Many people have the impression that Church teaching on the nature of Jesus was generally accepted until a fellow named Arius came along in the 4th century and and upset things by foolishly teaching something different, so the Church decided to have an all-Church council at Nicaea (in present day Turkey) to condemn Arius and make the Church’s teaching on the matter official. Everyone then accepted the Council’s Nicene Creed that explained the nature of Jesus in clear terms, and things returned to normal.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you would like to know all the details of the origins of the controversy and the overwhelming effect of the Council and its linking of the power of the State with Church on the historical development of Christianity (and thus of Christian art and iconography) I suggest you read Charles Freeman’s very interesting and helpful book The Closing of the Western Mind, which contains chapters offering a very good summary of the events leading to the Council of Nicaea, of the Council itself, and of its transforming consequences.
However, if we clear away all the clutter and dust of centuries-old argument overlaying the controversy, we find that it originated in a simple fact: the writings of the New Testament as a whole were never adequate in providing a clear and unequivocal statement of Christian doctrine. If you have any doubt of that, just remind yourself of the great number of warring sects and denominations in Christianity from ancient times until today. But that is a vast topic, and our focus here is on iconography.
Let’s look at a pattern for an icon of the Nicene Council — or as the Russians call it, Первый Вселенский Собор/Pervuiy Vselenskiy Sobor — the “First Universal Council,” or to use more churchy language, the “First Ecumenical Council.”
There is considerable variation among icons of this council, but the Stroganov Podlinnik pattern above gives us a good idea of elements often included. Though no identification of figures is given in the Stroganov Podlinnik, we can turn to the textual Bolshakov Podlinnik for help. It begins like this:
“First, a palace; in the palace on a golden throne sits Tsar [Emperor] Constantine in imperial clothing ornamented with gold and pearls, in the hand a scepter.”
Constantine is the crowned figure we see at top center:
The Bolshakov then goes on to mention figures often found near Constantine in such icons: Eustaphios of Antioch, Makarios of Jerusalem, Hosius of Cordoba, Spyridon of Trimythous, Alexander of Alexandria, Paphnutios of Thebes, Palamon of Egypt, Athanasius the Great and other Church fathers.
In the foreground of the pattern, we see a group at left, headed by St. Nicholas, who is conversing with Arius, who stands just behind Emperor Constantine seen a second time at lower right. Arius and his followers are identifiable by the absence of halos. So this icon makes quite clear the Eastern Orthodox view of who are considered the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” in this icon and event.
Perhaps you will recognize it as the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria,” who tradition claims saw Jesus as a boy with torn garments, symbolizing the tear in the fabric of the Church caused by the teachings of Arius. For more information, see this previous posting:
On the right is an image of the death of Arius as told by his bitter enemy, Socrates Scholasticus. We see Arius seated in a toilet enclosure, and his insides are pouring out — supposedly a punishment from God for his “heresy.”
If we look at a recent fresco of the Council of Nicea in the Megalo Meteoron Monastery in Greece, we see similar elements, but also some differences.
Let’s look at the top inscriptions:
Below that and divided into two parts at each side is the title of the icon:
Ἡ ΕΝ ΝΙΚΑΙΑ ἉΥΙΑ ΠΡΩΤΗ ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΙΚΗ CΥΝΟΔΟC
HE EN NIKAI HAGIA PROTE OIKOUMENIKE SYNODOS
“THE IN NICAEA HOLY FIRST ECUMENICAL SYNOD”
In the “power position” at center, we see the Emperor Constantine, titled here
Ὁ ΜΕΓΑC ΚΩΝCΤΑΝΤΙΝΟC
HO MEGAS KONSTANTINOS
“THE GREAT CONSTANTINE.”
Above him, as in the Stroganov pattern, we see a rendering of the “Vision of Peter of Alexandria.”
And at the base of the icon, in a position of weakness and submission, we see a fallen figure titled
Ὁ ΑΙΡΕΤΙΚΟC ΑΡΕΙΟC
HO AIRETIKOS AREIOS
“THE HERETIC ARIUS.”
Such icons then, are intended to support a particular ecclesiastical view of the Council of Nicaea and its significance.