August 8th is known throughout the Universal Church as the Feast of St. Dominic, the great Spanish preacher and founder of the Dominican Order. Less well known is St. Emilian of Cyzicus, a fierce opponent of the Iconoclasts who died in exile in 820 for his opposition to the heresies of the Byzantine emperors.
Emilian was born sometime in the middle 8th century. Not much is known about his upbringing; the first time we see him in the historical record is as Bishop of the island community of Cyzicus (Cyzikos) in the Sea of Marmara, the small sea near Constantinople that connects the Black Sea with the Aegean. His episcopacy lasted from 813-820, paralleling the reign of Leo V the Armenian (813-820), who in 814 had commanded the Patriarch Niceophorus of Constantinople to convene a council for the purpose of affirming the Iconoclast heresies that had been condemned at Second Nicaea. Although initially well disposed to the iconodules, Leo had suffered a series of military reverses and believed divine displeasure was the cause. He therefore sought to propitiate God by reviving Iconoclasm.
Our Bishop Emilian was among the bishops summoned to the council called by Nicephorus. Other famous attendees at the council were St. Theodore the Studite and St. Lazarus the Iconographer. At this meeting, Leo addressed the Greek episcopate and asked them to cease promoting the veneration of images. St. Emilian was the first bishop to speak up against the emperor, and the meeting ended in discord. A period of intense persecution followed; Patriarch Nicephorous saw his power drastically reduced, and Leo ordered all icons removed from churches. Some monks and bishops protested. St. Emilian, after withstanding Leo and refusing to carry out his edict, was arrested in 815 and sent into exile. Other ecclesiastics fled west and sought refuge with the papal court.
Emilian's exile was a severe cross, as he was beaten and tormented regularly by his captors. Once, his captors burned a blasphemous phrase into the flesh of his forehead using a hot iron. His flesh was so wracked and tormented with beatings and burning that it began to rot while still attached to his body. Eventually, Emilian succumbed to his torments and on August 8th, 820, entered eternal rest. Emperor Leo did not long survive him; while attending matins on December 20th, assassins in the pay of a rival military captain entered the chapel dressed as monks and, throwing off their garb, fell upon him. His demise was not quick; after an extended sword fight with many cuts and slices, the emperor had his arm chopped off, then falling, was hacked to death and died in front of the altar.
St. Emilian, tormented because of your faithfulness, ora pro nobis!