Better to visit every brothel in the city than deny the worship of images? A quote from Nicaea II?

A curious claim on Twitter a couple of days ago, here:

“It is better to admit all brothals into a city than deny the worship of Images.”

-John, legate of the Greeks at the Second Council of Nicaea

The quotation is clearly corrupt, genuine or otherwise.  But where does it come from?  Was this really said in the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, the council that approved the worship – or veneration – of images?

The immediate source for this statement seems to be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This passage, in the English translation edited by John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster John Knox Press (1960), volume 1, chapter 11, section 14 (“Childish arguments for images at the Council of Nicaea (787)”), p.116 (preview here):

… a double marvel that everybody did not cry out against them with greatest loathing. But it is expedient that this wicked madness be publicly exposed, that the pretense of antiquity which the papists allege may at least be torn away from the worship of images. Theodosius, Bishop of Amorium, pronounces anathema against all who are unwilling that images be adored. Another imputes all the misfortunes of Greece and the East to the crime that images had not been adored. What punishments do the prophets, apostles, martyrs, deserve, in whose day no images existed? Thereafter they add: if the image of the emperor be approached with perfume and incense, much more do we owe this honor to the images of saints. Constantius, Bishop of Constance in Cyprus, professes to embrace images reverently, and affirms that he is going to show toward them the same worship and honor that is owed to the life-giving Trinity. Anyone who refuses to do the same he anathematizes and relegates among the Manichees and Marcionites. And lest you think this the private opinion of one man, the rest agree. Indeed, John, the legate of the Easterns, moved by even greater heat, warned that it would be better to admit all brothels into the city than to deny the worship of images. Finally, it was determined by the consent of all that the Samaritans are worse than all heretics, yet image fighters are worse than the Samaritans. Besides, lest the play should go unapplauded, a clause is added: let those who, having an image of Christ, offer sacrifice to it rejoice and exult. Where now is the distinction between latria and dulia, by which they are wont to hoodwink God and men? For the Council accords, without exception, as much to images as to the living God.

This is word for word the same as our “quote”, so this is not a direct quote from the Acts, but reported speech.  The editor indeed informs us (p.114, n.28) that:

28. In secs. 14-16, written in 1550, Calvin derives his data from the Libri Carolini, the four books prepared at Charlemagne’s direction in response to the action of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787, and adopted by the Synod of Frankfort, 794. An edition of the Libri Carolini by Jean du Tillet had appeared in 1549. The passages referred to are: Libri Carolini I. 7, 9, 10, 13, 23, 24, 28, 30; II. 5, 6, 10; III. 7, 15, 17, 26, 31; IV. 6, 18. The work may be consulted in MPL 98, where these passages are in cols. 1022 f., 1027 ff., 1034 f., 1053 f., 1057 ff, 1061 f., 1065 f., 1071 ff., 1075 f., 1127 ff., 1142 f., 1148 f., 1170 ff., 1180 ff., 1197 ff., 1221 ff. The notes in OS III. 103 f. provide the references to the text in Monumenta Germaniae Historica Leges III. Concilia II. The editors here indicate two instances in which Calvin has erroneously ascribed to “John, the Eastern legate” (who spoke frequently at the council) words that should be attributed to others present. Calvin’s quotations are otherwise in accord with the text.

The reference in the Libri Carolini is to book 3, chapter 36 (col. 1179 f.), and the exact passage in f. 1181 C, where “an abbot”  (a “mad abbot” in the heading) says that “Commodius tibi est omnia in civitate lupanaria ingredi, quam abnegare adorationem imaginis Domini aut eius sanctae genitricis”, “It is better for you to visit every brothel in the city, than to deny the adoration of the image of God or of his holy mother.”  This is followed, quite properly, by expressions of disgust at this disregard of the biblical injunction about joining the body of Christ to a whore.

But is this in the Acts of Nicaea II?

Well, we are fortunate that at least two complete English translations of the Acts of Nicaea II exist.  There is an 1850 version, by John Mendham, with notes helpfully from the Libri Carolini, which was produced in response to the Oxford Movement.  This is curiously impossible to find by Google, but is here.  There is a Liverpool University Press two-volume set, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), translated by Richard Price, which appeared in 2020, to which I have no access.

So let’s use Mr Mendham’s 1850 text, with its interesting footnotes.

Page 186 (here), overparagraphed by me, and English modernised:

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Glory be to you, O God, who has wrought miracles by means of holy images.”

EUSTATHIUS: Monk Presbyter and Abbot of the Monastery of Maximin said: “ I also, holy fathers, have brought thither a book of the same father containing the lives of many holy men ; and if it be agreeable to your holy Assembly let it be read.”

THE HOLY COUNCIL: “ Let it be read.”

STEPHEN the Monk, having received the book, read a passage from the “ Spiritual Meadow” of St. Sophronius:—

“Theodore Abbot, of Aelia, said there was a certain recluse in the Mount of Olives a perfect champion. This man was sorely assaulted by the demon of fornication. One day, when the demon was more than usually hard upon him. the old man began to lament and to cry out to the demon, ‘Why will you not spare me—leave me for the future: you have grown old with me.’

On which the demon, having made himself visible, said to him, ‘Swear to me that you will tell no man that which I am now about to say to you, and I will trouble you no more.’ And the old man swore to him, saying, ‘By Him who dwells above, never will I tell to any what now you may declare to me.’ Then the demon said to him, ‘Worship that image no more, and I will no more contend with you.’

Now, he had there a picture representing our Lady, the holy Mary, Mother of God, bearing in her arms our Lord Jesus Christ. The recluse gave answer to the demon, ‘Go, and I will consider of it.’

On the morrow he revealed the whole matter to Theodore Abbot, of Aeliota, then living in the Laura of Pharan, for the Abbot came to him and he told him all. And the aged man said to the recluse, ‘Really, father, have you been so imposed upon as to swear to a demon? However, you have done well to consult me about it; for it were better for you not to pass by a single brothel in yon city without entering into it, than that you should refuse to worship our Lord and God Jesus Christ with His own Mother represented in a picture.’  Having confirmed and strengthened him with many other exhortations the aged man went to his own abode.

Again the demon appears to the recluse and says to him, ‘What now, you old sinner, did you not swear to me that you would tell no man? How have you dared to tell all to him who came to you? I tell you, you vile old man, you shall be judged for this in the day of judgment as a perjurer.’ The recluse answered him, saying, ‘What I have sworn, I have sworn; and that I have foresworn myself I know; but I have not foresworn my Lord and Maker; and, therefore, for you I care not.’ ”

CONSTANTINE Bishop of Constantia: “Like to links in a chain of gold, so harmonious are the testimonies brought by our God-inspired fathers in favour of images.”

JOHN Legate of the East: “ The discourse of our Father Sophronius teaches us another lesson also—namely, that it is better for him that hath sworn to foreswear himself rather than to regard any oath tending to the destruction of holy images; and this we say because there are some to-day who feel unsettled on account of the oath they have taken.”

TARASIUS: “Because the old man knew the goodness of God and also how ready He is to receive the penitent, therefore he determined to violate his sinful oath. Whence it appears that those who have taken an oath in favour of this heresy (if they have no other sin laid to their charge), have a reasonable precedent, and may plead this in their own defence; but.should they have fallen into other sins, they must for these endeavour to propitiate God for them, as well as to supplicate Him for the remission of this their unlawful oath.”

THEODORE Bishop of the Subritenses: “ Peter, chief of the Apostles, denied his Master; but, having repented, he was received again into favour.”

So the idea is found, not in the Acts, but rather in a colourful story quoted during the sessions, mainly to show that those who had sworn oaths against icons could validly break them.

Mendham helpfully translates the Libri Carolini passage as a footnote on p.186-7:

* This history is so great a favourite with this Council that it is narrated a second time in the next Session. It is intended in both to serve very important purposes—in this Session to teach that no wickedness is so great as the neglect of image-worship, and that no oath tending to the renunciation of this worship is to be regarded : in the next, it does not appear for what purpose it is brought forward except to show that the Devil was an Iconoclast. In the “Caroline Books” (lib. iii. cap. 31) it is treated according to its merits as being Deliramentum errore plenum:—

“Often in the course of this our work we are compelled to declare that no example should be taken from things really bad in themselves; and we are compelled so often to repeat this caution because we find them so ready to act thus in order to confirm their error. Nor is this wholly inconsistent; for, as the example of good acts do form evermore a support to good acts, so they, from erroneous acts, seek a support for their erroneous doings. Thus, to support their error, they bring forward the example of a certain recluse, who, if he really did that which in the history he is said to have done, was guilty of no less than three signal faults—viz., (1). That he should voluntarily have engaged in a conference with the devil; (2). That he should have been beguiled by the same to bind himself under on oath; and (3). That he should violate that oath: all which things, so far from being any example to a Catholic, should by him be utterly renounced as being forbidden by many testimonies of the divine law.”

Here follow the texts which are condemnatory of each of these faults ; after which it is continued as follows—

“The recluse having committed these three faults, his Abbot, so far from correcting what be had done amiss, actually points out to him a way still worse, saying, ‘It were better for thee to go into every brothel in yonder city than to refuse to worship the image of our Lord or that of His holy Mother.’ O incomparable absurdity! O pestilent evil! O folly surpassing many follies! He declares that it were better to do that which is forbidden alike by the Law and in the Gospel than to abstain from that which is not commanded either in the Law or in the Gospel! He declares that it is better to perpetrate crime than to abstain from crime! He declares that it is better voluntarily to plunge oneself in the mire than to walk unblameably in the right path! He declares that it is better to defile the temple of God than to despise the worship of things without sense! He declares that it is better to take the members of Christ and to make them the members of an harlot than to despise the worship of the work of some artificer!

Let him then tell us (if he can) where the Lord hath said, ‘You shall not refuse to worship images’, as plainly as He has said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Let him then tell us, if he can, anywhere find that the Lord has said, ‘If you see an image and do not worship it you have sinned,’ as plainly as he has declared. ‘If you look on a woman to lust after her you have committed adultery with her already in your heart.’ And if he can never discover anything of this kind, let him reflect how great his error is in granting a licence to do that which is absolutely disgraceful rather than to omit that which is altogether unprofitable; for, while the Lord in the Law and in the Gospel commands us in many ways to the observance of chastity, nowhere is there found any such injunction relative to the worship of images.

As this same Abbot, who ought to have led this recluse into the way of salvation, did, on the contrary, give the rein to his lust—as he who ought to have recovered his fellow from the snare into which he had fallen in having sworn to the devil did rather rush together with him into the abyss of error by telling him that it was better for him to commit a grievous crime— beyond all doubt he has fulfilled that saying in the Gospel. ‘If the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the ditch.’ And any one who would endeavour to prove any argument by any such example as this would manifest that his madness was of no ordinary kind, but even surpassing that of others.’

The footnote continues by quoting the response of “Adrian” – i.e. Pope Hadrian – to previous criticism on this point, which those interested can read at the link above.

So back to our starting point.  We have found:

  • The “quote” is from Calvin, not from the Acts of Nicaea 2
  • Calvin is quoting the Libri Carolini representation of a passage in the Acts, rather than the Acts themselves.
  • The sentence is found in a hagiographical text of dubious authenticity, quoted (like many others, some heretical) during the sessions of Nicaea 2.
  • The delegates at the Council do not even discuss the idea of brothels being better than iconoclasm – surely a colourful image rather than a serious argument – but concentrate on the idea that an oath made to the devil need not be kept, and so breaking an oath made to heretics was not wrong.

In reality, the “quote” is bogus.  Nicaea 2 did not endorse any such position.

It is interesting to see the appearance of the “oaths to heretics are not binding”.  This evil principle was used as a justification to burn John Hus at the Council of Constance, despite his pass of safe-conduct.  Knowledge of this tendency caused protestants in general to regard catholics – especially Jesuits – as untrustworthy liars.  Curiously enough the hagiographer knew better: that breaking even an oath to the devil was a sin.

UPDATE: A kind correspondent has pointed out that the story by Sophronius is in fact chapter 45 of the Pratum Spirituale or Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus.  I have written a further post about this here.

Share