NIKEPHOROS (758–828), patriarch of Constantinople. Nikephoros lived during the Iconoclastic Controversy (726–843), a crisis that involved all levels of Byzantine society in a desperate struggle. The reality of Christ became the theological justification for the veneration of icons, which was tested and fought for in the arenas of imperial and ecclesiastical authority. The iconophiles, who supported the use of icons in the church, perceived the challenge of their iconoclast rulers as an attack against the person of Jesus Christ.
Nikephoros's birth in Constantinople coincided with a brewing storm of persecution initiated by Emperor Constantine V (741–775), which was also directed against Nikephoros's father. Attached to the service of the empire as secretary and director of the largest poorhouse in the capital, Nikephoros also served as the imperial spokesman at the Second Council of Nicaea (787). This experience was to serve him well during his tenure as patriarch (806–815), during which he witnessed the political vicissitudes of three imperial masters.
Like his predecessors Germanos and Tarasios, the patriarch was an advocate of a moderate policy through which concessions were made to extremists of both the imperial and ecclesiastical factions. Nikephoros remained resolute when the orthodox faith was at stake, as is proved by his long exile under Leo V from 815 until his death.
Scholars have increasingly recognized that Nikephoros's role in the controversy was more important during this period of exile, when he turned to a literary refutation of the heterodoxy of Constantine V and the iconoclastic Synod of Hagia Sophia (815), than it was during the preceding period, when he was a hierarch actively in office.
Dogmatically sophisticated, Nikephoros displayed extraordinary skill as he worked within the larger context of theological concerns, which he presented in such a way as to support the veneration of icons. Moreover, as a direct descendant of the apostolic tradition and Cappadocian synthesis, he worked out the problems faced by both John of Damascus and Theodore of Studios by elucidating the dogmatic and philosophical relation between an image and its archetype, the difference between art and circumscription, and the continuity of tradition as exemplified in the church's kerygma and witness concerning the icons. His subtle argumentation is a unique addition to the iconophiles' arsenal supporting Christ's iconographic depiction. Nikephoros's singular achievement was to sever the teaching on icons from an iconoclastic theology—traceable back to monophysitism with its Origenistic, Neoplatonic spiritualism—and to identify this teaching as an uninterrupted continuation of Chalcedonian Christology, with its reaffirmation of the historical facts of the New Testament.
As the last well-known iconophile theologian, Nikephoros may have wanted to be remembered primarily as the author whose work could have served as the basis for a future orthodox synod. But his generation overlooked, perhaps not intentionally, his theological efforts and praised the sanctity of his life. The patriarch in exile became the symbol of unity for both clergy in the world and monastics and a reconciler between iconophiles and iconoclasts in the strife that lasted for two more decades. Not until the restoration of the icons (March 11, 843) could his followers transfer his holy relics back to Constantinople and honor their prelate as a saint-confessor of Orthodox Christianity.
The published works of Nikephoros can be found in Spicilegium Romanum, edited by Angelo Mai, vol. 10 (Rome, 1844), pp. 152–156; Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, vol. 100 (Paris, 1860); and Spicilegium Solesmense complectens sanctorum patrum scriptorumque ecclesiasticorum anecdota hactenus opera, 4 vols., edited by Jean-Baptiste Pitra (Paris, 1852–1858), vol. 1, pp. 302–503, and vol. 4, pp. 233–380.
The most comprehensive book on the historical period, with an excellent bibliography and a summary of the patriarch's unpublished Refutation, remains Paul J. Alexander's The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople: Ecclesiastical Policy and Image Worship in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford, 1958). For a systematic description of the patriarch's theology, see my book In Defense of the Faith: The Theology of Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople (Brookline, Mass., 1984).
John Travis (1987)