Second Council of Nicaea

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Violence broke out at the Council.

The Second Council of Nicaea was an emergency summit of bigwigs of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, held in 787 in Nicaea. It wrestled with the biggest issue facing the clergy at the time: What to do about all those damned statues?


Byzantine Emperor Constantine V had banned icons. He was an old-school guy and preferred the command-line interface, while the youngsters favored point-and-click.

In 754, Constantine convened the Council of Hieria; it billed itself as the seventh ecumenical council, but none of the five major patriarchs was invited, and the Council's religion was chiefly to do what pleased the Emperor and thus save all its limbs and eyes. They made it sound official, but all of it would be overturned in Nicaea a mere 33 years later.

Constantine enforced his ban through persecution of anyone who venerated icons. Fatefully, they could not tell that this was why Constantine was persecuting them, as he was also persecuting most everyone else in the Church. Constantine made a notorious exception for icons of Constantine. Constantine's son, Emperor Leo IV, continued these policies, but Irene later moderated them, returning icons to favor and placing political fence-straddling even higher.

Let's have a meeting[edit]

In 784, the imperial secretary Tarasius was offered the job of Patriarch, which he accepted on the condition that icons be restored. When Personnel reminded him that they had been banned by a Council, the clear way out was to schedule another Council, stage-managed to deliver the desired report. Pope Adrian I was invited and sent an archbishop and an abbot to represent him.

The Council met in 786 in Constantinople. The caterers arrived, but they brought no food but weapons, and scattered the clerics. They were not caterers at all but soldiers affiliated with the opposition in the Senate. Fortunately, they had no filibuster, and the majority informed the soldiers of an imminent threat at the border — all of them, to which the military scattered, fatefully leaving their weapons in the Senate cloakroom. Now the Council was back on — only, no one wanted to return to Constantinople. They picked Nicaea, a way-station with a couple fine truck stops and motels.

Thus the Council reconvened on 24 September 787, with Tarasius in the chair. There were 350 members, 308 of which were bishops in Catholic red or Orthodox black, or posers who simply liked to dress like them.

The seven sessions[edit]

The Council had seven all-day sessions:

  • Session I (September 24) — The Council, seemingly already having made up its mind that icons were back, turned to the consequences: Whether bishops who had accepted iconoclasm (rather than, say, dismemberment) could remain in office, or whether the Council's work could be used as a pretense for a church-wide purge.
  • Session II (September 26) — The clerk read a Greek translation of letters from Pope Adrian I approving of icons (which the Council applauded) and condemning the Emperor's dictating terms to the Pope (which the Council ignored). Told you the fix was in.
  • Session III (September 28) — Representatives of the eastern Patriarchs presented their credentials, and the Council ignored details that showed them to be obvious forgeries.
  • Session IV (October 1) — The Council commenced to Bible-reading, finding numerous passages supporting the veneration of icons, while carefully ignoring the episode with Moses.
  • Session V (October 4) — The Council further concluded that iconoclasm originated from pagans, Jews, Muslims, and the Tea Party movement. This served to discredit iconoclasm entirely.
  • Session VI (October 6) — The minutes of the previous Council (754) were read — You'd think this would have been done first — and carefully refuted.
  • Session VII (October 13) — The Council drafted its report, a Declaration of Faith that the veneration of holy images was once again acceptable. "The science is settled," they wrote. "Trust the experts!"

On their numerous off days, delegates mostly watched movies and ate pizza, sometimes cold leftover pizza.

The Council's report was unequivocal — reading, in part:

As the sacred cross is set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Hello Kitty, and other pious and holy men, T.B.D., be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them.

The Council was careful to clarify that the newly rehabilitated icons were to be venerated but not worshipped, as only God can be worshipped, not, say a statue or portrait of Him.

On October 23, there was a meeting back in Constantinople supposedly attended by Emperors Constantine IV and Irene. However, both Dan Brown and Geraldo Rivera have proven that this "Eighth Session" was an elaborate after-the-fact hoax.


The Council's work completed, all that was left was to see if anyone bought in.

A full account of the proceedings was sent to Pope Adrian I, who had it translated. (Pope Anastasius III later provided a "better" translation that left out some of the more problematic findings.) The papacy formally confirmed the Council's findings, after a mere 93 years of dithering, an epoch of lack of climax almost approached by the Chicago Cubs.

In the West, the going was tougher. The Frankish clergy rejected the Council's work in 794. King Charlemagne, in the Libri Carolini, repudiated both the Council and the iconoclasts. "You're all wrong," he roared. But the Libri were sent to Pope Hadrian, who marked them up extensively in red pen and sent them back.

The Catholic Church accepts Nicaea as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the Eastern churches celebrate it as "The Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy" and victory over both heresy and stained collars. However, John Calvin rejected the Council's canons as "sophistry" and condemned even the decorative use of images. Many Protestants follow his lead and encourage attendance at church by having bare walls, and duct-taping over the stained glass.

See also[edit]

Preceded by:
Third Council of Constantinople
Christian Councils
Succeeded by:
Dark Ages