Tarasius (c 730-806) was a secular counsellor who suddenly found himself, in his 50s, appointed Patriarch of Constantinople.
The cause of this sudden elevation was the Iconoclast controversy, which had divided the Church at a time when both Byzantine and Rome were menaced by the threat from Islam. Unlike the raging ecclesiastics, Tarasius proved himself a rare advocate of moderation and good sense.
Yet the fierce theological divisions had been associated with military triumphs. In 718 the Emperor Leo III threw back the Arab forces menacing Constantinople; in 732 Charles Martel ejected the Muslims from France after his victory at Poitiers.
From 726, however, Leo III issued a series of edicts banning the veneration of images. He even ordered that representations of saints should be removed from churches. Although western ecclesiastics, led by the popes, denounced this policy, Leo remained resolute. His son Constantine V (741-775) proved equally intransigent, organising the Council of Hiera (754), at which 338 bishops declared the worship of images to be sinful. This ruling was enforced by execution and torture until Constantine’s death.
Leo IV (775-80), however, abandoned the persecution, and after his death his widow Irene, as regent for her son Constantine VI, determined to restore the cult of images.
In order to overturn the decision of Hiera she required a Patriarch of Constantinople who would support her stance against the Iconoclasts. In 784, therefore, she dismissed the holder of that office and installed Tarasius, her chief secretary, in his place. He was duly appointed bishop per saltum – that is, leaping over the lower ecclesiastical orders.
In 787 another council was summoned, at Nicaea, renowned for the first ecumenical council in 325. Tarasius achieved agreement by insisting upon the distinction between the veneration of images, deemed orthodox doctrine, and their adoration. At the same time he resisted the pressure of those who were eager for revenge upon their Iconoclast persecutors. His humane policy, though, earned the bitter resentment of the hardliners.
Tarasius also experienced grave difficulties with Irene, who had begun life as an orphan in Athens, and who now (for all her devotion to images) proved vicious and ruthless in clinging to power. In 797 she even had her own son Constantine blinded and deposed.
Perhaps a Patriarch of greater moral force could have resisted her more effectively. Tarasius, though, was essentially a humble man. He made his clergy wear simple vestments and would not allow servants to wait upon him.
At the end of his life he fell into a trance, in which he appeared to be defending the course of his career against hostile criticism.
After his death the Iconoclast controversy resurfaced, and remained a divisive issue between Byzantine and Roman Christianity up to the Great Schism of 1054.