He was born in Constantinople of a strictly orthodox family, which had suffered from the earlier iconoclasm. Nevertheless he entered the service of the Empire, became cabinet secretary, and under Irene took part in the synod of 787 as imperial commissioner. He then withdrew to a cloister that he had founded on the Propontis, until he was appointed director of the largest home for the destitute in Constantinople.
After the death of Saint Tarasius, although still a layman, he was chosen patriarch by the wish of the emperor (Easter, April 12, 806). The uncanonical choice met with opposition from the strictly clerical party of the Studites, and this opposition was intensified to an open break when Nicephorus, in other respects a very rigid moralist, showed himself compliant to the will of the emperor by reinstating the excommunicated priest Joseph.
After the emperor's death (811), Nicephorus cooperated in the removal of Staurakios and in the elevation of the incapable Michael Rhangabe. With Leo V the Armenian, who was raised to the throne by the army in 813, Nicephorus was at first on good terms. When, however, this emperor revived with ever-increasing harshness the policy of the iconoclastic Isauriane, a conflict broke out, which led at the same time to a reconciliation of Nicephorus with the Studites.
After vain theological disputes, in December, 814, there followed personal insults. Nicephorus at first replied to his removal from his office by excommunication, but was at last obliged to yield to force, and was taken to one of the cloisters he had founded, Tou Agathou, and later to that called Tou hagiou Theodorou. From there he carried on a literary polemic for the cause of the iconodules against the synod of 815; on the occasion of the change of sovereigns, in 820, he at least obtained the promise of toleration.
He died at the monastery Tou Agathou, revered as a confessor. His remains were solemnly brought back to Constantinople on March 13, 847, and interred in the Church of the Apostles, where they were annually the object of imperial devotion.
Compared with Theodore of Studium, Nicephorus appears as a friend of conciliation, learned in patristics, more inclined to take the defensive than the offensive, and possessed of a comparatively chaste, simple style. He was mild in his ecclesiastical and monastical rules and non-partizan in his historical treatment of the period from 610 to 769 (Historia syntomos, breviarium).
His tables of universal history (Chronographikon syntomon), in passages extended and continued, were in great favor with the Byzantines, and were also circulated in the West in the Latin version of Anastasius. The Chronography offered a universal history from Adam to his own time. To it he appended a canon catalog (which does not include the Revelation of John. The catalog of the accepted books of the Old and New Testaments is followed by the antilegomena (including Revelation) and the apocrypha. Next to each book is the count of its lines, the Stichometry, to which we can compare our accepted texts and judge how much has been added or omitted. This is especially useful for apocrypha for which only fragmentary texts have survived.
The principal works of Nicephorus are three writings referring to iconoclasm:
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