August 25, 2022

Gennadios Scholarios, First Patriarch of Constantinople After Its Fall

Gennadios was the first Patriarch of Constantinople after its fall. He was a prominent figure of the 15th century, who sealed the course and evolution of Hellenism and the Eastern Orthodox Church in various ways.

The scion of a merchant family from Thessaly, he was born, educated and worked in Constantinople in an era deeply marked by intense ecclesiastical and political change. The time of his birth is placed between the years 1398 and 1400. His secular name was George. The name Scholarios is considered a family name and probably derives from the position of a member of his family in the army or in the palace.

The origin of the name Kourtesios or Kortesios remains unclear, as it is mainly attributed to him in later times. It is rather unlikely that it comes from the Latinization of Scholarios, given that Gennadios was an anti-Latinist and often criticized those who used to Latinize their name. It is most likely that this is a later insertion, responding only to his controversial works, and serving obvious expediency.

The fact that his family was wealthy, gave him the opportunity to acquire a rich education. There are no clear testimonies of whether he studied at a specific school or whether he studied with a teacher of his time. He himself testifies that he was self-taught; however, it is considered certain that he attended the lessons of famous teachers, such as Theokletos of Damascus, the law teacher Methodios, perhaps George Gemistos Plethon, as well as Symeon of Thessaloniki. His innate erudition and intelligence helped him to devote himself with zeal to the studies of rhetoric, tactics, philosophy, theology and law. In order to expand his philosophical and theological knowledge, moreover, he learned the Latin language perfectly, from which he translated or commented on many works of classical Greek and Latin ecclesiastical authors. Thus, at a very young age he succeeded in distinguishing himself due to his excellent education and was associated with almost all the outstanding intellectual personalities of his time. He created a special bond with the Metropolitan of Ephesus, Mark Eugenikos, who became his spiritual father and Scholarios succeeded him in the struggle against the union with the Western Church as the leader of the anti-unionists.

Initially, Scholarios worked as a teacher. He opened a private school in his house, where he taught grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. His reputation as a teacher, his great education and his connection to the palace allowed him to occupy important administrative positions. Having the support of Constantine Palaiologos, he was appointed by Emperor John VIII Palaiologos as the "catholic judge of the Romans" (the highest judicial office of the time) and "catholic secretary of the emperor John". At the same time, he succeeded Joseph Bryennios in the position of professor of theology at the Royal Academy, where every Friday he organized theological discussions with the participation of the royal family, the official courtiers and a large audience of the City.

By occupying these positions, his brilliant political and ecclesiastical career began. He quickly established himself as the leading jurist, theologian and philosopher of the City and his fame spread beyond the borders of the empire. As it was reasonable, his contribution and cooperation was sought from John VIII Palaiologos for his unionist policy in the context of his attempt to secure financial and military aid to deal with the ever-increasing Turkish danger.

After a preliminary session in the palace, George-Gennadios was invited to express his opinion. This call must have been based not only on his quality as the general adviser of the emperor, but also on that of being his recognized theologian. There Scholarios delivered a consultative speech, in which he took the position of being against the transition of the Orthodox to Italy and their participation in the unionist synod, if the necessary conditions for a doctrinal union were not secured, having previously resolved the theological differences separately. This speech, a summary of which was saved by Sylvester Syropoulos in his Memoirs, echoes the general concern prevailing at that time regarding the expediency of the Orthodox participation in a synod in Italy aiming at a contractual and economic union in exchange for the indisputable financial and military assistance from the Pope.

At the Synod of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439) Scholarios arrived with a delay of several months. The question of his attitude during the debates has occupied scholarly research until today. The prevailing opinion (and it is mainly supported by Roman Catholic circles, for favorable reasons) shows Scholarios as an ardent supporter of the union, as it was methodized by the Latins, for which he even uttered relevant pro-Latin speeches. Another theory, in its attempt to solve the emerging problems of the previous opinion, formulated the version of the existence of two Scholarios', one pro-unionist and the other anti-unionist, the latter of which became Patriarch of Constantinople, however, this theory has been abandoned today because it is not based on objective arguments.

Finally, a more recent theory, based almost exclusively on his own works, shows Scholarios strongly anti-unionist and working to prevent the Pope and the "unionist" Orthodox from a cunning false union. The arguments adduced to support this theory are summarized in the following findings:

a. the pro-Latin works attributed to Scholarios (such as the speeches he allegedly delivered during the synod) are forgeries and are later additions to the main body of his original writings;

b. the identity of Scholarios as a layman did not allow him to take an active part in the discussions and much more to deliver speeches, since the emperor himself had verbally forbidden the participation of laymen in the synod.

c. Scholarius himself testifies (Ἄπαντα, II, 258) that he was the author of the speech that Bessarion delivered at the synod and refuted the theories of the Latin archbishop of Rhodes, Andrew.

d. he himself expressed his intense discomfort at the change of attitude of the moderate "unionists", who finally accepted the demands of the Latins (Ἅπαντα III, 110-113), for this reason he preferred to leave with the brother of the emperor, Demetrios, and the philosopher George Gemistos Plethon, before the signing of the final Treaty of the Union.

After his return to Constantinople, Scholarios does not appear to take an active part, at least in the first years after the signing of the union, in the disputes between "unionists" and "anti-unionists". He maintained his positions in the palace, as well as the position of official theologian, delivering his regular lessons every Friday. It was not until 1444, after an encouraging letter from his friend and teacher Mark Eugenikos, that he appeared in the foreground and took an active part in the anti-unionist struggle. The following year (1445) he was appointed as the main speaker in a conference, which took place in the palace of Xylala with the participation of the Latin delegation led by the Bishop of Cortona, Bartholomew Lapacci, for the renewal of the Treaty of Union. In the debates held, Scholarios refuted the arguments of the Latins and rejected the Latin teaching of the filioque. These public debates of Scholarios, which he immediately composed in a voluminous book with the title "On the Procession of the Holy Spirit", constitute the beginning of his public action against the decisions of the Synod of Florence. Previously, Mark Eugenikos, shortly before his death, had officially entrusted him with the leadership of the anti-unionists. At the same time, Scholarios continued to offer his services to the state and the palaces. The anti-unionism of his activity does not seem to have seriously affected the favor of the emperor John VIII towards him, nor of his successor (from 1448) Constantine XI Palaiologos. Despite all this, in 1450 Scholarios decided to give up his worldly positions and their pleasures and to take on the monastic schema, at a time when, as he himself testifies, his relations with the palace were excellent (Ἄπαντα, IV, 472). His decision was not only the fulfillment of an old desire, but also compliance with the relevant exhortation of his spiritual father Mark Eugenikos. He left the Monastery of Pantokrator, where he lived after the death of his parents, and entered the cenobitic Monastery of Charsianeitos with the name Gennadios.

From this position he gave himself undividedly to the anti-Latin struggle, writing anti-Latin works and leading his like-minded people to not accept the terms of the Synod of Florence. A great activity of Gennadios during this period was the assignment to him of the catechesis in the Orthodox teachings of the English priest Constantine Platris, unofficial envoy of the Hussites of Prague for the negotiation of the union with the Orthodox Church (1451).

In the meantime, political and ecclesiastical affairs in Constantinople had taken a very ugly turn. Faced with the daily increasing Turkish danger, Emperor Constantine accepted, in a final attempt to secure help from the West, the resumption of the negotiations for the union of the Churches after the action of the moderate anti-unionists. The Pope sent a delegation to Constantinople headed by the former Orthodox Metropolitan of Russia and now Cardinal Isidore. In the debates that took place in the palace of Xylala (November 1452), Gennadios was invited and took part, "as a royal and worthy of the venerable fathers", who for the third time refuted the arguments of the Latins (Scholarios, Ἄπαντα, III, 188 -193). However, despite the fact that even then the views of the anti-unionists prevailed and it was proposed to convene a new synod in Constantinople, on December 12, 1452, a liturgy of union was held in the Church of Hagia Sophia by Cardinal Isidore and in the presence of the emperor and political officials. Gennadios reacted strongly to this action, and as a sign of protest, for the new betrayal of the Orthodox faith against the never sent help, he posted a text with sharp words against the proclamation of union on the door of his cell: "O unhappy Romans, why have you forsaken the truth? Why do you not trust in God, instead of in the Italians? In losing your faith you will lose your city." From then until the fall of Constantinople from the Turks, he isolated himself in his monastery.

In his attempt to escape after the capture of the City, he was captured and taken to Adrianople as a slave in the service of a Muslim official. Soon, however, he was sought by the conqueror Mohammed and led to Constantinople, where he received as the first favor of the sultan the permission to reopen his monastery. On January 6, 1454, he was elected by a synod of local hierarchs the first Patriarch of Constantinople after its fall and was enthroned in an official ceremony by the sultan, who granted him the Church of the Holy Apostles in order to establish the Patriarchate there. Even though it was only a short time, the patriarchate of Gennadios is considered very important for the history of both modern Hellenism and the Orthodox Church. The granting of privileges to him by Mohammed was the starting point for securing the necessary conditions for the survival of the Roman nation and the Orthodox Christian faith during the centuries of slavery that followed. At the same time, the establishment by Gennadios of the Patriarchal School laid the foundations of the spiritual life of the enslaved nation. In 1456, Gennadios was forced, under the burden of insurmountable problems and his precarious health, to resign and move to Vatopaidi Monastery on Mount Athos. Later he settled permanently in the Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner (on Mount Menoikion) near Serres, where he died after 1472. Even if after his abdication he came to Constantinople, it has not been proven with certainty that he returned to the patriarchal throne.

Gennadios was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding figures of the 15th century. At the same time, however, he was also the most tragic personality of his time. In spite of any objections from time to time that were formulated as to his initial stance at the Synod of Florence, his contribution to Orthodoxy was enormous. But his services to the Roman nation should not be underestimated, if they are evaluated correctly, and in the context of the intense political upheavals that prevailed during his time. In any case, the sometimes harsh characterizations attributed to him and often extreme assessments of his general state reflect different positions towards the ecclesiastical and political matters of his time, which is why they are not always free of subjective elements. Due to the incomparable wealth of his knowledge and his enormous literary work, he rightfully occupies one of the first positions in Byzantine literature. His works were published by L. Petit – X. Siderides – M. Jugie – Oeuvres Completes de Georges Scholarios, vol. I-VIII, Paris 1928 - 1936.

Source: Official Website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.