Constantine V: the Virgin Mary was like “an empty purse, no different to any other post partum woman”

Here’s an interesting question:

A colleague informed me that at the iconoclast Synod of Hieria in 754 the Emperor Constantine V compared the pregnant Virgin Mary to a purse containing gold coins of great value. After giving birth to Christ he then compared her to an empty purse, no different to any other post partum woman. When I suggested that the tale was probably legendary my informant insisted that it occurs in the Acta Sanctorum. … in which volume I should seek it?

A bit of googling supplied the answer, via Stephen Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the reign of Constantine V, (1977), p.146.  The event did not take place at Hieria, as far as I can tell.

The source is the Vita Nicetae Hegoumeni Medicii, by his disciple Theosterictus, BHG 1341.  Nicetas was abbot of the Medikion monastery in Bithynia, and died in 824 AD.  He is commemorated on April 3 or 29.  The “Life” was probably written not long after.

The text and a Latin translation can indeed be found in the Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 1.  But various pitfalls lie in wait for the researcher.  The first 800-odd pages consist of purely Latin texts.   This does include the Vita Nicetae – in a modern translation by Sirletus – starting on p.253.  Then follows an “Appendix”.  And then, using Roman page numbers, the remainder of the volume is Greek texts.  The Greek of the Vita Nicetae is on p. XVIII-XXVII.  This begins on page 988 of the PDF (online here).  Phew.

The relevant chapter is 29, and I thought that it might be useful to give an English translation of it, from the Latin of Sirletus.

29.  While these things were happening, the great primate (b) left his throne, the venerable swallow fled from its nest, which used to adorn the natural tranquillity of the Church with its sweet chirping, gracing the Lord’s festivals; and in his place an ugly raven was brought in, cawing and croaking discordantly, with the Church sinking down and mournfully lamenting, because it had been deprived of such a great and divine prelate.  But there was no small confusion in all the sacred houses, the madness of the impious running in every direction, and seizing everything like a pestilence, while, elated by power, they dared anything.

His son Constantine (c) followed, at the same time the heir of the empire and the heir of perversity, the worse seed of the evil root, the deadly dragon from the venomous serpent, the shape-changing leopard from the most savage lion, who surpassed his father’s malice many times over.  For he was not content only with insulting the sacred images but also dishonoured the holy Martyrs, as much as he could, forbidding them to be named as saints, and ordered that they be called, to the Apostles (d), to the Forty, to Theodore, to George, and others of this kind; moreover, he utterly despised their relics, [he also attempted to abolish the cult of the Mother of God,] considering them worthless: and to sum it up in one word, he was outwardly Christian, but in most aspects, he was a Jew at heart.

For as Christ chose for Himself the most glorious house, I mean His mother, higher than all created things, the advocate of the world, the mediator of human salvation, nearest to God because of the dignity of her virginity, he also sought in many ways to abolish her name that must be venerated in the Church; and he did not even want to call upon her intercessions, by which the world stands, saying that she could not help anyone.  He also attempted to secure his saying with a comparison: for on a certain day, taking a purse full of gold in his hands, and showing it to those present, he asked what it was worth.  But when they said, “A great amount,” pouring out the gold, he asked again, “How much now?” And when they replied that it was worth nothing, he said in his wretchedness:”So also the Mother of God (for he did not deign to call her Saint) was of great value when she had Christ within her; but after she gave birth to Him, she differed in nothing from other women.”

O blasphemous folly!  O the ineffable tolerance and long-suffering of God!  How did He not break that mouth, which spoke what is unlawful in pride and insult against the Mother of Christ? How did this new and puffed-up pharisee, hateful to God, differ from the blasphemous Jews?[1]

b.  The edict against images was published on 7 Jan. 730 AD.  Germanus I, the patriarch, abdicated, and was replaced on 22 Jan. by the pliable Anastasius, who managed to oppose, support, and then oppose images, as the politics demanded.

c.  Leo the Armenian died on 18 June 775, and his son Constantine V, nicknamed Copronymus, succeeded him.

d.  The Acta Sanctorum editor notes that Sirletus misunderstood the Greek text at this point.  Constantine’s order was that a church – not the saint – should not be called “the church of St George”. but just “the church of George,” etc.

In the end the iconoclasts lost, of course, but it is interesting to see them rowing against the trends in the Byzantine church.

  1. [1]Haec dum agerentur migravit e throno suo magnus (b) Pontifex, fugitque nido veneranda hirundo, quae vernam ecclesiae tranquillitatem dulcisono ornabat garritu, Dominica festa condecorans: & in locum ejus inductus est deformis corvus, hians & absonum crocitans, procumbente Ecclesia & moestum ingemiscente, quod tanto tamque divino Praesule esset orbata. Erat autem in omnibus sacris aedibus confusio non modica, discurrente quaquaversum versania impiorum, omniaque instar pestis corripiente, [propagator Constantinus Copron.] dum nihil non audet potestate subnixa. Secutus est imperii simul & perversitatis haeres filius (c) Constantinus, malae radicis pejus germen, ex venenato serpente laetifer draco, ex saevissimo leone versipellis pardus, qui multipliciter superavit patris malitiam. Nec enim sola contentus fuit imaginum sacrarum injuria, sed etiam sanctos Martyres, quantum in se fuit, inhonorans, vetuit Sanctos nominari, jussitque ut diceretur, ad Apostolos, (d) ad Quadraginta, ad Theodorum, ad Georgium & cetera hujusmodi: eorum autem Reliquias omnino contemnebat, [qui etiam Deiparae cultum conatus est abolere,] habebatque pro nihilo: atque ut verbo uno absolvam specie Christianus erat, animo in plerisque Judaeus. Quam enim sibi in domum propriam elegit Christus, gloriosissimam, inquam, illius matrem, rebus omnibus creatis sublimiorem, advocatam mundi, salutis humanae conciliatricem, Deoque propter virginitatis decorem proximam, hujus quoque venerandum nomen multimodis studuit in Ecclesia abolere; intercessiones vero illius, per quas subsistit mundus, nec nominari quidem voluit, dicens eam nemini posse opitulari. Conabatur etiam suum illud dictum confirmare similitudine: manibus namque die quadam accipiens crumenam auro plenam, ipsamque praesentibus ostentans, interrogabat, cujus illa pretii esset. Illis vero dicentibus, Magni; effundens aurum, iterum interrogabat, Quanti nunc? Et ipsis, nullius valoris esse, reponentibus; intulit miser: Sic & Deipara (nec enim dignabatur Sanctam dicere) quando intra se habuit Christum, pretiosa erat: postquam vero illum peperit, nihil discrepabat a ceteris. O blasphemam stultitiam! o ineffabilem tolerantiam & longanimitatem Dei! Quomodo non contrivit os illud, quod contra matrem Christi loquebatur injustiam in superbia & in abusione. Quid a blasphemis Judaeis novus hic elatusque ac Deo odibilis Pharisaeus distabat?

4 thoughts on “Constantine V: the Virgin Mary was like “an empty purse, no different to any other post partum woman”

  1. Medicion monastery is located in Trigleia of Bithynia, which is where I originate from my father’s side. It was active all the way to 1922. Trigleia has some 60 saints, a friend monk in Mt Athos who is also from Trigleia is scourging the sources and collecting them. The majority belong to the Iconomachy, but the most recent was St Chrysostom bishop of Smyrna who was publicly lynched by the Kemalists in 1922. Apparently of the first 10 that signed the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Synod, some 7 were monks in Mt Olympus and of those most in monasteries in Trigleia.

  2. We did actually visit with other Trigleians the place and did take pictures. I am going to ask dad to tag them and send them to you. It has been a while now, closer to 20 years ago

Leave a Reply