A message from Father Nick 83

In the name of Christ …

It was emperor Constantine who in 325 A.D. summoned the first great council of the Church at Nicaea in modern Turkey. Troubled by arguments over Christ’s divinity, Constantine asked the assembled bishops to provide a true statement of Christian belief. Their Nicene Creed, completed by a following Council, is the one we regularly say at mass today.

Over the centuries, other Councils have been called in times of need. Nicaea and six others are recognised as ecumenical, because they were debated by the undivided Church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the great Schism of 1054 when West and East excommunicated each other, the East would not recognise future “western” gatherings like the mediaeval Lateran Councils, the 16th century Council of Trent, and the two Vatican Councils of the 19th and 20th centuries.

One later council did try to heal the rift. By the 1430s, the ancient city of Constantinople, last bastion of old Rome, was in mortal danger from its Ottoman enemies. The Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus appealed to Pope Eugenius IV for aid “in the name of Christ”. Eugenius urged the reconciliation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Christians, and a council was arranged at Ferrara in Italy to debate details of leadership and doctrine. When the emperor arrived, he was accompanied by more than 700 delegates – too many for a small town like Ferrara already at risk from plague. Instead, Cosimo de’ Medici offered to host the council in Florence and even to cover its expenses – a consummate piece of power-play.

Paul Strathern describes the emperor’s arrival there in 1439:

“The citizens of Florence lining the streets…were spellbound by the sheer spectacle of the Byzantine delegation, with its bearded priests in their curious ancient headdresses, and their dark-skinned servants, many of whom were of Mongol, Moorish or Black African descent. Yet all of this was as nothing compared with the extraordinary pets which accompanied the delegation – said to have included monkeys, birds of exotic plumage, and even a pair of chained cheetahs. (Several of these would consequently appear in paintings by Florentine artists.)”

The emperor stood out, in a white hat which came to a point at the front and was decorated by a ruby bigger than a pigeon’s egg. Twenty years later, one of the great Florentine artists, Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint the first Christian emperor Constantine. Piero painted him wearing the hat he had seen that day and with the features of John VIII Palaeologus.

Much else was shared during the months that followed, especially in the field of philosophy. Florentines at last could listen entranced as a Greek expounded Plato’s theory of ideas. They had known Aristotle through Arabic translations; their encounter with Plato would be a kind of revelation.

Agreement was reached at the council, but it would be quickly cancelled out. Compromises made by the Greek delegation caused riots in the streets of Constantinople, and the old Schism opened up again. There was no military help from the West when Ottoman troops sacked Constantinople on 29th May, 1453. The Council had failed in its stated aim, but its human effects remain incalculable. It offers us a poignant glimpse of people learning in new ways – both seed and fruit of the Renaissance.