Eusebius, Letter to Constantia – an English translation by Cyril Mango

It’s always a shock to realise that some important early Christian text has never been translated; or, at least, is inaccessible online.  Such was myi feeling on seeing a quotation from the letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to Constantia, sister of the emperor Constantine the Great.  The quotation was:

To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error.

The letter has not reached us directly.  Rather it was quoted as part of a dossier of texts assembled by the iconoclast synod of Hieria in 754.  In turn so those sections were also quoted in the acts of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD in order to condemn them.   Other fragments exist, apparently.

I find that a translation of the material from Nicaea 2 was made by Cyril Mango from the PG 20, 1545 f. text, and printed in The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (1972, rep. 1986),p. 16-18.  Here it is:

You also wrote me concerning some supposed image of Christ, which image you wished me to send you. Now what kind of thing is this that you call the image of Christ? I do not know what impelled you to request that an image of Our Saviour should be delineated. What sort of image of Christ are you seeking? Is it the true and unalterable one which bears His essential characteristics, or the one which He took up for our sake when He assumed the form of a servant?  . . . Granted, He has two forms, even I do not think that your request has to do with His divine form. . . . Surely then, you are seeking His image as a servant, that of the flesh which He put on for our sake. But that, too, we have been taught, was mingled with the glory of His divinity so that the mortal part was swallowed up by Life. Indeed, it is not surprising that after His ascent to heaven He should have appeared as such, when, while He—the God, Logos—was yet living among men, He changed the form of the servant, and indicating in advance to a chosen band of His disciples the aspect of His Kingdom, He showed on the mount that nature which surpasses the human one—when His face shone like the sun and His garments like light. Who, then, would be able to represent by means of dead colors and inanimate delineations (skiagraphiai) the glistening, flashing radiance of such dignity and glory, when even His superhuman disciples could not bear to behold Him in this guise and fell on their faces, thus admitting that they could not withstand the sight? If, therefore, His incarnate form possessed such power at the time, altered as it was by the divinity dwelling within Him, what need I say of the time when He put off mortality and washed off corruption, when He changed the form of the servant into the glory of the Lord God. . . ? … How can one paint an image of so wondrous and unattainable a form—if the term ‘form’ is at all applicable to the divine and spiritual essence—unless, like the unbelieving pagans, one is to represent things that bear no possible resemblance to anything. . . ? For they, too, make such idols when they wish to mould the likeness of what they consider to be a god or, as they might say, one of the heroes or anything else of the kind, yet are unable even to approach a resemblance, and so delineate and represent some strange human shapes. Surely, even you will agree that such practices are not lawful for us.

But if you mean to ask of me the image, not of His form transformed into that of God, but that of the mortal flesh before its transformation, can it be that you have forgotten that passage in which God lays down the law that no likeness should be made either of what is in heaven or what is in the earth beneath? Have you ever heard anything of the kind either yourself in church or from another person? Are not such things banished and excluded from churches all over the world, and is it not common knowledge that such practices are not permitted to us alone?

Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. I note that Paul instructs all of us not to cling any more to things of the flesh; for, he says, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.

It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material. I have also seen myself the man who bears the name of madness57 [painted] on an image and escorted by Manichees. To us, however, such things are forbidden. For in confessing the Lord God, Our Saviour, we make ready to see Him as God, and we ourselves cleanse our hearts that we may see Him after we have been cleansed. . .

“the man who bears the name of madness” is Mani, of course.

According to David M. Gwynn, “From Iconoclasm to Arianism: The Construction of Christian Tradition in the Iconoclast Controversy”, in: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007), 225–251; 227 (online here), who discusses the letter, its authenticity and reception, further fragments may be added from the writings of the Iconophile Patriarch Nikephorus, which he references thus:

5. The best-known edition of the text is that of H. Hennephof, Textus byzantinos ad iconomachiam pertinentes (Leiden 1969) 42–44, of which there is an English translation in C. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312–1453 (Englewood Cliffs 1972) 16–18.  A new Greek edition of the surviving fragments has now been prepared by A. von Stockhausen, in T. Krannich, C. Schubert, and C. Sode, Die ikonoklastische Synode von Hiereia 754 (Tübingen 2002), although in her most recent article Claudia Sode is sceptical that any coherent text can be reconstructed from those fragments: C. Sode and P. Speck, “Ikonoklasmus vor der Zeit? Der Brief des Eusebios von Kaisareia an Kaiserin Konstantia,” JÖByz 54 (2004) 113–134.

It should be noted that Mango in fact does not reference Hennephof, but the PG edition.

It has to be said that Eusebius is not really addressing the idea of icons at all.  The Byzantine veneration of icons is not his concern, for this did not exist.  Rather he is a man who grew up when paganism was triumphant, concerned to prevent the continuation of pagan practices in the newly Christianised populace.

Interesting to learn little snippets about antiquity – such as that an image of Mani was being paraded around in procession by his devotees.  We gain something from every morcel of ancient literature.

Update: A. von Stockhausen writes:

My edition (not critical, but re-instating the fragmentary state of transmission and annotation parallels in his other works) with German translation and short thoughts on Eusebius’ position on images (interpreting prep. ev. III 10,13–19) is online here:

Thank you!


10 thoughts on “Eusebius, Letter to Constantia – an English translation by Cyril Mango

  1. This goes along with people like St. Epiphanius feeling uneasy about woven pictures of Jesus or the saints.

    OTOH, Eusebius’ history says that there was a statue of Jesus taken from life, and that it was associated with miraculous healings; and he also has the Edessa image story. Neither of those are represented as bad things.

    So yeah, this is interesting on many fronts.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention another source of translations that I just found today, totally by chance while searching for stuff.

    There’s a guy named Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has a site for Christian apologetics against Islam, mostly through providing lots and lots of documents. So at some point, he started translating various Mozarabic texts, such as those by St. Eulogius of Cordoba about the Cordoban martyrs, and all the weirdness with Bishop Elipandus of Toledo (the guy who did a good job against the weird Davidic heresy of Migetius, but espoused his own version of Adoptionism; and then got snitty when called out by Beatus of Liebana and others).

    He’s really done a big job, and generally included the original texts as well.

  3. Hm. Apparently it’s not a Christian apologetics site, but rather, a sort of Islamic/academic pundit and source material site. And maybe even one previously accused of flirting with jihad, although it also seems that the guy was trying to get information by digitally “hanging out.”

    But the translations don’t seem bad or biased, at least on a cursory reading. So that’s valuable.

    Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on there. But whatever it is, it’s a thing.

  4. The early testimonies on paintings are an interesting area which deserves looking into by someone not invested in any later controversies. I found an article with some references: John B. Carpenter, “Answering Eastern Orthodox Apologists regarding icons”, Themelios 43 (2018), 417-433, which had a lot of early testimonies, but I didn’t really look at them. It’s online here.

  5. Sorry I didn’t link directly. I’ve been a little out of it — worked overtime this week and didn’t sleep well — and I keep forgetting to do things right in the middle of doing them.

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