Patriarch Photios on the Beginning of Lent and on the Image of the Mother of God in Hagia Sophia

Updated: Feb 6


Patriarch Photios, St Photios the Great, Pappas Patristic Institute

The Pappas Patristic Institute is pleased to present a biographical note on St Photios of Constantinople, along with selections from two of his homilies: Homily 1, On the Beginning of Lent, and Homily 17, On the Image of the Mother of God in Hagia Sophia.


 

Photios of Constantinople


Photios the Great, as he is known, was born in Constantinople in 810 and died in 891. He was twice patriarch of Constantinople, from 858 to 867, and again from 877 to 886. He is without a doubt the most important Church Father of the ninth century and one of the greatest patriarchs of Constantinople after St John Chrysostom. Photios was a scholar possessing encyclopedic knowledge in the areas of theology, history, grammar, philosophy, law, the natural sciences and medicine; he was a leading intellectual and a high-ranking government official who played a central role in the conversion of the Slavs to Orthodoxy. Born to an influential family, Photios grew up under Iconoclast persecutions. Both of his parents died as confessors of the faith, and Photios himself was thus an ardent defender of the holy icons. His father’s uncle was Patriarch Tarasios, who presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which canonized the veneration of icons. His mother’s brother married the sister of the empress Theodora, who in 843 brought an end to Iconoclasm. Though we know little about his early life and education, Photios tells us that as a young man he felt a calling to the monastic life. However, his talents came to the attention of the court and at an early age he was given a position in the imperial bureaucracy. Over time, he rose to the rank of chief secretary to the emperor, who, around 845, sent him on a diplomatic mission to the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. He was also a prominent teacher in Constantinople until his sudden elevation as patriarch, a subject to which we shall return in a moment.


Photios was a prolific and prodigious writer. Among his writings are:


  • the Library (also known as the Bibliotheke or Myriobiblos)

  • a Lexicon of nearly 8,000 words

  • the Amphilochia

  • Against the Manichaeans

  • Against the Paulicians

  • The Mystagogy on the Holy Spirit

  • 273 Letters, including the Letter to Boris of Bulgaria

  • A small number of Homilies (two of which describe the Russian invasion of Constantinople and are the oldest Greek sources mentioning the Russian people)


The Library[1] of Photios contains 280 (often lengthy) reviews of works of theology, history, literature, geography, mathematics, and other subjects. The majority (158) of the entries provide summaries and assessments of the works of Church Fathers and various ecclesiastical texts. The collection was produced for and dedicated to Photios’s brother, providing him with an extensive overview of Greek rhetorical, philosophical, and theological literature. The Library is especially valuable for the information it provides on Ancient Greek and early Christian works that have since been lost. Photios’s incisive literary appraisal of these works and their style has long attracted the attention of scholars. The work was composed before Photios became patriarch in 858.


Photios’s Lexicon,[2] like his Library, not only displays his formidable philological skills, but is also another important link in the chain between Classical literature and modern scholarship, preserving many Attic terms (and their sources) that might otherwise have been lost.


The Amphilochia,[3] written while Photios was in exile, preserves many of the lectures that the saint delivered as a young teacher in Constantinople. Addressed to his student Amphilochios (who later became the archbishop of Cyzicus), the work is composed of 300 chapters and deals with questions of Trinitarian theology, Christology, and Pneumatology; biblical exegesis (explaining many difficult passages of Scripture); and philosophy (often in relation to theology), along with many other topics and subjects.


Photios’s letters,[4] which are of immense historiographical value, cover a wide range of topics in addition to the expected correspondence on political, ecclesiastical, legal, and other matters. They include missives on Roman honorific titles, on medicine and other scientific questions, and on various grammatical topics, providing scholars with yet more data on the legacy of Greek letters and education. Photios’s letter to khan Boris of Bulgaria is a “Mirror for Princes” outlining the foundations of Christian faith and their embodiment in the person of the Christian ruler and in the administration of the state.


When Patriarch Ignatios was forced to resign in 858, Photios, though still a layman, was elected patriarch and elevated in just five days through the ranks of deacon and priest, becoming Patriarch of Constantinople on Christmas day, 858. Photios expressed in a letter to Pope Nicholas of Rome (Ep. 288) that he would have preferred to remain in the comfort of his studies but accepted his new responsibilities in obedience to the will of God, though now he left behind the relatively quiet life of a scholar and secretary for a highly visible public position as patriarch.


Photios endured significant troubles thanks to his rival, the deposed patriarch Ignatios.[5] In 863, Pope Nicholas, partly in response to tensions with the emperor, refused to accept the legitimacy of Photios’s patriarchate and declared himself for his predecessor, Ignatios. This was also the same period during which the Latin and Greek churches would enter an intense rivalry over missionary practices and ritual differences in Bulgaria.[6] Photios was a strong opponent of Latin theological errors, especially the Filioque. His letters on this topic, along with his treatise on the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit,[7] serve as landmarks of Byzantine opposition to the Filioque, setting the terms of the debate between East and West as it would play out over the next thousand years.[8]


In 867, Photios, together with the other Eastern patriarchs, condemned Nicholas and the Filioque. Nicholas’s successor, Pope Adrian II, subsequently condemned Photios in twin synods at Rome and Constantinople in 869 (the latter of which is now numbered as the ‘Eighth Ecumenical Council’ in the West), and Ignatios was reinstated as patriarch. Photios was exiled during this time, though he later returned to his teaching post in Constantinople.


In 879, after the death of Ignatios, Photios once again became Patriarch of Constantinople, this time entering into peaceful terms with the new Pope of Rome, John VIII. The two churches at this time came to an amicable agreement on theological and ecclesiological issues. Though the concordat would not last long, a synod of the same year (which sometimes competes for the title of ‘Eighth Ecumenical Council’ in the Orthodox Church) gave unique expression to a common confession of faith regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit—along Orthodox lines—and the addition of the Filioque to the Creed.


Photios would nonetheless fall into disfavor once more with the emperor, Leo VI, also known as Leo the Wise, who exiled the patriarch in 886. Upon his death, Photios’s remains were returned to Constantinople, where his memory was finally commemorated together with that of Ignatios. Photios was lauded as a saint as early as the ninth century, and Francis Dvornik traces his formal canonization to the tenth century.[9] His feast day is February 6.



 

Homilies 1 and 17


Though Photios, after his elevation as patriarch, preached on a regular basis, only eighteen of his homilies have survived, all probably delivered in the period of his first patriarchate. These homilies were likely compiled by one of the patriarch’s disciples or someone in his entourage. In what follows, we offer excerpts from two of Photios’s homilies (Homily 1 and Homily 17); the first was delivered toward the beginning of Great Lent, and the second on Holy Saturday, when, after the defeat of Iconoclasm, a new, monumental image of the Virgin was installed in Hagia Sophia.[10]



 

Homily 1


Homily 1 was most likely given toward the beginning of Lent, perhaps on the second Sunday, when catechumens were enrolled for baptism. Photios is instructing recent converts to the faith, who were to be baptized on Holy Saturday. His exhortation to baptism, addressed to catechumens, is also a call to repentance for the entire congregation. Invoking St Paul’s notion that the body of the believer has become a member of the body of Christ, he poses a series of questions to his listeners designed to move them to repentance. For those who sinned after their baptism, he offers instruction on repentance and confession, followed by a concluding exhortation to greater struggle and devotion during the time of the Fast and in Christian life more generally.


Photios of Constantinople, Homily on the Beginning of Lent


“As many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27) and have become members of Christ, for we have learned from St Paul’s teaching that our bodies are members of the body of Christ (1 Cor 6:15). What have we done with this great honor? Have we preserved our bridal condition intact and unsoiled, not allowing it to be polluted by any evil? Have we maintained the pledge we received of future blessedness, not permitting ourselves to be seduced by the fleeting pleasures of the world? Have we renounced laziness and indifference by means of a chaste mind and diligent life? Have we been mindful of the promises we made before angels, men, and God himself, to not join the members of Christ’s body to a prostitute? (1 Cor 6:15). Have we made our souls and bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit, as the blessed Paul cries out: “Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you?” (1 Cor 6:19), because, as he says again: “If anyone dares defile the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Cor 3:17). Have we kept the gifts given to us? Do we still hear the songs of the angels who joined in rejoicing at our rebirth in baptism? Do we still speak boldly to our enemies and say: “The Lord is my light and my Savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 26:1). If we still do these things, and are worthy of the divine mysteries, and if we temper our lives with virtues and turn away from the paths of sinners, then not only can we stand against the evil one, but we will also have the hope of eternal blessedness, the kingdom of heaven, and unspeakable joy with the angels, the patriarchs, the fathers, the martyrs, and all those who have pleased God.


But if we have sinned after baptism and been defiled by transgressions, do we have no hope of salvation? Is there no remedy, no conversion? Is all lost? Is all vanished: the long-suffering, the love of mankind, the great mercy, the abundant compassion? Is there no recall, no return? Is there no other way of healing? Is there no other means of recovery? Insofar as it depends on us and our sins, there is not. But insofar as it depends on the kindness and ineffable love of God toward mankind, there is. What then is it? Confession by means of sincere and genuine repentance. For it says: “I said, I will confess my iniquity to the Lord, and you forgave the ungodliness of my heart” (Ps 31:5). And the disciple and brother of the Lord instructs us to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that we may be healed” (James 5:16), and “if we confess our sins,” the beloved disciple promises: “He is faithful and just and will forgive us” (1 Jn 1:9). How shall I confess? By imitating the prodigal son in falling down and crying out to the Lord with a contrite heart and a broken spirit, saying: “I have sinned against heaven and before you; receive me, Father, in my repentance” (Lk 15:21). How shall I confess? By abandoning my former ways and hating my sin; because if you turn, and humble yourself before the Lord, and remove unrighteousness from your heart, the Almighty himself will be your helper (cf. Job 22-25). How shall I confess? By turning to God with all my heart, and by humbling myself before him with fasting and lamentation. How shall I confess? By showing mercy to the poor and the beggar, and by forgiving my neighbor’s faults. For it says: “The merciful shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7), and, “Forgive, and it shall be forgiven you” (cf. Mt 6:14). This is how sin is wiped out. This is how we are cleansed of our faults. This is how we flee the darkness and enter the light. “Behold,” he says, “I have blotted out your transgressions and swept away the darkness of your sins” (Is 44:22).


Let no one, then, fail to enter the contest, let no one slacken, let no one desert the ranks. Let us prepare for the struggles that lie ahead and contend valiantly. Let us hold fast, let us endure, let us stand our ground. For Christ, the giver of crowns, stands in our midst, holding out the prizes of victory, granting strength to our zeal, giving victory to our willingness, and bestowing on us crowns for our devotion. May all these things be ours through the grace and love of Christ, our true God, who gave himself in exchange for us, healed us through his wounds, freed us from the curse of Adam, delivered us from bondage, and made us worthy of adoption, through the intercessions of our most-holy Lady, the Theotokos, and all the saints. Amen.


 

Homily 17


Homily 17 was delivered in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia on Holy Saturday, 29 March 867, in the presence of the emperor Michael III (842-867), his co-emperor Basil I (867-886), and the members of their court. The occasion was the unveiling of a new image of the Virgin and Child, the first figural image to be installed in Hagia Sophia after Iconoclasm. The homily begins by celebrating the triumph of Orthodoxy over the Iconoclasts, after which Photios refers to a group of former heretics who were being received into the Church.[11] The focus of the homily, however, is the restoration of the holy icons to Hagia Sophia, an event which for Photios rivaled the very Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843. In describing the newly unveiled image, Photios recapitulates some of the major themes of the theology of the icon, about which, in the words of Cyril Mango, “one would look in vain for a better expression of Byzantine art theory.”[12] It is surprising that Hagia Sophia remained without images for more than twenty years after the Restoration of Orthodoxy in 843, though this may have been due to ongoing opposition from Iconoclasts as well as the government’s policy of conciliation. It may have also been due to the scarcity of competent artists after the long years of Iconoclasm and the interruption in the tradition of monumental painting and mosaic work, since the redecoration of a church the size of Hagia Sophia would have required many years and whole teams of artists. The image of the Virgin was the first important image to be unveiled, whereas the rest of the church still showed signs of the damage inflicted on it by the Iconoclasts (these are the “scars” and “wounds” that Photios refers to in the homily). Art historians have raised questions regarding the image described, since Photios does not seem to be describing the mosaic that may be seen there today. Moreover, he seems to be describing a monumental painting and not a mosaic.[13] It therefore remains unclear if the image unveiled on the Holy Saturday of 867 was replacing an older one removed or damaged by Iconoclasts, or if remnants of an older image were uncovered and restored.[14]


Hagia Sophia, Theotokos, Mother of God, Pappas Patristic Institute
Image of the Mother of God in the Apse of Hagia Sophia

Photios of Constantinople, A Homily delivered from the pulpit of Hagia Sophia on Holy Saturday, in the presence of the emperors, when the image of the Theotokos was Restored and Unveiled


Even if a man remained silent his whole life, he would now, above all else, strive to speak with power and magnificence and exercise his tongue in the arts of rhetoric. Or rather, he would be emboldened to ask for what he did not dare ask before, that is, for his lips to be parted with the tongs of the prophet (Is 6:6), and for his mouth to speak with a voice of fiery tongues (cf. Acts 2:3), for he would be, it seems to me, unable to bear his joy in silence, or with an unmoving tongue to celebrate this feast. For in truth this feast pours forth the inexhaustible gifts of joy and all manner of gladness; it drives out sorrow, and charms away dejection from every face. Indeed, three of the greatest things that have ever happened in this life shine out in this festival: the invincible power of the Orthodox faith, which towers above the dome of heaven; the ruin of the senseless insolence of impiety which is dragged down to utter destruction and the depths of hell; and the raising up of a monument to the folly and ineffaceable disgrace of those who ended their lives in impiety, though in their empty boasts they believed themselves to be great, glorious, and powerful. The memory of those men, who used their brief span of life to introduce innovations in the Church, will now be forever kept fresh by the Eye of Justice for the censure of their crimes.


For many years, those men were covered in darkness and error, and were not even conscious of all the murk in which they were submerged. In other respects, they did not appear to have deviated from the true faith, but instead of this being the cause of their union, as it should have been, they separated themselves into a hostile party, refused to adhere to the rulings of subsequent councils, and were unwilling to correct themselves or be corrected by the teachings of the Fathers. Instead, they accused us of introducing innovations into apostolic teaching, and they prided themselves as being the only ones who had not deviated from it. Yet they were sickened with false ideas and beliefs, and their condition became so dire as to being nearly altogether incurable. They were puffed up and arrogant to people of all countries who embraced the Christian creed, while they themselves were blind and lost in the darkness of heresy, and thus the evil momentum of their folly tore them away from the teaching of the Fathers and induced them into notions that were bizarre and perverse. They interpolated passages in books; they twisted the truth into lies; they concocted monstrous fables and confounded the laws of ecclesiastical primacy.


But the cause of the celebration, as we have already said, is the triumph of the true faith against belief hostile to Christ; the spectacle of impiety lying low, stripped of its very last hopes; and ungodly ideas exposed to universal hatred and aversion. With such a welcome does the image of the Virgin fill us with joy, inviting us, not to drink from a bowl of wine, but from the very vision of her, through which our soul is watered by our bodily eyes, and given the power to see as it grows in its love of Orthodoxy. Thus, even in her images the Virgin bestows delight, comfort, and strength! A virgin mother carrying in her pure arms the creator of the universe reclining as an infant! A virgin mother, with a virgin’s and a mother’s gaze, dividing her spirit indivisibly between these two capacities. With such great precision has the art of painting, which is a reflection of inspiration from above, set up this magnificent lifelike imitation. For she seems to fondly turn her eyes to her unbegotten child in the affection of her heart, yet she assumes the expression of a dispassionate and imperturbable disposition seeing the wondrous nature of her offspring, and thus composes her gaze accordingly. You might think her not incapable of speaking, if you were to ask her: “How did you give birth and remain a virgin?” To such an extent have her lips been made flesh by colors that they appear merely to be pressed together and stilled as in the mysteries, yet their silence is not inert, nor is the beauty of her form derivatory, but rather the real archetype.


Do you see now of what beauty the face of the Church had been deprived? Of what splendor it had been bereft? Over what shining glory did such gloomy dejection prevail? What they did was the reckless deed of a wretched and insolent hand. But this is a brilliant token of a heart seized by the love of God, for the veneration of the holy images depends on and is an expression of love for God, just as the destruction of these images comes from an ungovernable and most foul hatred. Those men, after stripping the Church, Christ’s bride, or her own ornaments, and wantonly inflicting bitter wounds on her, by which her face was scarred, attempted in their ignorance to submerge her into deep oblivion. But now she regains the ancient dignity of her beauty, so that if someone were to call this the beginning and day of Orthodoxy, he would not be wrong, for it was only a short while ago that the arrogance of the Iconoclasts was reduced to ashes, and Orthodoxy spread its light to the ends of the world.


And so, as the eye of the universe, this celebrated and sacred church was formerly downcast and stripped of its visual mysteries, as if it shed only faint rays to those who gathered here, so that the face of Orthodoxy appeared sad and gloomy. But now, casting off this sorrow, and beautifying herself with her own wondrous ornaments, and displaying her rich dowry, she gladly and joyously hearkens to the voice of the Bridegroom, who says: “My companion is beautiful, and there is no spot or blemish in her” (cf. Song 4:7). This is because, having mingled the brightness of colors with the truth of Orthodoxy, and through both having made for herself a sacred beauty, and bearing, so to speak, a complete and perfect image of piety, she is seen not only to surpass in beauty the sons of men, but also to be elevated to an indescribably beauty of dignity beyond any comparison. She has escaped the blows of her enemies; she has wiped off the blemishes that sinful hands sought to cover her with. Who is she, you ask, that is radiant like the morning, luminous as the moon, and brilliant as the sun? It is she whom David described long ago, saying, “The queen stood by your right hand, clothed in vesture wrought in gold, and arrayed in diverse colors” (Ps 44:10).



In memory of Cyril Mango (1928-2021)


 

[1] R. Henry, Photius: Bibliothèque, 8 vols. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1959-1977). Selections in English can be read in Nigel Wilson, Photius: The Bibliotheca (London: Duckworth, 1994).


[2] C. Theodoridis, Photii patriarchae lexicon, 3 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982-2013). See, also, R. Porson, Φωτίου τοῦ πατριάρχου λέξεων συναγωγή (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1822).

[3] B. Laourdas and L.G. Westerink, Photii patriarchae Constantinopolitani Epistulae et Amphilochia, 6 vols. (Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana) (Leipzig: Teubner, 1983-1988). See, also, Maximos Constas, “Word and Image in Byzantine Iconoclasm: The Biblical Exegesis of Patriarch Photius of Constantinople,” in The Contentious Triangle: Church, State, and University. A Festschrift in Honor of Professor George H. Williams, ed. Calvin Pater & Rodney Peterson (Kirksville, Missouri: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 97-109.

[4] See above, n. 3. The letters have been edited together with the Amphilochia. For a partial translation, see D.S. White, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople: His Life, Scholarly Contributions, and Correspondence Together with a Translation of Fifty-two of His Letters (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981).

[5] Most of the information about Photios’s life comes from his contemporary Niketas David the Paphlagonian, who was his opponent and a supporter of Ignatios. See A. Smithies, The Life of Patriarch Ignatius (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, Series Washingtonensis 51) (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2013).

[6] For the history of the controversy between East and West in this period, see the important study by Francis Dvornik, The Photian Schism: History and Legend (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948; repr. 1970).

[7] PG 102:280-392. The Greek of PG is printed, along with an English translation, in On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit (Brookline: Studion Publishers, 1983); cf. Joseph P. Farrell, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987). An English translation can also be accessed here online.

[8] Photios declared that the Spirit’s eternal procession and hypostatic existence is from the Father alone, and that the Spirit can be said to proceed from both the Father and the Son only in the sense that he is sent into the world, in time, by the Father and the Son. The Latin teaching, Photios protested, introduced two principles into the Divinity, destroying the traditional ‘monarchy’ of the Father and confusing the hypostatic roles of the Father and the Son. In these writings, Photios also deals, for the first time, with the place of St Augustine of Hippo within the broader tradition of the Church, since it was Augustine’s writings which formed one of the most important sources for the Western doctrine of the Filioque. For a detailed overview, see Ch. 3 of Peter Gemeinhardt’s exhaustive study of the Filioque controversy (“Die Kontroverse um das Filioque zur Zeit des Patriarchen Photius”): Die Filioque-Kontroverse zwischen Ost und Westkirche im Frühmittelalter (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002), 165-298. For a succint and accessible overview in English, see A. Edward Siecinski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 100-104.

[9] Dvornik, The Photian Schism, 386-389, 422. Cf. Martin Jugie, “Le culte de Photius dans L’Église byzantine,” Revue de l’Orient Chrétien 23 (1922-1923): 105-122.

[10] These excerpts have been adapted from the translation by Cyril Mango, The Homilies of Photius of Constantinople (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 41-54 (= Homily 1); 286-96 (= Homily 17).

[11] Photios make it clear in the homily that these heretics were former Quartodecimans, an ancient sect, prevalent in Asia Minor, who celebrated Easter according to the Jewish custom on the 14th of the first lunar month (Nisan), regardless of the day of the week. See Mango, Homilies of Photius, 288-89.

[12] Mango, Homilies of Photius, 282-83.

[13] Photios speaks of the “art of painting” (ἡ ζωγράφος τέχνη), though admittedly this term may also be used for a mosaic.

[14] Mango, Homilies of Photius, 285. For further discussion, see Nicolas Oikonomides, “Some Remarks on the Apse Mosaic of St Sophia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 39 (1985): 111-15; Gilbert Dagron, Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 223-47; Cyril Mango, “The Liquidation of Iconoclasm and the Patriarch Photios,” in Iconoclasm: Papers given at the Ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975, eds. Anthony Bryer and Judith Herring (Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine Studies, 1977), 133-40; and Niki Tsironis, “Historicity and Poetry in Ninth-Century Homiletics: The Homilies of Patriarch Photios and George of Nicomedia,” in Preacher and Audience: Studies in Early Christian and Byzantine Homilies, eds. Mary B. Cunningham and Pauline Allen (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 295-316.