As seen in Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill, Rome
When I lived in Cyprus, I had the opportunity to take a trip to the Troodos Mountains with a group of Orthodox Christians on a guided tour of some of Cyprus’s beautiful churches, led by my friends Frs. Ioannis and Andreas; we were blessed in Fr. Ioannis’ specialised knowledge as an iconographer and artist in his own right.
We saw many wonderful things there, including Panayia Podithou with its peaked roof that hearkened one’s thoughts to more western, northerly climes — but there for the same reason (snow!). This church, the first on our trip, includes a fresco of holy Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush (thus comes its name). It also has images of Christ giving the twelve apostles the Lord’s Supper.
After Panayia Podithou, we went into the village of Galata. There we saw the Church of St. Sozomen. St. Sozomen’s is a magnificent church (it also has better lighting than Panayia Podithou, and therefore stands out in my memory more!). The interior is entirely covered in frescoes of varying levels of ‘skill’ — although, the only one that would not necessarily count as ‘Byzantine’ was one of those ‘western’ Resurrection scenes with Jesus jumping out of the tomb with a banner. Similar to this (this isn’t the one, though):
Assembled on the frescoed walls of St. Sozomen’s are a variety of saints, biblical figures, and angels. The place is a riot of colour and a far cry from the simple dark wood of St. Columba’s Free Church of Scotland! The exterior of St. Sozomen’s is notable because it, too, is covered in frescoes. The roof has been constructed so that there is basically a portico surrounding the entire church.
Fittingly, amongst the frescoes painted on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s are icons of the Ecumenical Councils, from Nicaea to Nicaea II. This is fitting because — unless there’s a Sozomen of whom I am unaware (entirely likely!) — Sozomen was one of the early ecclesiastical historians, living in the first half of the fifth century. You can read his Ecclesiastical History here. Here’s the photo I took of the Council of Nicaea:
I also managed to get photos of the fresco of the Transfiguration:
And of the Last Judgement:
Our final stop was the Church Ayios Nikolaos tis Stigis (St. Nicholas of the Roof). It has two roofs, as seen below:
Apparently the original ‘Byzantine’-style roof couldn’t handle the snow, so they had to add a peaked roof like the one at Panayia Podithou. Ayios Nikolaos is full of frescoes, on walls, on pillars, everywhere. They are wondrously colourful and more than worth a visit, if you are ever in Cyprus. At this church, I first learned of St. Mary of Egypt, the anchoress who lived in the desert so long that her clothing disintegrated; to keep her safe from the sun and maintain modesty, she grew hair all over the body. There was also an image of St. Paphnutius, another Egyptian saint, also naked, with a beard that was strategically long.
In these painted churches of Cyprus, I first came to an understanding of one reason why Byzantine and mediaeval churches are covered in frescoes and mosaics of the saints and angels. It is a reason I was just reading about today in the latest book by Edith M. Humphrey (one of many Anglicans turned Eastern Orthodox), Grand Entrance. In the first chapter of this book, she has been endeavouring to demonstrate to the reader that worship and prayer (the subject of the volume) are never truly done alone. Part of our lack of isolation and individualism as we worship and pray comes from the presence both of the saints and angels themselves, those saints who are offering up our prayers in bowls before the Throne as in Revelation, those angels who are there to protect us and learn the mysteries of God with us.
The frescoes and mosaics — or, in the case of St. Andrew’s Orthodox Community here in Edinburgh, the individual icons plastering every piece of available wall, each showing us a saint or angel — are visual reminders of what’s really going on as we gather to worship the Triune God. Even if at, say, Morning Prayer when only Fr. Raphael turns up to pray, he is never alone. Not only is God, the One-in-Three, there with him (thus making the community at least two if not four but really just two because, as St. Gregory of Nyssa noted, there are not three gods but one God, although there will still be at least four hypostaseis, as beautifully illustrated by Fr. John Zizioulas in Being As Communion), the saints and angels assembled around God’s Throne are with him.
Thus, at Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, we are reminded that St. Ambrose (saint of the week here) is always with us worshipping YHWH as well (not least because of his bones below the altar):
At St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (where my dad is priest), we are reminded that St. George (saint of the week here) joins us in worship:
We are never alone. And so, the next time you pray, ‘Our Father …’ remember that you join the invisible saints of God in our midst. When you pray, ‘Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us,’ alone, remember that you are not alone. You just cannot see your fellow worshippers.
Re-post from 2008.
Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.
“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.
But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.
When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.
The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!
“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”
An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” 
Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”
“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”
“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”
“And so is the Anointed.”
“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”
And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.
Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.
* * *
 All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.
This is a re-post from 2008. The rest of the series to follow!
Konstantinos (he’s the one in the middle) strode into the midst of the greatest gathering of overseers that the Holy Assembly of the Anointed Jesus had ever seen. There were between 200 and 300 overseers present, he understood. On the fringes were the elders and blessed servants as well as the faithful themselves, come here to Nikaia to see what the overseers would decide. Amongst them he noted the notorious elder from Alexandria who had started all this trouble — one whom the Revered Konstaninos had already berated as being a wild animal. As he walked, a hush fell over the gathering, which was exactly what he had intended.
Before him had come his retinue, who themselves were impressive, arrayed in notable Eastern finery. But now Konstantinos the Victor, Greatest, Revered, the sole ruler of East and West was in their midst, and they stood in awe of him. He was clad in a purple robe that had gold interwoven amidst its threads as well as ornamenting it variously. Gems adorned it and glittered under the light from the candles and the windows. The effect was notable, for he seemed to Eusebios, Overseer of Kaisareia, to be emitting light itself — once more, exactly in line with Konstantinos’ intention. Nevertheless, in so august a company, he did not hold his head high as he would have with his soldiers; nor did he perceptibly cast his piercing eagle’s gaze upon them. Rather, he walked with his eyes down, and even with a bit of a blush on his face — what am I, a soldier, and politician, doing here, in the midst of men whom my predecessors persecuted so harshly?
He passed by the seats arrayed on either side of him, noting Makarios of Jerusalem, Eustathios of Antiokheia, Alexandros of Alexandreia, a fellow in a hat that resembled a beehive, and Alexandros of Byzantion. He reached his golden chair, set on a raised dais at the far end, and turned, standing in front of it and facing the overseers. Then the light of East and West sat.
Eusebios of Nikomedeia stood and opened the proceedings with a speech and a song of praise to the Supreme. Then all eyes were once more on Konstantinos. He gazed upon them all, eyes shining and loving, as he stood to speak. They had come to settle two disputes that were tearing at the fabric of The Anointed’s Holy Assembly, the date of the Christian Passover and the troubling teaching of Elder Arios from Alexandria.
Konstantinos had lost much sleep over the issue surrounding Arios — not, mind you, for the theological implications but for the fabric of the Assembly, so delicate and so recently brought out of darkness into light, for the union of the holy ones; theology was secondary to peace and peaceableness; Konstantinos had even implied in his letters that, “There was when he was not,” was so trivial a matter that it would have been better for Arios not to have brought it up. Why had he not kept silent when Alexandros asked him the question? Or, indeed, how could he not see that the Anointed Jesus had to be eternal with God the Father, that he could not be a creature, for how could a creature save us?
The fabric was being torn once more, as the followers of Donatus had already torn it. Now was to be the triumph of the Assembly, not its downfall! No, Konstantinos would not allow this Holy Apostolic Assembly to be torn asunder. Not now, not after the defeat of Licinius, not after the Lord’s property had been returned. Not here, in Nikaia, Bithynia, thirteen days before the Kalends of Iunios, 1078 years after the founding of Roma.
The time for polemic was over, for the overseers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would choose truth and properly describe the nature of the Anointed Jesus. Order in other matters would be established, and the Assembly would operate as smoothly as possible and the Peace of Roma would be maintained. And so, with so many thoughts whirling through his mind on this first day of the first world-wide council (from Hosius of Cordoba to men of Arabia), Konstantinos addressed the assembled overseers in Latin, his native tongue. Eusebios of Kaisereia recalls that it ran somewhat as follows:
It was the object of my prayers, my friends, to share in your company, and now that I have received this, I know I must express my gratitude to the King of all, because in addition to everything else he has allowed me to see this, which is better than any other good thing; I mean, to receive you all gathered together and to observe one unanimous opinion shared by all.
Let no jealous enemy ruin our prosperity; now that the war of the tyrants against God has been swept away by the power of God the Saviour, let not the malignant demon encompass the divine law with blasphemies by other means. For to me internal division in the Church of God is graver than any war or fierce battle, and these things appear to cause more pain than secular affairs.
When therefore I won victories over enemies through the favour and support of the Supreme, I considered that nothing remained but to give thanks to God, and to rejoice also with those who had been liberated by him through our agency. When contrary to all expectation I learnt of your division, I did not defer attention to the report, but, praying that this too might be healed through my ministration, I immediately sent for you all.
I rejoice to see your gathering, and I consider that I shall be acting most in accordance with my prayers, when I see you all with your souls in communion, and one common, peaceful harmony prevailing among you all, which you, as person consecrated to God, ought yourselves to be announcing to others.
So do not delay, my friends, ministers of God, and good servants of the common Lord and Saviour of us all, to begin now to bring the causes of the division between you into the open, and to loosen all shackles of dispute by the laws of peace. Thus you will be achieve what is pleasing to the God of all, and you will give extreme gratification to me, your fellow servant.
Konstantinos sat down, and the overseers began the debate in earnest. He was to watch over the proceedings until thirteen days before the Kalends of Iulios, and bring them to a resolution and a statement of belief, even suggesting — though he was not a theologian or philosopher himself — that they say that the Anointed Jesus was of one substance with the Father — in Latin consubstantialis, in Greek homoousios.
Throughout the rest of his earthly life, Konstantinos saw that Nikaia’s formulation held the field throughout his domain. Little did he know what would happen in the years to come, when the whole earth would groan to find itself following Arios, or the debates that would arise due to the very word he introduced, some saying that it made inroads for the teachings of Sabellios. But in Nikaia, upright teaching and upright worship won the day, paving the road for the rest of the Assembly’s understanding of the Three-in-One to be put into words, thoughts, and statements, casting a fence around belief and fostering true worship.