THE NOTORIOUS THIRD

Recently (before the horrendous and anomalous heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest of the U. S. near the end of June), we looked at a “Sunday of the Paralytic” icon representing a particular commemoration in the Church calendar. Today we will look at another icon that also has a Church calendar date of commemoration:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a brighter exposure:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

We do not need to guess what it represents, because the title inscription tells us very clearly:

СЕНТЯБРА Θго

Третий Вселенский Сωборъ въ лето ецеI, Въ царство Феωдосия Юннаго Вω эфесе Граде Святых ωтецъ числом .С. настория злоч.

“SEPTEMBER 9th”

The Third Ecumenical Holy Council was in the year 5915 in the Reign of Theodosius the Younger in the city of Ephesus, the Holy Fathers numbering 20. The wickedness of Nestorius ….”


The letter number date 5915/407 for the Council is a bit off. It actually took place in 431 c.e., which would be 5939.

There appears to have been some corruption or inaccuracy in the sources used by painters of this type, because the Svodnuiy Podlinnik says the year 5930, which would have been 422, while adding the comment “another says 431.” The latter date is correct; the Council of Ephesus took place in 431, which would be 5939 in letter numbers.    

The inscription cuts off abruptly at “of the wickedness of Nestorius …”; sources usually would continue by saying the Council was about/concerning the “wickedness of Nestorius” or something to that effect.

Now, what was this council all about? Well, talking about the early Ecumenical Councils is an unpleasant business, because they were nasty affairs — frightful examples of political self-interest, religious intolerance, petty bickering, church power struggles, corruption, bribery, and personal egotism and arrogance. In short, the conclusions that set the “Orthodox” doctrines in cement were arrived at largely by manipulation and intrigue, and then were attributed to the “Holy Spirit.”

The Third Ecumenical Council was particularly unpleasant, because it involved a rivalry and power struggle between Cyril of Alexandria (that horrible person who is generally credited with inciting the mob that viciously murdered the Neo-platonist female philosopher Hypatia) — and the Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (386 – c. 450). On a deeper level, it was a power struggle between the Church in Egypt and the Church in Syria.

It involved the question whether Mary, mother of Jesus was to be considered — as Cyril advocated — Theotokos — that is, “Birthgiver/Bearer of God,” or whether, as Nestorius held, she was to be simply Christotokos — “Birthgiver/Bearer of Christ.”

Now Nestorius very sensibly pointed out that since God already existed as such from eternity, Mary could not legitimately be termed Bearer of God; that what she was, in fact, was Bearer of Christ, since Jesus as Christ with his human nature was born of her; as God, however, having already existed — Mary could not with logic be called “Mother of God.”

This was just a continuation of the doctrinal disputes that had existed from the very beginning of Christianity over the precise nature and status of Jesus. The Ebionites, who may well have been the first “real” Christians, held that Jesus was a man who through his righteousness was adopted as God’s son. Others held that Jesus was divine, but subordinate, not equal, to the Father; and there was the opinion that later became “Orthodoxy” — that Jesus was fully God, equal to the Father, and fully man.

One would get the impression from icons of the Third Ecumenical Council, such as the one on this page, that Nestorius was completely discredited and his opinions nullified; well, that became the case in the Eastern Orthodox Church, because it eventually anathematized him. But his view lived on in the Church of the East, which followed the Syriac Rite, and which neither accepted the Council of Ephesus (the Third Ecumenical Council) nor its condemnation of Nestorius.

Now given that the Church of the East accepted Mary as Mother of Christ, whom they considered to be God incarnate, there is only a quibble of words here. Much ado about nothing. In fact in 1994, a joint declaration on Christology between the Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church explained matters thus:

“The Word of God, second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit in assuming from the holy Virgin Mary a body animated by a rational soul, with which he was indissolubly united from the moment of his conception. Therefore our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting ‘one and another’, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration. Christ therefore is not an “ordinary man” whom God adopted in order to reside in him and inspire him, as in the righteous ones and the prophets. But the same God the Word, begotten of his Father before all worlds without beginning according to his divinity, was born of a mother without a father in the last times according to his humanity …

The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying [to] the Virgin Mary as “‘he Mother of Christ our God and Saviour’. In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as ‘the Mother of God’ and also as ‘the Mother of Christ.'”

Now back to the icon.

In the “power position,” we see the Emperor Theodosius II — who called the Council together at — paradoxically — the request of Nestorius:

To the left of Theodosius are the supporters of the Theotokos premise; among them are Nicholas and Cyril, and a figure with shrouded head — presumably the discredited Nestorius, even though Nestorius was not actually present at the Council.

At right are those countering the Theotokos notion and supporting the Christotokos view; you can see that none of them — unlike those at left — are given halos. It is like the old cowboy movies, in which the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy a black hat — in short, it is propagandistic symbology.

Cyril of Alexandria manipulated the result of the Council by beginning the Council prematurely, before the Eastern bishops led by John of Antioch had arrived, and before the legates from Rome had arrived. When the Easterners came, they refused communion with Cyril, and began their own council. The Roman legates, however, joined with Cyril.

Now oddly enough, Nestorius, seeing he had been out-manipulated and out-numbered by Cyril and his allies, did not attend the Council, so his presence in icons of it is symbolic rather than historical.

Emperor Theodosius later annulled the conclusions of the Council, and Cyril escaped to Egypt. He managed, however to bribe courtiers of the Emperor, and sent a mob to shout insults at the palace. The ultimate result was that the views of Cyril prevailed — and Theotokos — “Birthgiver of God” — became a standard title of Mary in the Orthodox and Latin segments of the Church.

There is much more to the account of religious and political intrigue involved in the Third Ecumenical Council, but that is sufficient for a general understanding of the event and the icon.