In 431 A.D., bishops gathered at the Council of Ephesus officially recognized Mary as the Mother of God, in Greek Theotokos, or God-bearer. Subsequently, Christians throughout the empire were prompted to honor Mary with feast days, prayers and art—much of which drew on stories from the Infancy Gospel of James.

But the council might never have been held if it weren’t for a personal vendetta that the emperor’s sister Pulcheria held against the bishop of her hometown, Constantinople.

As emperor, Theodosius II (402–450) considered himself head of the Christian church. But his sister Pulcheria’s zeal for her faith made her a constant presence in ecclesiastical affairs. Pulcheria (who is depicted in the early-fifth-century bust, below) had her portrait hung above the altar in Constantinople’s Great Church; her robe covered the altar during the divine liturgy. She actively sought out relics of saints and presided when they were brought into the city.

As a young woman, Pulcheria took a vow of perpetual virginity and modeled her life after Mary’s. Her daily routine gave the palace the air of a Christian monastery, which indeed was unprecedented for a Roman empress. Pulcheria celebrated Mary as Theotokos and, following earlier traditions of divine selection, she adopted the same title; she called herself the Mother of God.

In 428, Theodosius named the Syrian monk Nestorius bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius had already gained fame as a great preacher. As bishop, he set out to eradicate all heresies. He attacked Arians, Novations, Borborians and Manicheans. And he opposed the use of Theotokos as a title for Mary. In Nestorius’s view, no human creature could give birth to the Godhead. He wrote: “How can someone be the mother of a nature completely other than her own? For if she be called ‘mother’ by them, he is of human nature not divine…In his nature and essence the Son is the Essence and nature of God the Father, but in flesh his nature is human from Mary.”1

Nestorius refused to permit Pulcheria and her entourage of virgins to come to vespers or to wakes, charging that when women were out at night it inevitably lead to “promiscuity with men.”2 He accused Pulcheria of having illicit sexual relations with at least seven lovers.3 He would not accede to her demand that she be remembered in prayers as the “bride of Christ” since she had been “corrupted by men.”4 He removed her image from above the altar and effaced it, and he refused to use her robe as an altar cover.5 When Pulcheria attempted to receive communion at the altar on Easter, Nestorius barred the royal doors and exclaimed that no woman could enter. She responded by proclaiming that she was no common woman; she had given birth to God. Nestorius countered by charging that she had given birth to the devil.6

Apparently, Nestorius was not aware how much power the emperor’s sister wielded.

Pulcheria was enraged. She took the bishop’s attacks on the Theotokos as a personal affront.

At the same time, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, having heard about Nestorius’s views of the Theotokos, began to send admonishing letters to the bishop, but to no avail. Cyril alerted Pope Celestine, who condemned Nestorius in 430. Theodosius, however, remained a staunch supporter of his bishop.

Realizing that everything depended on the emperor, both sides tried to persuade Theodosius. Pulcheria pressured her brother and rallied public support. Nestorius urged the emperor to arrange a church council to establish the orthodoxy of his position. Theodosius invited bishops from throughout the empire to meet in Ephesus in June of 431 A.D.

Nestorius lost the fight. The Council of Ephesus deemed the title Theotokos orthodox. But Nestorius was still bishop.

Under Pulcheria’s sway, the citizens of Constantinople packed the Great Church. They began chanting for Nestorius’s deposition, and they acclaimed Pulcheria as a champion of orthodoxy and as their guide in religious affairs.

Under this public pressure, Theodosius succumbed to Pulcheria’s demands and had Cyril’s decree deposing Nestorius read in the Great Church. Nestorius was sent back to his monastery in Antioch.

In the last decades of her life, Pulcheria crowned her lifelong devotion to the Theotokos by erecting three churches dedicated to Mary in Constantinople. Here the private devotions that she had practiced as a girl became institutionalized in public religious ceremonies. Through Pulcheria’s efforts, the Theotokos came to dwell permanently in the city, in the form of relics associated with Mary. Pulcheria’s sister-in-law returned from the Holy Land with a portrait of Mary, said to have been painted by St. Luke.7 Later, Mary’s shroud and cincture were brought to Constantinople.

Pulcheria’s claim that she herself was the Theotokos was, however, the greatest factor in encouraging the veneration of Mary within the church. For the people, an empress could only claim the identity of a creature greater than herself, and that could only be a divine being, not a humble maid of first-century Palestine. If Pulcheria claimed she was Mary, then Mary must be divine and worthy of great devotion.