11
  10. ^ See:
  11. ^ See: N. Tanner, "Atti del Concilio Niceno Secondo Ecumenico Settimo, Tomi I–III, introduzione e traduzione di Pier Giorgio Di Domenico, saggio encomiastico di Crispino Valenziano", in "Gregorianum", N. 86/4, Rome, 2005, p. 928.
  12. ^ Catholic Church, Atti del Concilio Niceno Secondo Ecumenico Settimo (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004) ISBN 9788820976491
  13. ^ Firsov, Evgeniĭ Vasilʹevich (2016). Акты Второго Никейского (Седьмого Вселенского) собора (787 г.). ISBN 9785446908912.


Further reading

There is no up-to-date English monograph on either the council or the iconoclast controversy in general. But see L. Brubaker and J. Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680 to 850: A History (Cambridge 2011).


This page was last edited on 9 November 2021, at 21:39
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