St. Eusebius of Vercelli, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: The witness of St. Eusebius reminds us of the reality that Jesus is God — ‘begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father’

Sebastiano Ricci, “The Virgin Mary in Glory with St. Michael the Archangel, St. Eusebius, St. Sebastian, and St. Roch,” ca. 1725
Sebastiano Ricci, “The Virgin Mary in Glory with St. Michael the Archangel, St. Eusebius, St. Sebastian, and St. Roch,” ca. 1725 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Eusebius (c. 283-371) lived at one of the most exciting periods in the Church’s history. As a young man, he lived through the dying days of pagan Rome, including the Diocletian persecution, the last gasp of paganism. As a 30 year old, he saw the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. Soon controversies over basic understandings of the Trinity and Christ broke out, leading to the Council of Nicaea. By the time he became a bishop in 340, the Arian heresy was again dividing the Church, and Eusebius would suffer for his orthodox faith. He died at the advanced age of 88.

Eusebius’ father was said to be a martyr. Eusebius was born on the island of Sardinia but later taken by his mother to Rome. He may have been associated with some religious community in Rome, but later went to Vercelli, a city about halfway between Milan and Turin. He was elected bishop there, and is said to have united monastic and clerical (diocesan clergy’s) life in the city, modelling diocesan clergy’s life on eastern monastic community life. 

The heresy of Arianism had already appeared at and been condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325, but it continued to rear its head. What did Arianism claim? Well, in the Profession of Faith on Sunday, we declare we believe in “Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages … begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” All that language comes from a refutation of Arianism.

Arianism and its variations held that Son was not of the same “substance” as the Father. That would introduce a subordination into the Trinity. It would claim that there was some time when the Son of God did not exist. Jesus would be something less than God.

While the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism, the heresy enjoyed political support from various Eastern Roman Emperors and the connections between altar and throne — especially in the East — were growing stronger. That’s why, even though the theology was clear, there were still bishops who adhered to the Arian heresy and who still felt secure in doing so. We already encountered this situation in France when we discussed St. Hilary of Poitiers on his feast on Jan. 13.

The Pope sent Eusebius to the Roman emperor, then visiting Arles in what is today France, to call a council to end the Arian controversy. A synod was summoned for Milan in 355. The synod, however, was stacked in advance, and instead sought to condemn St. Athanasius, a vigorous proponent of orthodox Trinitarian theology. Instead of engaging in some faux “episcopal unity,” Eusebius refused to sign the synod document along with heretics and was sent — like Hilary — into exile. Eusebius wound up under arrest at various points in the Near East and was held in exile until 362. Before returning to Italy, Eusebius — probably acting on papal warrant — first sought to heal various divisions in the East, including holding a synod together with St. Athanasius in Alexandria that affirmed orthodox Trinitarianism. Finally, in 363, he returned to Italy where, together with Hilary, they worked to stamp out the vestiges of Arianism in Western Europe. 

Think that Arianism is just an historical footnote? Scratch hard enough and contemporary Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses will lead you to at least Semi-Arianism. So, too, I would argue, are all the efforts to reduce Jesus from Son of God to Semitic Socrates … a nice human moral teacher, but nothing more (or at least nothing more that matters). Either Jesus is Son of God and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, or you just don’t have Christianity.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), a Venetian Baroque painter, painted “The Virgin Mary in Glory with St. Michael the Archangel, St. Eusebius, St. Sebastian and St. Roch” around 1725. The work was commissioned by the Piedmont Royal House, which probably chose the saints. Our Lady sits highest in heaven — a not-inappropriate note in a month when we will observe the memorial of the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22). The Archangel Gabriel, bearing Mary’s lily, points her out to the three saints below. Eusebius’ Vercelli is in the Piedmont area, so he’s local-boy-made-good. St. Roch is associated with driving the plague out of Italy and France, again a local association. We already saw Sts. Roch and Sebastian linked together in a Ghirlandaio altarpiece from more than 200 years earlier with another saint: Vincent Ferrer. Sebastian is the saint with the arrow in him. Roch with his faithful dog kneels before him. Eusebius, in dress befitting a bishop, sits on the right, holding a book. He may have written a lot in his life, but three letters survive.

The physiology of the figures is typically Baroque: big and bold. Proportions diminish going upward but all eyes are on Mary (but for Michael’s, who is making sure all eyes are on Mary) while Mary’s point upward into the Invisible Godhead Eusebius so defended.

The painting is held by the University of Turin.