Patriarch of Constantinople, 806-815, b. circa 758; d. 2 June, 829.
This champion of the orthodox view in the second contest over the veneration of images belonged to a noted family of Constantinople. He was the son of the imperial secretary Theodore and his pious wife Eudoxia.
Eudoxia was a strict adherent of the Church and Theodore had been banished by the Emperor Constantine Copronymus on account of his steadfast support of the teaching of the Church concerning images.
While still young Nicephorus was brought to the court, where he became an imperial secretary. With two other officials of high rank he represented the Empress Irene in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea (the Seventh Ecumenical Council), which declared the doctrine of the Church respecting images. Shortly after this Nicephorus sought solitude on the Thracian Bosporus, where he had founded a monastery. There he devoted himself to ascetic practices and to the study of both secular learning, such as grammar, mathematics, and philosophy, and the Scriptures.
Later he was recalled to the capital and given charge of the great hospital. Upon the death of Patriarch Tarasius, there was great division among the clergy and higher court officials as to the choice of his successor. Finally, with the assent of the bishops, the Emperor appointed Nicephorus as patriarch. Although still a layman, he was known by all to be very religious and highly educated. He received Holy Orders and was consecrated bishop on Pascha (Easter Sunday), 12 April 806.
The direct elevation of a Iayman to the patriarchate, as had already happened in the case of Tarasius, aroused opposition in the ecclesiastical party among the clergy and monks. The leaders were the abbots, Plato of Saccadium and Theodore of Studium, and Theodore's brother, Archbishop Joseph of Thessalonica. For this opposition the Abbot Plato was imprisoned for twenty-four days at the command of the emperor.
Nicephorus soon gave further cause for antagonism. In 795 a priest named Joseph had celebrated the unlawful marriage of Emperor Constantine VI (780-97) with Theodota, during the lifetime of Maria, the rightful wife of the emperor, whom he had set aside. For this act Joseph had been deposed and banished. Emperor Nicephorus considered it important to have this matter settled and, at his wish the new patriarch with the concurrence of a synod composed of a small number of bishops, pardoned Joseph and, in 806, restored him to his office. The patriarch yielded to the wishes of the emperor in order to avert more serious evil. His action was regarded by the strict church party as a violation of ecclesiastical law and a scandal. Before the matter was settled Theodore had written to the patriarch entreating him not to reinstate the guilty priest, but had received no answer. Although the matter was not openly discussed, he and his followers now held virtually no church communion with Nicephorus and the priest, Joseph. But, through a letter written by Archbishop Joseph, the course which he and the strict church party followed became public in 808, and caused a sensation. Theodore set forth, by speech and writing, the reasons for the action of the strict party and firmly maintained his position. Defending himself against the accusation that he and his companions were schismatic, he declared that he had kept silent as long as possible, had censured no bishops, and had always included the name of the patriarch in the liturgy. He asserted his love and his attachment to the patriarch, and said he would withdraw all opposition if the patriarch would acknowledge the violation of law by removing the priest Joseph. Emperor Nicephorus now took violent measures. He commanded the patriarch to call a synod, which was held in 809, and had Plato and several monks forcibly brought before it. The opponents of the patriarch were condemned, the Archbishop of Thessalonica was deposed, the Abbots Plato and Theodore with their monks were banished to neighbouring islands and cast into various prisons. This, however, did not discourage the resolute opponents of the "Adulterine Heresy". In 809 Theodore and Plato sent a joint memorial, through the Archmandrite Epiphanius, to Pope Leo III, and later, Theodore laid the matter once more before the pope in a letter, in which he besought the successor of St. Peter to grant a helping hand to the East, so that it might not be overwhelmed by the waves of the "Adulterine Heresy". Pope Leo sent an encouraging and consolatory reply to the resolute confessors, upon which they wrote another letter to him through Epiphanius. Leo had received no communication from Patriarch Nicephorus and was, therefore, not thoroughly informed in the matter; he also desired to spare the eastern emperor as much as possible. Consequently, for a time, he took no further steps in the matter. Emperor Nicephorus continued to persecute all adherents of Theodore of Studium, and, in addition, oppressed those of whom he had grown suspicious, whether clergy or dignitaries of the empire. Moreover, he favoured the heretical Paulicians and the Iconoclasts and drained the people by oppressive taxes, so that he was universally hated.
In July, 811, the emperor was killed in a battle with the Bulgarians. His son Stauracius, who had been wounded in the same fight, was proclaimed emperor, but was deposed by the chief men of the empire because he followed the bad example of his father. On 2 October, 811, with the assent of the patriarch, Michael Rhangabe, brother-in-law of Stauracius, was raised to the throne. The new emperor promised, in writing, to defend the faith and to protect both clergy and monks, and was crowned with much solemnity by the Patriarch Nicephorus. Michael succeeded in reconciling the patriarch and Theodore of Studium. The patriarch again deposed the priest Joseph and withdrew his decrees against Theodore and his partisans. On the other side Theodore, Plato, and the majority of their adherents recognized the patriarch as the lawful head of the Byzantine Church, and sought to bring the refractory back to his obedience.
The emperor had also recourse to the papacy in reference to these quarrels and had received a letter of approval from Leo. Moreover, the patriarch now sent the customary written notification of his induction into office (Synodica) to the pope. In it he sought to excuse the long delay by the tyranny of the preceding emperor, interwove a rambling confession of faith and promised to notify Rome at the proper time in regard to all important questions.
Emperor Michael was an honourable man of good intentions, but weak and dependent. On the advice of Nicephorus he put the heretical and seditious Paulicians to death and tried to suppress the Iconoclasts.
The patriarch endeavoured to establish monastic discipline among the monks, and to suppress double monasteries which had been forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. After his complete defeat, 22 June, 813, in the war against the Bulgarians, the emperor lost all authority. With the assent of the patriarch he resigned and entered a monastery with his children. The popular general, Leo the Armenian, now became emperor, 11 July, 813.
When Nicephorus demanded the confession of faith, before the coronation, Leo put it off. Notwithstanding this, Nicephorus crowned him, and later, Leo again refused to make the confession. As soon as the new emperor had assured the peace of the empire by the overthrow of the Bulgarians his true opinions began gradually to appear. He entered into connection with the opponents of images, among whom were a number of bishops; it steadily grew more evident that he was preparing a new attack upon the veneration of images. With fearless energy the Patriarch Nicephorus now proceeded against the machinations of the Iconoclasts. He brought to trial before a synod several ecclesiastics opposed to images and forced an abbot named John and also Bishop Anthony of Sylaeum to submit. Bishop Anthony's acquiescence was merely feigned.
In December, 814, Nicephorus had a long conference with the emperor on the veneration of images but no agreement was reached. Later the patriarch sent several learned bishops and abbots to convince him of the truth of the position of the Patriarch on the veneration of images. The emperor wished to have a debate between representatives of the opposite dogmatic opinions, but the adherents of the veneration of images refused to take part in such a conference, as the Seventh Ecumenical Council had settled the question.
Then Nicephorus called together an assembly of bishops and abbots at the Church of St. Sophia at which he excommunicated the perjured Bishop Anthony of Sylaeum. A large number of the laity were also present on this occasion and the patriarch with the clergy and people remained in the church the entire night in prayer. The emperor then summoned Nicephorus to him, and the patriarch went to the imperial palace accompanied by the abbots and monks. Nicephorus first had a long, private conversation with the emperor, in which he vainly endeavoured to dissuade Leo from his opposition to the veneration of images. The emperor received those who had accompanied Nicephorus, among them seven metropolitans and Abbot Theodore of Studium. They all repudiated the interference of the emperor in dogmatic questions and once more rejected Leo's proposal to hold a conference. The emperor then commanded the abbots to maintain silence upon the matter and forbade them to hold meetings. Theodore declared that silence under these conditions would be treason and expressed sympathy with the patriarch whom the emperor forbade to hold public service in the church.
Nicephorus fell ill; when he recovered the emperor called upon him to defend his course before a synod of bishops friendly to iconoclasm. But the patriarch would not recognize the synod and paid no attention to the summons. The pseudo-synod now commanded that he should no longer be called patriarch. His house was surrounded by crowds of angry Iconoclasts who shouted threats and invectives. He was guarded by soldiers and not allowed to perform any official act. With a protest against this mode of procedure the patriarch notified Leo that he found it necessary to resign the patriarchal see. Upon this he was arrested at midnight in March, 815, and banished to the monastery of St. Theodore, which he had built on the Bosporus.
Leo now raised to the patriarchate Theodotus, a married, illiterate layman who favoured iconoclasm.
Theodotus was consecrated 1 April, 815. The exiled Nicephorus persevered in his opposition and wrote several treatises against iconoclasm. After the murder of the Emperor Leo, 25 December, 820, Michael the Amorian ascended the throne and the defenders of the veneration of images were now more considerately treated. However, Michael would not consent to an actual restoration of images such as Nicephorus demanded from him, for he declared that he did not wish to interfere in religious matters and would leave everything as he had found it. Accordingly Emperor Leo's hostile measures were not repealed, although the persecution ceased. Nicephorus received permission to return from exile if he would promise to remain silent. He would not agree, however, and remained in the monastery of St. Theodore, where he continued by speech and writing to defend the veneration of images. The dogmatic treatises, chiefly on this subject, that he wrote are as follows: a lesser "Apology for the Catholic Church concerning the newly arisen Schism in regard to Sacred Images" (Migne, P.G., C, 833-849), written 813-14; a larger treatise in two parts; the first part is an "Apology for the pure, unadulterated Faith of Christians against those who accuse us of idolatry" (Migne, loc. cit., 535-834); the second part contains the "Antirrhetici", a refutation of a writing by the Emperor Constantine Copronymus on images (loc. cit., 205-534). Nicephorus added to this second part seventy-five extracts from the writings of the Fathers [edited by Pitra, "Spicilegium Solesmense", I (Paris, 1852), 227-370]; in two further writings, which also apparently belong together, passages from earlier writers, that had been used by the enemies of images to maintain their opinions, are examined and explained.
Both these treatises were edited by Pitra; the first Epikrisis in "Spicilegium Solesmense", I, 302-335; the second Antirresis in the same, I, 371-503, and IV, 292-380. The two treatises discuss passages from Macarius Magnes, Eusebius of Caesarea, and from a writing wrongly ascribed to Epiphanius of Cyprus. Another work justifying the veneration of images was edited by Pitra under the title "Antirrheticus adversus iconomachos" (Spicil. Solesm., IV, 233-91).
A final and, as it appears, especially important treatise on this question has not yet been published.
Nicephorus also left two small historical works; one known as the Breviarium", the other the "Chronographis", both are edited by C. de Boor, "Nicephori archiep. Const. opuscula historica" in the "Bibliotheca Teubneriana" (Leipzig, 1880).
At the end of his life he was revered and after death regarded as a saint. In 874 his bones were translated to Constantinople with much pomp by the Patriarch Methodius and interred, 13 March, in the Church of the Apostles. His feast is celebrated on this day both in the Orthodox and Roman Churches; Orthodox also observe 2 June as the day of his death.